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COMMENT: Jinnah and Secularism

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By Dr Ishtiaq Ahmed *

I am convinced that Jinnah never wanted to create an Islamic state based on dogmatic Sharia. So, what did he really want Pakistan to be?

Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the most successful exponent of the Two-Nation Theory, dichotomised the population of India into two irreconcilable religion-based nations, Hindus and Muslims, and claimed a separate Pakistan for the Indian Muslims.

That phase in his extraordinary political life began when he decided to abandon his earlier career as an ardent Indian nationalist seeking constitutional safeguards for the Muslim minority in a united India. What he said and did before 1940, therefore, needs to be analysed within a different political context. From a social science perspective, individuals and their actions have to be contextualised in order to make sense of them.

However, even after Jinnah became the supreme leader of the Muslim separatist movement, in his personal life, he continued to adhere to his enjoyment of the brew that refreshes and his occidental dietary preferences reportedly continued as well.

The vision of Pakistan Jinnah spelled out on August 11, 1947 is the closest any leader in the Indian subcontinent approximated to an ideal secular state: a state that treats its citizens as equals irrespective of their caste, creed or colour. However, when someone asked him if he was prescribing a secular state, Jinnah retorted dismissively that India was a secular state and he surely did not have in mind any such ideal.

Earlier, in November 1945, Jinnah wrote a letter to Pir Sahib Manki Sharif of NWFP (now Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa), which has been quoted in the Pakistan Constituent Assembly debate on the Objectives Resolution. He gave assurances to Manki Sharif that the Sharia would apply to the Muslims of Pakistan. He wanted Pir Sahib to believe that Sharia would be the law of the land and that is exactly how Manki Sharif understood him. Erland Jansson writes in his doctoral dissertation, India, Pakistan or Pakhtunistan? (Uppsala University, 1981): “The Pir of Manki Sharif…founded an organisation of his own, the Anjuman-us-asfia. The organisation promised to support the Muslim League on condition that Shariat would be enforced in Pakistan. To this Jinnah agreed. As a result the Pir of Manki Sharif declared jehad to achieve Pakistan and ordered the members of his anjuman to support the League in the 1946 elections” (p. 166).

It is worth noting that since 1937 the Sharia was applicable to the personal matters of Muslims. Jinnah played a leading role in getting it passed by the Indian Legislative Council. The Congress had promised to respect Sharia as Muslim personal law and thus won over the support of the Jamiat-i-Ulema-e-Hind for a united India. Creating Pakistan to protect a right that was already protected and safeguarded by the colonial state or was guaranteed in a united India was not therefore an assurance that would have impressed Manki Sharif. Moreover, soon after August 11, 1947, Jinnah reiterated that the Sharia would be a major source of law for Pakistan. There is of course the record contrary to that as well. He denied that Pakistan would be a theocracy. To western journalists and media especially, he presented Pakistan as a progressive Muslim nation, democratic and inclusive.

On the other hand, when in 1944 Gandhi was temporarily brought out from jail to talk with him, Jinnah refused his plea point blank to be allowed to address the Muslim League Council, saying that under the rules and regulations of the Muslim League only a Muslim could address the council. He opposed tooth and nail the Congress Party nominating any Muslim to the 1945 Simla Conference or in any other subsequent negotiations.

During the 1945-46 election campaign, he needed every vote from people entered in the census records as Muslims. He, therefore, gave different pledges to the various interests in that variegated population. Sunnis, Shias, Ahmadis, Communists, fundamentalists — all found an echo of their ideals in what he said. He also told Hindus and Sikhs that they would be treated fairly in Pakistan. However, when he was leaving Delhi someone asked him what message he had for those Muslims who would be left behind in India. He said they should become loyal Indian citizens and he expected India to treat them well. Earlier he had vehemently argued that it was impossible for a state ruled by Hindus to be fair to its minorities.

In my book, The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed (Oxford, Karachi, 2012), I have demonstrated that the Muslim League’s election campaign of 1945-46 in Punjab was thoroughly laced with Islamic jargon and ‘Islam in danger’ type of demagogy. The same was true of the campaign in Sindh and British Balochistan, and — as Erland Jansson has shown — in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa as well.

Once Pakistan came into being, Jinnah wanted Pakistan to be a modern, tolerant state. He attended Mass on Christmas Eve in 1947 in Karachi’s main Catholic Church and when the Hindus of Karachi were targeted by the Mohajirs in spring 1948, he condemned such acts of lawlessness. He made the Ahmadi stalwart Sir Muhammad Zafrullah Khan foreign minister and gave the law ministry to Joginder Nath Mandal, a Dalit Hindu; both decisions were not necessarily pleasing to orthodox Muslims, especially the ulema. Were these acts of statesmanship enough to trump his relentless politics during 1940-47? One can wonder.

I am convinced, however, that Jinnah never wanted to create an Islamic state based on dogmatic Sharia. So, what did he really want Pakistan to be? The most sympathetic guess is that he took his cue from the Aligarh school of Muslim modernism, which emphasised Islam as a civilisation and culture instead of a rigid system of law that the fundamentalists idealised. However, it does not follow from this that he wanted to establish a secular-democratic state. Historically there is no evidence that a Muslim state ever treated non-Muslims as equal citizens. This controversy about Jinnah and secularism is likely to persist ad infinitum.

* The writer has a PhD from Stockholm University. He is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University. He is also Honorary Senior Fellow of the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. His latest publication is The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed: Unravelling the 1947 Tragedy through Secret British Reports and First-Person Accounts (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2012; New Delhi: Rupa Books, 2011). He can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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