“Hurt Sentiments” is probably the most important and notable book on South Asian constitutional and political history this year. The author Dr. Neeti Nair is a professor of History at the University of Virginia and a global fellow at the Wilson Center. Her first book was “Changing Homelands,” which deals with Hindu politics in Punjab, leading to its partition and focuses on the interplay between religious identity and politics in the subcontinent. In this volume, she has effortlessly carried forward her research into post independence South Asia by looking at the role of religion and secularism in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. In doing so, she has looked at a wealth of archival material from legislative debates to leading cases on the issue of religious identity and hurt sentiments. It shows how majorities in Pakistan and India have used “hurt sentiments” to persecute and marginalize religious minorities.
Dr. Nair painstakingly explores Pakistan’s early constitutional and legal history and shows how what initially might have been a genuine aspiration to reconcile Islam with modern democracy was reduced to the instrumentalization of religion as a tool by West Pakistani Muslims to browbeat their brethren from the East.
While the book also deals with India and the minority question there, a great chunk of this work deals with Pakistan’s earliest debates around religion and the constitution, in particular what it means to be an Islamic Republic and opposition, if any, to this idea of an Islamic Republic. This is what makes this book especially relevant to Pakistan’s predicaments as a self-styled Islamic Republic. Dr. Nair’s research shows that almost from the beginning, at least with the Objectives Resolution, Pakistan’s Muslim majority leaders, in particular the West Pakistani elite, were completely seized with the idea of having an Islamic polity even if they interpreted it with a modernist lens. Of course, as is apparent in the Objectives Resolution, they were mindful of Pakistan’s religious diversity and sought to allow minorities to “freely” profess their faiths and develop their cultures.
Nevertheless, the Objectives Resolution was also a key concession to the religious orthodoxy with the incorporation of an enabling clause, which sought to make it the new state’s responsibility to enable Muslims to live according to dictates of Quran and Sunnah, as well as the idea that sovereignty rested in a deity and therefore was to be exercised within the “sacred” limits prescribed by said deity. This laid the foundations for a perpetual conflict, which has been waged ever since in Pakistan’s legislatures and courts.
Dr. Nair painstakingly explores Pakistan’s early constitutional and legal history and shows how what initially might have been a genuine aspiration to reconcile Islam with modern democracy was reduced to the instrumentalization of religion as a tool by West Pakistani Muslims to browbeat their brethren from the East. Originally, the opposition to the idea of an Islamic state came from Hindu legislators, especially in the reconstituted Pakistan National Congress, whose members in the constituent assembly repeatedly invoked Jinnah’s promise of a secular state, but were drowned out by Pakistan’s assertive Muslim majority. Later, the Awami League led by Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy, rose as the major opposition of this misuse of religion.
The Awami League’s commitment to secularism, the book shows, grew steadily out of the practical experience with West Pakistani elites who sought to use appeals to Islamic solidarity to undermine Bengal’s clamor for economic justice and a fair share of resources. Other opponents of this push for an Islamic Republic included people like Governor General Ghulam Muhammad, Governor General and later President Iskander Mirza (himself a Bengali) and Justice Munir, the Chief Justice of Pakistan.
The Muslim sentiment was now constitutionally protected with the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression being limited by the all-encompassing claw back of the “glory of Islam.” Pakistan’s blasphemy and anti-Ahmadi laws were the logical extension of this constitutional protection.
By and large, however, as Dr. Nair shows, there was a neat divide between the Western and the Eastern wings of the country, with West Pakistani politicians pressing forth with separate electorates and the Islamic character of the state. Dr. Nair shows that the demand for separate electorates was endorsed by certain Christian leaders in West Pakistan as well. This included Joshua Fazl-ud-Din, a Christian legislator, who wrote the book “Separate Electorates: The Life-blood of Pakistan.” He argued that the Christians in West Pakistan, who were the largest Non-Muslim minority there, required separate electorates to safeguard rights that only elected Christian representatives could be trusted to protect. He spoke of an implied contract between Muslims and Christians on the basis of separate electorates. He certainly would not be the last Christian to play with this fire.
Justice A R Cornelius, Pakistan’s only Christian Chief Justice, had forwarded the theory that laws in Pakistan should find their civic basis in Islamic law and culture. He had argued, in retrospect quite ironically, that he was a constitutional Muslim.
Significantly neither of the two constitutions of 1954 and 1956 provided a state religion and the office of the Prime Minister was open to all communities. Even more important was the absence of religious oaths of office. The Muslim only President of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan under the 1956 Constitution had no special oath to prove that he was a Muslim. What was there in these constitutions was the repugnancy clause i.e. no law could be made that was repugnant to the injunctions of Islam.
Shorn of the Eastern wing, which had provided the secular equipoise, the 1973 Constitution made Islam the state religion and barred religious minorities from the office of Prime Minister as well. The Muslim sentiment was now constitutionally protected with the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression being limited by the all-encompassing claw back of the “glory of Islam.” Pakistan’s blasphemy and anti-Ahmadi laws were the logical extension of this constitutional protection. In 1993, the Supreme Court of Pakistan arguably abolished religious freedom for minorities by subjecting it to the test of Muslim sentiment. Any practice or profession of faith that “outrages” Muslims for whatever reason is against the law after the Supreme Court’s decision in Zaheeruddin v. State (1993 SCMR 1718).
The Objectives Resolution, as it was incorporated by General Zia in Article 2A of the Constitution, omitted the word freely. It was not until 2010 that the word was restored to that all-important grundnorm. Perhaps that restoration might still become an important factor in stemming the tide of Sunni Muslim majoritarianism in Pakistan.
Bangladesh, meanwhile, traversed a different course, having set itself up in opposition to the idea of a state sponsored Islam. While, paradoxically, the Bangladeshi constitution today does make Islam the state religion, it also commits the state to secularism as a cardinal principle of policy for the new state. The experience within Pakistan from 1947 to 1971 had convinced the Bengalis that Islam would always be used to stymy their demands for greater economic independence in Pakistan. Consequently there were hardly any supporters of an Islamic Republic in Bangladesh, even under the dictator Ziaur Rehman who made Islam the state religion. Significantly Bangladeshi secularism is not anti-Islam. It is against the misuse of religion. Mujib explained this to Colonel Gaddafi saying that the God of Islam was rab-ul-alameen (lord of all people) and not just rab-ul-muslimeen (lord of Muslims) and that this spirit underscored Bangladeshi secularism. This is a modernist Muslim argument and not an anti Muslim one.