A safe-haven for Muslims did not mean a religious state

Audience: Fellows of the Royal College of Defence Studies, including a General, Brigadier Generals, Colonels, Group Captains and Captains from the armies, air forces and navies of the UK, Germany, Sweden, Albania, S Korea, Indonesia, Nigeria and Colombia.

27 April, 2017

Distinguished officers and gentlemen,

Group Captain Simon very kindly shared with me your biographies, so I can genuinely tell you that it is an honour and a privilege to be offering you my understanding of Pakistan you in this setting, the Worshipful Company of the Coopers. With your immense combined knowledge, leadership and experience from around the world, it comes as little surprise that you share the Royal College of Defence Studies with three of Pakistan’s most important chiefs of army staff that I will talk about: Zia, Musharraf and Raheel Sharif.

In the course of the talk, I will discuss the creation of Pakistan, and hence of course, the context of creation which involves discussion of India prior to its creation and the scenario for minorities in India since, as Pakistan’s counter-factual, how Pakistan devolved to what you know of it in the news, and finally, I will illuminate some silver linings for the future.

Pakistan borders Iran, Afghanistan, China and India. It falls shy of kissing Tajikistan. Its geography is defined by the mighty River Indus, which gives India its and Hindus their name. This latter fact is a measure of how little of the human geography’s history is remembered.

The Indus has given rise to myriad civilisations, including the Neolithic city of Mehrgarh in Balochistan founded 9,000 years ago. The first known use of medical surgery is ascribed to this city of multi-storey houses and public baths. The Bronze Age Indus Valley Civilisation stretched from the Punjab (which means ‘five waters’) to Sindh. On your trip, make sure to visit the Lahore Museum opposite Kim’s Cannon of Rudyard Kipling fame. It hosts treasures of this civilisation, from Harappa and Mohenjo Daro.

Khyber Pakhtunkhawa, now associated as Pakistan’s hotbed of fundamentalist Islam, was once home to the Buddhist Gandharan civilisation which provides museums the world over their Buddhist statues. It was in this India that encyclopaedias refer to the extent of Cyrus’ Empire, to the Indo-Greeks, to the end of Alexander’s campaign. So while I’ll regale you with tales of Pakistan’s meaning being a 73-year old slogan or an 84-year old pun, remember that Pakistan is much more than what demagogues try to reduce it to. It is the birthplace of India.

‘Pakistan’ is an acronym for the geographical area that it covers: ‘P’ for Punjab, ‘A’ for Afghania, ‘K’ for Kashmir, ‘S‘ for Sindh and ‘istan’ for Balochistan, coined by a Punjabi Cambridge student in 1933. Naming is taken seriously in the region, and so perhaps it shouldn’t come too much of a surprise that ‘Pakistan’ has a second meaning: ‘pak’ means pure, and ‘istan’ means land of. ‘Land of the pure’ was a reference to India’s homeland for Muslims. It resonated in the chauvinistic 1930s. It still resonates today.

On your trip to Lahore, make sure to visit the Wagha border between Lahore and Amritsar for the daily sunset ceremony performed by Indian and Pakistani soldiers. As you do, listen for a bearded cheerleader carrying the flag crying, “Pakistan ka matlab kya?” – “What is Pakistan’s meaning?” The crowd’s response will be in Arabic – “La illah ila Allah” – “There is no deity but Allah.” The message is for the benefit of Indians across the border, because the perception is that Indians believe in many gods.

The message is essentially, “Pakistan’s meaning is that we are not India because we are not polytheists.” The rhyming couplet was authored three years before the Indian Partition of 1947 by a schoolteacher, and became a nationalist rallying cry.

I’m sure that you are already aware of the religious chauvinism that plagues Pakistan: news of the persecution of religious minorities Ahmadis, Shias, Christians, and the use and abuse of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws reaches far, and you may think that this was the fate that was to be expected for a nation founded on religion. It wasn’t.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah, late leader of the Muslim League party that negotiated for the creation of Pakistan, is reviled and hailed for the Partition of India. But such credit should rightfully go to Viceroy Louis Mountbatten and Jawaharlal Nehru, for Jinnah’s vision, according to the scholarship of Tufts University history professor Ayesha Jalal, was for a federation called ‘India’.

