Muhammad Badar Alam

Political systems are defined by the theories they are based on, as much as the quality and/or the nature of political practices in those systems. The difference between political theory and political practices explains why two sates based on the same political premise may still have political systems unlike each other. Saudi Arabia and Morocco are both dynastic kingdoms but the administration in the former is run by a few hundred princes, aided by hardliner clerics handpicked by the ruling family; an elected prime minister, on the other hand, runs the government affairs in the latter. Similarly, France and Britain are both democracies but, respectively, one is ruled by a directly elected president while the other by a prime minister chosen by a party that wins an election.

A country’s political system, thus, is defined together by what it theoretically professes to be and what its political practices make it to be. Merely by calling itself a democracy, no country can automatically have a democratic system premised on political competition, equality among its citizens and fundamental human freedoms. A government which comes to power through electoral means may still suppress political dissent. This is exactly the situation in Russia where opposition leaders in recent years have faced both persecution and prosecution. A party which won a freely held election could well start curbing the freedom of expression after coming to power (as in Turkey where news media have been at the receiving end of the government’s wrath for close to a decade). Regimes which come about through elections may choose to institutionalize discrimination among their citizens (on the basis of religion as is the case in Pakistan where non-Muslim Pakistanis don’t have certain rights that Muslim Pakistanis have; or on the basis of ethnicity as is the situation in Malaysia where Malay majority is given preferential treatment in business, education etc. over Chinese and Hindu minorities).

Theory for almost every political system has come down to us through prophets, philosophers and leaders who may not belong to a region where their ideas are put to practice. Iran is an Islamic theocracy, though it is not where Islam originated. China is a communist state but the founder of communism, Karl Marx, was a German. Scores of countries call themselves democracies, yet the first democrats were either Europeans or perhaps the founding fathers of the United States.

But political practices are peculiar to a country, or a region. Monarchies were (and still are) a norm in most of the Arab lands even when most of the rest of the world has gotten rid of hereditary rulers and dynastic regimes in the 20th century. Russia’s long history of authoritarian rule makes its governments unsure of how to treat political opposition other than through suppression. Preferential treatment of the Malays in Malaysia is rooted in economic and political alienation they suffered during centuries of alien rule. Muslims in Pakistan carved out a state for themselves from India so that they could organize their lives according to the teachings of their religion.

Except that in Pakistan’s case, such a justification for the prevalence of non-democratic practices does not stand scrutiny. In areas which constitute today’s Pakistan and Bangladesh – which together formed the original Pakistan in 1947 – Muslims were always in majority and never had trouble in practicing their faith, except, of course, under exceptional circumstances. Muslim politicians and their political parties, indeed, headed provincial governments in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab, Sindh and Bengal after the 1937 election; similarly, principalities and chiefdoms all over Balochistan had been all ruled by Muslims since centuries. The fears that Muslims would not be able to practice their religion freely in a united India were mainly relevant to those parts of the subcontinent where Muslims were a minority. Muslims in these areas thought they needed a homeland in order to protect their religion from a Hindu majority that would rule India under an electoral system based on majoritarian principle.

The creation of Pakistan in areas where people did not have the same fears as Muslims in Hindu-majority areas had is at the root of a fundamental question: Whose Pakistan and what kind of Pakistan? A homeland for those running away from their places of birth fearing religious persecution or a country consisting of those Muslim-majority parts of India which always existed at the fringe of politics dominated by Delhi and which apprehended that an independent India dominated by a strong central government will keep them at the same disadvantage as they had experienced in the past?

The answer to this question, indeed, holds the key to deciding whether Pakistan should be a democratic republic or an Islamic state. If it consisted/consists entirely of people who had to leave their homes and hearths due to fears of religious discrimination and persecution in Hindu-dominated areas then, of course, the country’s sole raison d’être would be to protect Islam and Muslims – otherwise seen as endangered in a united India. But those who migrated to the new country in 1947 were not even 10 percent of those who were already living here and those 90 per cent did not see their religion under any peril in areas they had been living for centuries. They, however, had political, economic and cultural concerns like any people would have in areas at a distance from the centre of power.

The problem was that in 1940s there were few, if any, Muslims leaders at all-India level who could raise the concerns of these Muslim-majority areas as convincingly or as powerfully as the leaders of the Muslims in Hindu-majority areas were able to. In an ironic twist in the tale, these latter leaders, Mohammed Ali Jinnah being most prominent among them, were able to utilize political, economic and cultural grievances of Muslim-majority areas to galvanize people living in these areas behind the demand for Pakistan. Ayesha Jalal, in her seminal work on the topic, The Sole Spokesman, has ably proved this.

