Secular charter and plural society - By Sayeed Hasan khan

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Secular charter and plural society

May 4, 2011, 12:00 pm

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By Sayeed Hasan khan


Mahatma Gandhi and Jinnah

The founding fathers of Independent India gave the country a secular Constitution not only because partition left a sizable Muslim minority inside its borders but also because there was a large minority of Dalits in a Hindu-majority state ~ not to mention Sikhs, Christians and others. Dalit leader Dr BR Ambedkar, a leading opponent of Gandhi, was chosen to pilot the first Constitution. The intention behind this secular effort was to integrate various communities peacefully into a democratic nation-state.


Since then, there have been several significant attempts to violate the Constitution, beginning with Indira Gandhi’s attack on the Golden temple at Amritsar. She was killed afterwards by a Sikh guard who was enraged over the desecration of his religious centre. A massacre of Sikhs followed in revenge for her murder, a criminal reprisal backed even by some Congress parliamentarians. Several thousand Sikhs were killed right under the nose of the Central government in Delhi.


The Babari mosque was destroyed in 1992 by a mob cynically led by one of the major political parties of the country. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was ruling Uttar Pradesh when the mosque was demolished in the presence of electronic, print and the foreign media. They clearly wanted their violent sectarian message sent everywhere. A decade later, the complicit government of Mr Narendra Modi in Gujarat helped to engineer the killing of 3,000 Muslims and the destruction of their properties. This fortunately was not the tale all over the expanse of India. Most provinces remained peaceful. Elsewhere some sporadic attacks on Christians and Muslims took place but were largely contained. With the exception of the BJP, all other political parties avoided using the communal card and tried sincerely to follow the secular law.


Social conditions in India are hardly perfect but the law compels courts to decide cases impartially and higher courts are, for the most part, and with some obvious exceptions, careful in this regard. During the past 63 years, the Supreme Court of India has established its reputation as an independent body. A strong section of civil society keeps watch and reminds the institutions of their occasional failures and shortfalls. Muslim institutions such Jamia Millia, Aligarh University and Deoband continue to flourish through financial assistance from the government of India. The story of educational development in the south is even better. There, Muslims are running major medical and technical colleges.


The Muslim community suffered a great disadvantage for the first 20 years after Independence because they were solely blamed for the partition of the country, which many educated Indians now know is unfair. One of the best examples of a secular democracy at work today is Uttar Pradesh where for the fourth time, a Dalit woman is the chief minister. Her hero is Dr Ambedkar who piloted the Constitution Bill and whose statues she has installed all over Lucknow.


For 40 years, Mohammad Ali Jinnah was a secular nationalist who fought for Hindu-Muslim unity and a constitutional guarantee for the safeguard and rights of Indian Muslims. It is ironic that Gandhi used reactionary Muslim forces both at the time of the Khilafat movement and later at the Calcutta meeting ~ where proposals were discussed to bring Hindus and Muslims together ~ to ease Jinnah out of the nationalist camp. So Jinnah deduced that the only way forward for Muslims was separation, although he kept the door open till the last moment. Even when separation took place, he immediately returned to his nationalist past and adhered to his secular democratic ways.


When, under the chairmanship of Jinnah, the Delhi proposals were formulated, one proposal was for the separation of Sindh. Jinnah told Sarojini Naidu that he was attracted to this idea after listening to Annie Besant who said that India had 23 per cent Muslims while Sindh had the same percentage of Hindus, and was a place where Muslims believed in Sufi traditions of brotherhood. According to Besant, if the minority problem could be solved in Sindh, it would be solved in India too. Jinnah told Naidu: "I want Sindh for that definite purpose. I am determined to deserve the title you have conferred on me as ‘ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity . . .’’


Before Partition, Jinnah described his public vision of a South Asian state in the course of an interview in New Delhi with Reuters correspondent Don Campbell. Jinnah said that the new state must be a modern democratic state, with sovereignty resting in the people and the members of the new nation having equal rights of citizenship regardless of religion, caste or creed. When Pakistan finally appeared on the map, he pointedly appointed Dalit leader Jogender Nath Mandal as the first President even before his own election.


Jinnah’s address to the Constituent Assembly on 11 August, 1947 was a strong resolution to guide the future Constitution of Pakistan. He stipulated in this address, which covered most aspects of governance, that every Pakistani be equal no matter what religion or creed he or she belonged to. Jinnah died a year later, but he always had urged a secular democratic Constitution for Pakistan. The fates willed otherwise.


Liaqat Ali Khan promoted a new objectives resolution which sidestepped Jinnah’s recommendations. In 1953, a commission headed by Mr Justice M Munir investigated large-scale riots against the Ahmadya sect in Pakistan. According to the Munir report, when the question was asked, the Ulemas were not clear what an Islamic state exactly was and where it had existed historically. In the report, it is freely admitted that this resolution, though grandiloquent in phrases and clauses, is nothing but a hoax. Not only does it not contain even a semblance of the embryo of an Islamic state but its provisions, particularly those relating to civil rights, are directly opposed to the principles of a fundamentalist state. Thus the objectives resolution negated the wishes of Jinnah and at the same time, according to the Munir report, failed to convince the Ulemas. The report succeeded in sowing confusion for future attempts to revise the constitution.


Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Zia-ul-haq, for their own self-serving reasons, also steered Pakistan farther away from a secular constitution. Because of the absence of a secular and plural society, dozens of groups and sects have cropped up in the country, and mosques and shrines are bombed. Even the sanctity of funerals is not respected. Judges are afraid for their lives and cases in which religion is involved are not decided. All these facts further prove that Jinnah was right and that Pakistan should go back to him. The minorities, who are now completely marginalised, will be restored to full citizenship and reassured. The other option is that the Ulemas of various viewpoints should sit together and agree on a pluralist Islam, which certainly existed when we were fighting for Independence. But this did not happen in the past when we had the opportunity and it is not happening now. Until Pakistan moves toward this goal, people will keep on killing each other and the interpretation of laws will remain in the hands of those who never read law or couldn’t care less about it even if they had. (The Statesman/ANN)


The writer is a Karachi-based political commentator

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