Operating with a weak centre, it would consist of autonomous Muslim and Hindu-majority states, respectively Pakistan and Hindustan. The function of Pakistan would be to provide a safe-haven for India’s Muslims and Christians from rising Hindu nationalism, noted by Columbia University anthropology professor Partha Chatterjee as a modern political identity conceived under British colonialism. Hindu nationalism was not underpinned by specific beliefs or practices, because it was inclusive of anti-Vedic and anti-Brahmanic Buddhism and Jainism, as well as of people outside caste society. It was defined more by what it was not – religions from the Middle West. Hinduism was neither Islam nor Christianity.

A fear of majoritarian Hindu tyranny started taking seed as the anticolonial, pro-democracy Congress party (the same party which leads opposition in today’s Indian parliament) increasingly gained power in colonial India. From his experience within the Congress party decades earlier, Jinnah had experienced firsthand what India’s political leadership would look like: despite the rhetoric of inclusionary nationalism, it was dominated by Brahman elites and Hindu idioms. Plato and John Stuart Mill may have conceptually originated the fear of majoritarian tyranny in democracies, but Jinnah, who had experienced it first-hand, was able to communicate its meaning to the Muslims of India who would have to live through it.

Jinnah’s fear proved prescient. In 1984, a year after I was born, today’s opposition party under the leadership of Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi executed Operation Blue against occupants of the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar following agitation for special status for Sikhs in the state of Indian Punjab. Estimates of the civilian deaths vary wildly, from the hundreds, to the tens of thousands. Indira Gandhi was subsequently assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards, and pogroms led by her party’s activists claimed thousands more Sikh lives. More recently, in 2008, Hindu extremists had claimed at least 100 Christian lives in the state of Odisha.

Take the current state of affairs in India. In 2002, Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi allowed or even abetted the slaughter of up to 2,000 Muslims in his state in communal violence. Human Rights Watch found that the attacks were organized with extensive police participation and in close cooperation with officials of the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, Modi’s ruling state party. Modi had been known to have previously incited violence against them in the 1990s. Supreme Court investigations were inconclusive because, in the words of The Economist, ‘a great deal of evidence was lost or wilfully destroyed’. A decade later, while campaigning to lead India as Prime Minister, Modi’s anti-Muslim credentials seemed no better, when he said he regretted Muslims’ suffering as he would that of a puppy run over by a car, and failed to condemn riots in Uttar Pradesh in 2013 when most of the victims were Muslim. In 2014, India elected him Prime Minister. This year, India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, voted in Modi’s party, the BJP, which appointed a Chief Minister who had called for the rape of dead Muslim women. So essentially, both of India’s largest political parties are associated with the persecution of religious minorities.

A safe-haven for Muslims, however, did not mean a religious state. In his speech three days before Pakistan’s independence to the new Constituent Assembly, Jinnah said: “You will find that in the course of time, Hindus would cease to be Hindus, and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State.” Audio-visual records of this speech have been destroyed.

Likewise, it is reported that upon hearing someone chant at the last session of the All India Muslim League ‘Pakistan ka matlab kya’, Jinnah responded, “Neither the Muslim League Working Committee nor I ever passed a resolution [called] ‘Pakistan ka matlab kya’ — you may have used it to catch a few votes.”

In fact, Pakistan’s meaning had never been defined as it was being created. Muslims voted for the Muslim League in the British Indian central legislative assembly 1945 general elections on a slogan of ‘Pakistan’. But they did not vote for a specific agenda relating to Pakistan – because no such agenda had been detailed. A vote for Pakistan was not a vote against India.

Jawaharlal Nehru refused Jinnah’s union of Hindustan and Pakistan in a federation of India, and so, in the end, Viceroy Louis Mountbatten left Jinnah with a choice of partition or no Pakistan. Jinnah grudgingly accepted partition in order to get a ‘maimed, mutilated and moth-eaten’ Pakistan.

So let’s talk about Pakistan’s slide to the Islamist state you hear of now in the news, harbour to Osama bin Laden for years, home of the grotesque mob lynching last week of a journalism student for apparent blasphemy.

Pakistan’s secular founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah died a year after the country’s independence. In leaving a Congress Party blind to its Hindu privilege in order (decades later) to create a safe-haven for India’s Muslims with the Muslim League party, Jinnah also left behind the strong democratic traditions and institutions of the Congress party which were to lay the foundations of India’s working democracy. Jinnah was the defining Muslim League institution. He was the sole spokesperson. He went unchallenged. He left behind no second-string leadership, so used to being bullied into submission and vision were his party by the end of his tenure.

