When March 23 was Republic Day

Pakistan Day celebrations were not originally designed to showcase military might, writes Farhatulah Babar

When March 23 was Republic Day
We have been celebrating March 23 every year as ‘Pakistan Day’ to commemorate the Lahore Resolution adopted in 1940 which, it is claimed, laid the basis for the creation of Pakistan. The day begins with the booming sound of guns in Islamabad and all provincial capitals, followed by an impressive show of military might showcasing missiles, tanks, fighter jets, radars, aerobatics and commandos parachuting from helicopters. Weapons, glittering medallions, measured steps, sound and fury and shining armour defining the nature of the state — one driven by security paranoia, rather than inspired by the welfare and rights of the people.

In keeping with this spirit, President Alvi devoted a significant part of his speech this year to praising the armed forces and extolling them for a “befitting response” in the aftermath of Pulwama incident. He added a moral basis, saying it was “our right and duty.” The speech writer took care to regurgitate the security narrative that India had not accepted Pakistan. So the President’s speech described this policy as “short sighted, imprudent and dangerous for regional peace.” It did not matter that just a day earlier, Prime Ministers Imran and Narendra Modi had exchanged messages of peace. Reinforcing the security narrative was more important.

More than 70 years after Independence, perhaps it is time to examine how important national days should be celebrated.

March 23 celebrations were not originally designed to showcase military might. They was meant to celebrate the adoption of our first Constitution, getting rid of the dominion status and becoming Islamic Republic of Pakistan on March 23, 1956.

At the time of Partition, both India and Pakistan were dominions like Canada, Sri Lanka, South Africa and New Zealand at the time. Dominions were not entirely free in foreign policy and some other areas which were in the hands of British government. India got rid of dominion status in 1951, Pakistan five years later. March 23, thus, was a most important day in Pakistan’s national calendar and it was decided to celebrate it as Yome Jamhooriah (Republic Day). Indeed for two years, in 1956 and 1957, Republic Day was celebrated to commemorate adoption of the Constitution and jettisoning the dominion status.

Things, however, changed in 1958 when the commander-in-chief General Ayub Khan (who later proclaimed himself field marshal) struck, folding the Constitution, democracy and all that it represented. Plotters of the coup could not celebrate constitutionalism and democracy on March 23. So ‘Republic Day’ was replaced with ‘Pakistan Day.’ The nature of celebrations also changed so that national pride was taken more in display of military might, instead of the Constitution, and everything that democracy and the Constitution represented. Instead of August 14, the military parade began to be held to March 23 and a justification readily found for it: monsoons were not feasible for military parades.

Even this was not considered enough to inculcate in the public psyche awe for glittering medallions and military strength, instead of respect for and drawing inspiration from democracy. A year later, in 1959, the format of the flag lowering ceremony at the Wagah border was formalised to glorify war, military parades and showmanship. The ritual of army men, every day of the year just before the sunset, facing each other, stomping on the ground like raging bulls is perfectly designed to glorify war and military parades, even if it appeared bordering on the ridiculous.

The common belief that Pakistan was established on the basis of Lahore Resolution of March 23, 1940 has also served to deflect from the enormous significance of March 23, 1956. The Lahore Resolution laid down the principle of grouping Muslim-majority regions in India as independent states - not just one but several states - and is not the basis for Pakistan’s creation.

The demand for Pakistan actually is based on the resolution subsequently adopted by the central and provincial legislators of the Muslim League at their convention in Delhi on April 9, 1946, superseding the 1940 Lahore Resolution.

The 1946 resolution called for the constitution of the two Muslim-majority zones “into a sovereign independent state.” It also pledged “to implement the establishment of Pakistan without delay.” The earlier Lahore Resolution text came in handy only in borrowing from it the portion relating to the rights of minorities and incorporating it in the 1946 draft resolution and no more.

The 1946 resolution was planned to be endorsed by the Muslim League Council scheduled to meet the next day. However, this item was taken off the council’s agenda at the last minute. No explanation was given at the time. Noted journalist and human rights activist I A Rehman, quoting authentic historians, has said that it was done because the legislators’ convention was considered to be “the parliament of Muslim India” and a reference to the full council was not considered necessary.

Pakistan’s journey away from democratic ideals and degeneration into a security mould began soon after the death of Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

Within a month of his death, the Safety Ordinance 1948, permitting detention by security forces without trial was passed. Only a few weeks before his death, Jinnah had rejected it as a “black law.”

Less than a year later, the Constituent Assembly passed the Objectives Resolution, bidding farewell to the Quaid’s ideals. A decade later, the martial law of 1958 laid the foundations for the militarisation of the state and society. Another decade later, by prescribing the motto of “imaan, taqwa, jehad fi sabillilah” for the army, General Zia drove the final nails in the coffin of Jinnah’s vision of the state having nothing to do with the religion, caste or creed.

The annual Pakistan Day military parade and the daily flag-lowering ceremony at the Wagah border have become symbols of the militarisation of state and society. Together they elliptically build a narrative of war and banishing thoughts of democracy, of rights, of constitutionalism and of public welfare. They constitute a political statement; of a state driven by security paranoia.

The formal messages of the president, the prime minister and others on this day emphasise constitutionalism, rule of law and democratic ethos of the people. The celebratory events on this day should also be designed to promote democratic ethos, instead of exhibiting extravaganza of military power and flexing military muscle.

The writer is a former senator