Once Pakistan came into being, politicians from Muslim-minority areas in India took charge of the new country and started building it in the image of their own idea of it – a place for Muslims where they could practice their religion without fear. They conveniently forgot that those already living in the new country before their arrival from what was now India had some political, economic and cultural demands of their own. The entire focus of the builders of the new state and its political system was to ensure that Pakistan was seen as nothing but a religious state created to ensure religious freedom for its Muslims citizens alone.  Anyone who begged to differ with this was dubbed a traitor, an agent of the opponents of Islam and Muslims.

Institutions of higher learning, academia, journalism, literature and even civilian bureaucracy – all those parts of the state and the society which play a leading role in the formation and articulation of public opinion — were mainly spearheaded by Muslims who had come to Pakistan from the outside. When they started presenting Pakistan to themselves and to the rest of the populace, they did it in exclusively religious colours. The entire first decade after the creation of the new country was, indeed, spent in suppressing difference, dissent and dissention sometimes with the same majoritarian tools that Muslims once feared would be used to discriminate against them in a united India. The most obvious example of this was the passage of the Objectives Resolution in the constituent assembly despite opposition from all non-Muslim legislators (as well as some Muslim ones) — especially from East Pakistan. The second, but even more fundamentally important, manifestation of this was the crushing of the Bengali language movement in East Pakistan in 1952 in the name of Urdu which was projected and promoted as a language synonymous with Muslims and Islam in India (ironically Urdu was the mother tongue of only around six percent people in Pakistan at the time). The language movement was twisted by the ruling Muslim League politicians and state-sponsored public intellectuals as a conspiracy against Islam and Muslims. In a strange coincidence, the provincial government in Punjab was stirring sectarian hatred across the province, aiding and abetting anti-Ahmedi riots (all well-documented in Munir Inquiry Report) in order to browbeat its political opponents and sideline political, economic and cultural demands of the people.

The stress, in short, was not on how in the new country a new constitution and a new political system were needed to guarantee and provide political, economic and cultural freedom and equality for all and sundry. Instead the state, the government and the makers and leaders of public opinion were all heavily invested in promoting religion at the cost of political, economic and cultural rights of the people.

In the subsequent decade, under Ayub Khan’s martial law regime, even the pretence of democratic debate was dropped. The state and the government, with ample help from bureaucrats, teachers, poets and journalists, embarked on a mission to create unity out of diversity – by pressing the four constituent parts of West Pakistan into one unit and by suppressing the citizens of East Pakistan into accepting the hegemony of West Pakistan – all in the name of religion. When the military government set up a special commission in 1958 to suggest ideas for reforms in education, a key recommendation by the members of the commission was to create a curriculum that fostered “national unity” and economic and technological development. Civil liberties, freedom of speech and assembly, right to get education in one’s mother tongue, articulation of provincial ownership over natural resources like water and minerals – these were all seen as distractions from achieving the core objective of a united and economically strong Pakistan. This thinking led to an education curriculum that laid heavy stress on creating Pakistanis out of Bengalis, Punjabis, Sindhis, Pashtuns and the Baloch — without any input from them. Accompanied by arbitrary economic policies which led to concentration of economic activities in Punjab and Karachi, using other places in the country only for extracting natural resources, these efforts at Pakistanisation eventually resulted in the secession of East Pakistan and the disintegration of one unit in West Pakistan.

In the years leading to as well as after the secession of East Pakistan into Bangladesh, the leaders of public opinion and politics refused to learn any lessons. Instead of seeing the movement for the creation of Bangladesh as a result of Pakistan’s failure to create an equitable and just constitutional system which guaranteed political, economic and cultural rights of everyone living in any part of the country, they continued insisting that the country got divided due to lack of patriotism among the Bengalis and exploitation of that lack of patriotism by India. They saw it extremely desirable to promote patriotism and jingoistic nationalism even more aggressively through public education system as well as through mass media, including television, radio (both exclusively run by the state at the time) and  newspapers (many of them owned and run by the state in those years).