It took almost nine years of fumbling after independence before Pakistan’s leftover politicians and bureaucrats passed a constitution, renaming the state the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. In 1958, Pakistan experienced its first military coup as the nation became disillusioned with the efficiency of its civilian government. To add to the military regime’s credibility, it created an Advisory Council of Islamic Ideology in 1962.

In 1970, Pakistan had its first general elections and a return to civilian rule. The elections were won by the East Pakistani Awami League party, but the result was not accepted by the military or Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, and a civil war ensued that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh. Without the reasoning of the more cultured Bengali half, Pakistan’s newly elected fundamentalist representatives adopted Islam as the state religion in the 1973 constitution and in 1974 legislated that Ahmadis would not be considered Muslims. In 1977, they forced the prime minister to ban the sale of alcohol to Muslims. Nonetheless, no civilian government has since been as effective in deciding its own military and foreign policy as that of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s, until 1977, when General Zia ul Haq seized control in a coup d’etat, and maintained control for the next 11 years.

Again, in seeking legitimacy, the military regime turned to religious parties and to religious creed. General Zia, in the words of former ambassador to the US Hussain Haqqani, ‘qualified as the person most responsible for turning Pakistan into a global centre of political Islam’. He introduced adultery, fornication and new types of blasphemy into the criminal code, and introduced punishment by whipping, amputation and stoning to death. He established separate Sharia courts to judge cases on Islamic doctrine. Militant, anti-India, revisionist textbooks and Arabic became part of the school curriculum; conservative scholars became fixtures on state television (Pakistan only had the one terrestrial channel). Thousands of political Islamists from the Jamaat-e-Islami were appointed to government posts, and conservatives were added to the Council of Islamic Ideology, which had previously been constituted of liberal scholars.

General Zia did the most to define Pakistan as an Islamic state, and, using CIA money, nurtured the jihadist ideology. Communist influence in liberal, secular Afghanistan was problematised by the Reagan administration, and General Zia was only too happy to taken American funds to bulk up his military strength and to boost jihadist fighters (when nationalist fighters would have done just as well) in Afghanistan, to later use along the border of control in Kashmir against India. Afghanistan’s Taliban were the progeny of the courageous Mujahidin that Hollywood saluted in movies such as Rambo. Ask your counterparts on your trip what or who was responsible for the downfall of the Soviet state. I’m guessing you’ll hear a lot of credit taken by the Pakistani military.

The ongoing disputes with India over Kashmir are more than just political bluster. They are fundamental to Pakistan’s lifeblood. Here again, we return to the River Indus and again to Narendra Modi. Narendra Modi has called into question the treaty that was brokered in 1960 between India and Pakistan by the World Bank and withstood two wars between the nations. Modi has promised his people “every drop of this water will be stopped and I will give that to farmers of Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir and Indian farmers.” How much of this is posturing, versus what he really intends to follow through with, I do not know. It would be worth gauging the opinions of others on your travels. Pakistan’s recourse is the Sino-Pakistani alliance: while Pakistan is the lower riparian vis-à-vis India, India is the lower riparian vis-à-vis China.

One thing is for sure. That Modi’s unbridled Hindu nationalism gives rise to its counterpart extremism in Pakistan, and provides the all-encompassing Pakistani military its raison d’etre.

Because all good speeches should end on an optimistic note, let me leave you with this.

Despite being led by President Zardari – who comes from the political dynasty of his father-in-law Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, and late wife Benazir Bhutto who both served as prime minister, and who is suspected for at last six murders – the country completed its first full-term under a civilian government in 2013 since the 1970s, and, more importantly, transitioned power peacefully to the opposition for the first time.

With the proliferation of television channels with the inevitable liberalisation of the media under General Musharraf’s tenure, the media and the judiciary, and consequently civilian governance, gained power. Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, the former Pakistani chief justice, won the battle for judicial independence in the court of the media, the street protester and Musharraf’s all-important American constituency. General Musharraf was unable to put the genie back in the bottle; he failed to maintain a ban on television channels airing uncomfortable news. Television channels have shown their potential to act as a check on unbridled executive power. We must, however, note that broadcasters too are susceptible to abusing their power. Television channels have made a well-groomed spouter of hate speech Aamir Liaquat a star. The Supreme Court, another institution whose independence has grown, briefly held them and him in check by banning him from being broadcast. Less optimistically, China, which cares less about democracy, is now becoming the executive’s important external constituency. And since the shooting of television anchor Hamid Mir, TV channels have become mouthpieces of the military, and concentrate their criticism on the political class.

