Debating Religion In The Constituent Assembly

The Objectives Resolution was a compromise document between Pakistan’s modernists and the religious class. The debate on this day however is very important to consider what the prime movers of this document actually meant when they passed the resolution and what ...

Debating Religion In The Constituent Assembly

The most important debate on the role of religion in Pakistan happened on  March 12 1949. This was the day the Constituent Assembly passed the Objectives Resolution, setting in motion a set of complex events that many believe culminated into Pakistan’s slide into a religious state. The Objectives Resolution was a compromise document between Pakistan’s modernists and the religious class. The debate on this day however is very important to consider what the prime movers of this document actually meant when they passed the resolution and what the position of the minorities was. It was tragic that all of the amendments suggested by minorities to the document were dismissed summarily but in doing so the promoters of the resolution made some key promises to religious minorities that need to be repeated and to which Pakistan’s Muslim majority must be held accountable. 

To understand the main objections that the religious minorities, we must consider the speech by Sris Chandra Chattopadhyaya of the Pakistan National Congress who referring to Jinnah, said:

 “I sadly remind myself of the great words of the Quaid-i-Azam that in state affairs the Hindu will cease to be a Hindu; the Muslim shall cease to be a Muslim. But alas, so soon after his demise what you do is that you virtually declare a State religion! You are determined to create a Herrenvolk. It was perhaps bound to be so, when unlike the Quaid-i-Azam-with whom I was privileged to be associated for a great many years in the Indian National Congress-you felt your incapacity to separate politics from religion, which the modern world so universally does. You could not get over the old world way of thinking. What I hear in this Resolution is not the voice of the great creator of Pakistan-the Quaid-i-Azam (may his soul rest in peace), nor that of the Prime Minister of Pakistan, the Honourable Mr. Liaquat Ali Khan but of the Ulemas of the land.”

He then pointed out in some detail the views of the Ulema who he had spoken to and referred at length to the writings of Maulana Maududi. To this Sardar Abdur Rab Nishtar pointed out that Maududi was in jail. This did not satisfy Chattopadhyaya who argued that there was no concept of equal rights in Islam and that there could be no “jumma namaz” in a country whose head was a Non-Muslim. He held that the passage of the resolution would mean that Non-Muslims in Pakistan would forever be second-class citizens and that an Islamic state can only be a theocracy, where a Non Muslim could never aspire to become the head. 

“Even if we have the right to vote for a legislation but if some non-Muslim wants to be the President of the State, he will not be able to do so…. If that is so, what is the position of non-Muslims in a Muslim State? They will play the part of the second fiddle-the drawers of water and hewers of wood. Can you expect any self-respecting man will accept that position and remain contented? If the present Resolution is adopted, the non-Muslims will be reduced to that condition excepting what they may get out of concession or pity from their superior neighbours. Is it equality of rights? Is it wrong if we say that the non-Muslims will be in the position of Plebeians? ”

Several of the majority legislators had spoken in favour of the resolution earlier. Most significant was the defence mounted by Sir Zafrulla Khan, whose own community would be declared a religious minority 25 years later. His argument was that Islam does not brook a separation of religious and secular spheres. He argued that Quran promised complete religious freedom and that the resolution promised minorities equal rights as well as measures aimed at allowing them to develop their cultures and practise their religions freely. Zafrulla Khan noted that sadly the Muslims had not been able to present such a constitutional system in recent memory but that is precisely what Pakistan intended to do i.e. evolve a constitution that underscored Islam’s commitment to equality of mankind and religious freedom. In doing so he castigated the Muslims for having developed a narrow and bigoted approach to religion, which needed to be addressed. 

His most important intervention came when he defended the provision that sovereignty over the entire universe belonged to God Almighty alone. Significantly the original text of the Objectives Resolution had used the word God and not Allah precisely to reassure the minorities of the non-denominational nature of the deity in which the sovereignty was being vested. This was changed to Allah somewhere in the early 1950s but it is still significant considering that the framers of the resolution were trying to preserve the multicultural ethos of the country. 

Explaining that such sovereignty is delegated to the people, he said:

“To the opening statement in the Preamble that sovereignty over the entire Universe belongs to God Almighty alone, I do not conceive that any person believing in God could take exception. The rest of the Preamble, though based on the assumption that all authority, political or otherwise, which man has been invested with, has been delegated by the Supreme Ruler and must be exercised within the limits set by Him, is designed to emphasise that political authority vested in a people and by them entrusted to the State is a sacred trust and must be exercised and administered in that spirit. Some controversy has been raised as to whether that authority rests primarily in the people or in the State. From the Islamic point of view there can be no doubt that' such authority or sovereignty as Islam concedes to mankind, vests in the people and in the Quran it is the people who are commanded to entrust that authority into the hands of those who are in every respect fit to exercise it. The State is the servant of the people and is like any other instrument in any other sphere brought into being for the purpose of serving the people.”

His most important intervention came when he defended the provision that sovereignty over the entire universe belonged to God Almighty alone. Significantly the original text of the Objectives Resolution had used the word God and not Allah precisely to reassure the minorities of the non-denominational nature of the deity in which the sovereignty was being vested. 