This was followed by a brief interregnum in which constitution gained at least as much prominence in the public imagination as religion, if not more – after the consensual passage of the 1973 constitution. There was short-lived euphoria on the political class’s ability to finally arrive at a consensus on a constitutional framework for the country. But before respect for the constitution within the government, institutionalization of constitutional mechanisms at the level of the state and popularization of a culture of mutual acceptance, tolerance, non-discrimination and equality at a societal level could take root, the partisan nature of politics of the time jeopardize these possibilities. The constitution, its merits and demerits became synonymous with the failure or otherwise of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, as a political leader and as prime minister. His opponents started equating constitutional provisional with his actual or supposed desire to monopolize power. His supporters, too, were reluctant to give anyone but him the credit for the passage of the constitution (some strangely also gave him credit for the passage of flagrantly non-democratic anti-Ahmedi amendment in the constitution which, in a speech in the National Assembly in September 1974, he admitted he had accepted not as the best possible solution but as the only solution available to the Ahmedi question at the time to assuage religious sentiments in the country).

Then only four years later, General Ziaul Haq came to power and electoral democracy (decidedly not always completely democratic), the culture of political debate (admittedly aggressive and sometimes even violent) and the system of political competition (definitely not always fair) were wrapped up. For the next 11 years, the state devoted itself to building itself and the country as a fortress of Islam. The only mention that the 1973 constitution found in textbooks was how it contained some Islamic provisions and how those Islamic provisions guided the working of the state and the society in Pakistan. The argument was simple: Anything worth respecting in the constitution of an Islamic country must be its Islamic content which derived its legitimacy from divine sources; the rest of the constitution — put together by human beings – was violable. This allowed Zia regime, which had upended the constitution’s political system and thrown the fundamental rights the constitution guaranteed out the administrative window, still claim to rule a republic (even though existing in name only).

Since then, hardly anything has changed. Even now, the education system does not encourage an understanding of political and constitutional history of Pakistan. Public opinion is still predominantly led by those who want to see the constitution merely as a supplement to Sharia. Many commentators, indeed, go to the extent of declaring that constitutional debates and amendments – no matter how essential to democratize the political system — have next to no relevance to the bread and butter issues of the people of Pakistan.

The society and the people have never been prepared to accept the constitution as the supreme law of the land. There have been no intellectual investments in making constitutional history a part of the educational curriculum and there has never been a concerted effort to make people aware of the fundamental rights the constitution guarantees to all of us. There also has never been an honest debate over the constitution in the parliament, including on some of its provisions which have harmed the country more than they have helped (especially those which discriminate among citizens on the basis of religious differences), except when there have been partisan reasons to do so. The last time there could have been a serious parliamentary discussion on the constitution was during the passage of the 18th amendment. But, even while a special committee was preparing the draft of the amendment, many public intellectuals started raising a lot of hue and cry that the proposed amendment could try to change the so-called fundamental structure of the constitution. Such a structure was portrayed as underwriting the constitution’s Islamic nature which, they declared, an elected parliament did not have the mandate to discuss, let alone change. Since the Islamic part of the constitution is, well, Islamic so like all things religious it is not even up for a debate, they argued.

Such intellectual intransigence is, in fact, a consequence of the long promoted idea that Pakistan is a country created to protect Islam and Muslims facing persecution. If this was the political reality in 1940s in the areas which now form Pakistan, there could be a case made for the discrepancy between the theory of electoral and constitutional democracy in Pakistan and its peculiar religion driven and highly discriminatory political practice in the country. But political, economic and even cultural questions have continued to trump religious considerations in Pakistan, leading to the creation of Bangladesh in 1971 and resulting in multiple ethnic, provincial and linguistic conflicts in the rest of the country since then – and even before that. This means that religion never was the sole raison d’être for Pakistan nor it has been the sole bond to keep it together. The peculiar political circumstances in the areas which are now Pakistan always required a constitutional and democratic solution — not a religious one — to the political, economic and cultural issues people here were facing at the time of the partition and also since them. So, religious argument imposed arbitrarily by those who did not belong here cannot be allowed to create a gulf between the theory and practice of democratic constitutionalism in Pakistan.

To counter the religious argument, however, it is imperative to restore the respect the constitution requires in the country. This can be achieved by investing in the promotion of a constitutional, democratic culture through public education system and mass media. Such promotion should be accompanied by efforts to let people understand the constitution, allowing them the opportunity to interpret and critique it honestly and with a historical consciousness. The acceptance and respect for a genuinely democratic constitutional order, shorn of its religion-based inequalities, are also conditional upon the promotion a culture of acceptance of difference, a culture of equality and peaceful living together and a culture of freedom and pride in diversity. So far, the idea of promoting such a culture has been an anathema to the state and those at the helm of affairs in Pakistan. The results of their efforts to thwart such a culture of democratic constitutionalism, however, have been almost always negative. Shouldn’t they start thinking about the possibilities awaiting the country and its people if they embarked on the alternative course of doing the opposite of what they have been doing so far?

[Mr. Muhammad Badar Alam is leading journalist of Pakistan]