The Supreme Court has in the last week came under fire in public discourse for not disqualifying the sitting Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, from his post for corruption. Allegations were investigated following revelations from the Panama Papers. That their verdict opened with the opening lines of the Godfather and Balzac – ‘Le secret des grandes fortunes sans cause apparente est un crime oublié, parce qu’il a été proprement fait’ – said it all. Despite the lack of conviction, their report was damning. 40% of the bench found Nawaz Sharif guilty of the corruption charges and voted to disqualify him from his post, and the other 60% will be ready to vote the same way pending further investigation because they adhere (anachronistically) to the Western judicial principle that the prosecution has to prove their allegations beyond reasonable doubt. It’s impossible to prove beyond reasonable doubt when the sitting Prime Minister’s government is acting against thorough investigation, but their idealism was cute. One must sympathise with Justice Gulzar Ahmed that the court has to ‘rise above [. . .] technicalities’ to ‘meet [. . .] justice’ so as not to render itself a ‘toothless body’. All the same, one must recognise that the rule of law – even if the law is an ass – was upheld. Less optimistically, the judges were looking to remove the Prime Minister on Islamic tests of character which would preclude any Pakistani politician.

While (usually false) charges of blasphemy whip crowds into the frenzy that they would have done 70 years ago, and there was a recent blip in the occurrences of terror attacks on cities, the state under General Raheel Sharif’s tenure and now his successor has claimed ground against bomb attacks on urban civilians by attacking rural Pakistanis in the north of the country. The double-edged sword of allowing the military to fight unimpeded against opposition is that the establishment is also going after urbanites. Middle-class bloggers and activists have in some cases been obviously kidnapped for brief periods of time by the state, and there are suspicions of state-led murder or attempted murder of activists, journalists and academics. The newspaper of record’s website is under constant cyber-attack. These attacks include attempts to publish blasphemous content to undermine the newspaper, Dawn, and to thus endanger its staff. Kidnapped activists and survivors understandably leave the country. But some tell their stories, and their stories are heard.

The Pakistani rupee has remained stable against the United States dollar for the past five years. Over the same time frame, the Karachi Stock Exchange 100 has grown 200%, fears of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’s effects on nascent domestic industry notwithstanding and the impact of power shortages on the nation’s key textiles industry notwithstanding. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, or CPEC, already partially operational with the deep-sea port at Gwadar being used by China to export to West Asia and Africa, is a wide-ranging set of projects to decrease power shortages in Pakistan, improve its rail and highway infrastructure and create special economic zones. The seaport is also expected to serve Iranian exports, and German imports to the region. Currently budgeted at $62 billion, it is anticipated by project sponsors to increase Pakistan’s GDP growth by 2-3% annually – power shortages alone account for 2-3% of GDP loss – and create over 2 million jobs. Whether it does, and at what cost to Pakistani industries, and whether the debt sustained will be more then repaid remains to be seen.  Software development is a new growing industry; in 2015, the Pakistani programmers market ranked third after the USA and India for supplying.

Sovereign rating agencies S&P and Moody’s have upgraded Pakistan from B- to B, ie. stable. In terms of soft power, Pakistan’s pop scene and its dramas prove popular in India, even if its cricketers are banned from playing in India and the world’s most prestigious domestic league. And for every rotten lynch mob or gang of rapists, there is an untold number of activists and professional heroes around Pakistan and abroad waging their own assiduous, well-meaning struggles –  jihads – for the betterment of society in Pakistan.


One Comment Add yours

  1. imadahmed says:

    – Modern South Asia by Ayesha Jalal and Sugata Bose
    – The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League and the Demand for Pakistan by Ayesha Jalal
    – Aitzaz Ahsan’s The Indus Saga and the Making of Pakistan
    – Partha Chaterjee’s History and the Nationalisation of Hinduism
    – Maya Tudor’s The Promise of Power: The Origins of Democracy in India and Autocracy in Pakistan
    – Saadia Toor’s State of Islam: Culture and Cold War Politics in Pakistan
    – Farahnaz Ispahani’s Purifying the Land of the Pure: Pakistan’s Religious Minorities
    – Shashi Tharoor’s biography of Nehru
    – Mahmood Mamdani’s Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, The Cold War and The Roots of Terror
    – Ahmed Rashid’s Descent into Chaos: How the war against Islamic Extremism is being lost in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia
    – Stephen Cohen’s The Idea of Pakistan
    – Songs of Blood and Sword: A Daughter’s Memoir by Fatima Bhutto

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