Nazir Ahmad Khan, another Muslim Leaguer, rose to support the resolution and explained that the state they envisaged would not have a state religion, unlike other Islamic (Muslim) states like Egypt, Afghanistan, Iran etc. He railed against the priestly class amongst Muslims:

“There is a discussion about the Mulla. The Mulla will come in and say that you are giving over the authority of the State to the priesthood, that you are evolving a State that is theocratic in conception, that the Mulla is a man who is hidebound, that the Mulla is not progressive and therefore those of you who have traversed so far are going back in one jump and putting yourself in the lap of the Mulla.”

Dr Mahmud Hussain, a Muslim Leaguer from East Pakistan- allaying the fears of the minorities- said:

“There is no mention in the Resolution of establishing either a theocratic or even an Islamic State. All that is intended by the wording of the Resolution is the establishment of a moral state.”

Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan – interestingly representing East Bengal in the assembly – responded to the Chattopadhayaya’s speech in detail.  He started off by attacking the Ulema and then promised that Non-Muslims could indeed be the head of administration in Pakistan:

There are some people here who are out to disrupt and destroy Pakistan and these so-called Ulemas who have come to you, they have come with that particular mission of creating doubts in your mind regarding the bonafides of the Mussalmans of Pakistan. Do not for God's sake lend your ear to such mischievous propaganda. I want to say and give a warning to this element which is out to disrupt Pakistan that we shall not brook it any longer. They have misrepresented the whole ideology of Islam to you. They are in fact enemies of Islam while posing as friends and supporters of Islam. Sir, my Honourable friend said that according to these people, the Muslims will not offer their Juma Prayers if there was a non-Muslim as the head of the State. Well, Sir, till yesterday-when I say yesterday I am only talking figuratively- we had non-Muslim rulers here. Were not the Muslims offering prayers? Were they not offering Juma Prayers? Can you say they have never offered Juma Prayers in this country? How can, then, anybody come to you and how easily you get taken in by a statement of this kind? Sir, my friend said that these people told him that in an Islamic  State-that means a State which is established in accordance with this Resolution-no non-Muslim can be the head of the administration. This is absolutely wrong. A non-Muslim can be the head of administration under a constitutional government with limited authority that is given under the constitution to a person or an institution in that particular State. So here again these people have indeed misled him.”

It was a unequivocal promise by the first Prime Minister of Pakistan and one of its founding fathers that Non-Muslims would be allowed to become the head of the administration in Pakistan. Ironic considering that under the 1973 Constitution a Non Muslim can neither be the president nor the prime minister of Pakistan. 

Liaquat Ali Khan often gets the flak for passing this resolution but as the civilian democratic leader of a Muslim majority country, he had no choice. The Objectives Resolution was no doubt a departure from Jinnah’s pronouncement that religious differences would cease to be a factor in state policy and that the state would be completely impartial to religion in Pakistan. Unfortunately the only Muslim majority countries that have managed to have wholly secular states have been where secularism has been imposed top down by a strongman – usually a dictator, civilian or otherwise. The Objectives Resolution – as its supporters were so adamant in emphasizing- promised complete freedom to religious minorities to practise their faiths and develop their cultures “freely”. Indeed when General Zia ul Haq in 1984 sought to make Objectives Resolution a substantive part of the Constitution, he fraudulently omitted the word “freely” from it. This was added back through the 18th Amendment in 2010.  

 Pakistan did try to maintain some measure of state impartiality for a time. The first constituent assembly prepared a draft constitution in 1954 and a permanent constitution was given in 1956. Both drafts, while making Pakistan nominally an Islamic Republic, did not have a state religion clause. While the office of the president in both constitutions was reserved for Muslims, the Prime Minister could be from any community. This was keeping with the constitutional practice in many European countries. The monarch of Great Britain has to be an Anglican since the monarch is also the head of the Church of England. In Denmark, which is an exemplary secular democracy, the constitution provides for a state Church i.e. Evangelical Lutheran Church and says that the King has to be a Lutheran.  The preamble to the Irish Constitution, which is a secular constitution, is far more religious in tone than the Objectives Resolution. Indeed the Irish preamble may well have been one of the main inspirations for the document. Yet unlike these European states, Pakistan has not been able to bottle the genie of religion once un-bottled. 

Pakistan is an overwhelmingly Muslim majority country and as such there is no escaping the fact that Islam – which as Zafrulla pointed out brooks no distinction between politics and religion- will always continue to play a leading role in the country’s politics. The framers of the Objectives Resolution believed, perhaps naively, that the words they were qualifying sovereignty with would always be interpreted by modernists like them and not by the priestly class which all of them without exception disdained. All of the fears that the minorities expressed have come true. Religious minorities are “drawers of water and hewers of wood” or even worse in the country. The words “second class citizens” does not fully encompass the denial of dignity and equality to Non-Muslim citizens of Pakistan. There is no going back of course. 

The only course before Pakistani progressives and liberals is to interpret the Objectives Resolution in light of the express promises made by its framers namely that minorities would always be equal citizens, there would be no fetters placed on their religious freedom and most importantly, a Non-Muslim could become the head of state.  The Constitution of Pakistan does provide freedom to profess practise and propagate one’s faith as a fundamental right. It also promises equality to all citizens regardless of their religion. However the very fact that a Non-Muslim cannot aspire to hold the high office in the land imposes top down discrimination that sets the tone for the otherisation of Non-Muslims in Pakistan.  The high-minded idealism of Article 20 of the Constitution, which provides for religious freedom, is nothing but empty words for Pakistan’s religious minorities. 

Yasser Latif Hamdani is a barrister at law and the author of the book Jinnah; A Life.