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Pakistan’s ‘Elizabethan Settlement’

When Pakistan’s identity was decided through the Objectives Resolution in 1949

Pakistan’s ‘Elizabethan Settlement’
Constituent Assembly of Pakistan in session.

On Saturday, March 12, 1949, as the afternoon sun began its descent into the bosom of the west, the fate of Pakistan still hung in the balance. In the stuffy chamber of the Sindh Assembly building, its members were in deep discussion on the future direction of the country.

The debate had begun almost abruptly as the Prime Minister of Pakistan, the honourable Liaquat Ali Khan, sprung a surprise on the Assembly members who were tired after the gruelling budget session and were looking forward to a well-earned vacation. In what was supposed to be the tail end of the session, the head suddenly emerged and the most important document for the future of Pakistan, the Objectives Resolution, was tabled on the floor of the house. While the opposition — though in the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan (CAP) there was no opposition party and government party, they were all equally responsible for the formulation of the new constitution of Pakistan — struggled to grasp the significance of the occasion, the treasury benches were exuberant as this Resolution was hailed as an important marker not only in the albeit short history of Pakistan, but was poised to show to then polarised world a ‘Via Media,’ in the words of Mr Nazir Ahmad Khan, just as the seventeenth century Elizabethan Church of England was supposed to be the via media between the excesses of Rome and the puritanism of the reformers. It was now time for Pakistan’s ‘Elizabethan Settlement.’

Trying to make sense of it all among the exhortations of government ministers and the crackling noise of the Assembly fans, Mr Sris Chandra Chattopadhyaya of the Pakistan National Congress from East Bengal, had still not made any comment on the floor of the house. His colleagues had already voiced their opposition, repeatedly, but their objections had been consistently pooh-poohed by the government side. The most erudite of government ministers, Sir Muhammad Zafrullah Khan, the former Federal Court Judge of British India and the then Foreign Minister of Pakistan, had labelled all the objections of the opposition as the ‘fear of the unfamiliar,’ and exhorted them to cast away any apprehensions as to the progressiveness of the Resolution, and its assurance of equality and fair play.

But as the debate progressed to the fifth day — which was in the end the final day — Mr Chattopadhyaya felt as if he was no longer part of Pakistan, let alone the debate. The almost exclusive focus on Islam and Islamic ideals and principles, made him realise that the non-Muslims, still a significant percentage of the country, were not full and equal citizens of the country. It seemed as if their aspirations and hopes for Pakistan — which was also their country — were now secondary, and that they were being relegated to aliens in their own land.

Therefore, even though he had decided not to speak in the debate — as all the essential points had already been made — Mr Chattopadhyaya intimated to the President of the CAP, the honourable Moulvi Tamizuddin, his intention of speaking. He perhaps knew that his words would fall on deaf years, and that maybe they won’t change the outcome of the debate, yet he felt the urgent need — that intense tingle in his stomach — to voice his opinion. After all, the future trajectory of his country was being decided and he was adamant to be a part of it, whether people liked it or not.

Mr Chattopadhyaya knew this was perhaps the last chance the non-Muslims had to ensure their full and equal rights with their Muslim compatriots. After the passage of this Resolution, the nature of future constitution making would be purely Islamic in nature.

Hence, charged with emotion, and with almost tears in his eyes, Mr Chattopadhyaya rose to address the expectant eyes of the assembled members in a less than half full chamber. Perhaps the other half did not care enough to be present, or had other pressing demands on their time, but for Mr Chattopadhyaya, there could be nothing more important now than participation in this debate — it was not just a debate critical for him but for the millions of non-Muslims in the great country of Pakistan, the fate of the country was being decided that Sabbath day. Mr Chattopadhyaya thus exclaimed:

“We belong to East Bengal. One fourth of the population is still non-Muslim. Therefore, what constitution is to be framed, it is our duty, it is in our interest to look to. We are not going to leave East Bengal. It is our homeland. It is not a land by our adoption. My forefathers, founder of my family, came to East Bengal thousand years back on the invitation of the then King of Bengal. I am 27th in decent from him. Therefore, East Bengal is my land. I claim that East Bengal and Eastern Pakistan belongs to me as well as to any Mussalman and it will be my duty to make Pakistan a great, prosperous and powerful State so that it may get a proper place in the comity of nations because I call myself a Pakistani.”

In a last ditch effort to convince his colleagues that the new state of Pakistan should not distinguish between its citizens on religion, Mr Chattopadhyaya — now the only speaker before the closing of the debate by the prime minister and the dreaded division of the house — pleaded that now Pakistan should be a ‘one nation’ country, and that the ‘Two-Nation theory’ which the Muslim League formed as its basic argument for the division of India should be left behind. He noted:

“We, the non-Muslims of Pakistan have decided to remain in Pakistan, as the loyal citizens of Pakistan. Of course, some non-Muslims form East Bengal and practically the majority of non-Muslims from West Pakistan left the place. We call ourselves the nationals of Pakistan, style ourselves Pakistanis…We, the Congress people, still stick to our one-nation theory and we believe that the people of Pakistan, Muslims and non-Muslims, consist of one nation and they are all Pakistanis.”

With the horizon now moving fast towards the darkness of the night, the members of the assembly watched Mr Chattopadhyaya with singular attention, who with a strong voice was pleading those assembled to rethink the decision. With only the sound of the creaking fans, and the visibly uneasy treasury benches breaking the flow of Mr Chattopadhyaya’s voice, he made his last plea to the members: “I say, give up this division of the people into Muslims and non-Muslims and let us call ourselves one nation. Let us call ourselves one people of Pakistan.” However, seeing their non-plused faces, Mr Chattopadhyaya could see the writing on the wall — whatever he could say was not going to change their mind or convince them to stop, ponder and rethink.

With a sense of despondency and despair now overcoming him, Mr Chattopadhyaya sounded like a tired, helpless and hopeless man. He concluded his speech by noting his true feelings. With his strong voice now breaking up, he noted the conundrum he and the other non-Muslims in Pakistan were placed in. He said:

“I am quite upset. I have been passing sleepless nights pondering what shall I now tell my people whom I have so long been advising to stick to the land of their birth? They are passing a state of uncertainty which is better seen and felt than imagined from his House. The officers have opted out, the influential people have left, the economic conditions are appalling, starvation is widespread, women are going naked, people are sinking without trade, without occupation…And on top of this all, by the Resolution you condemn them to a perpetual state of inferiority. A thick curtain is drawn against all ray of hope, all prospects of an honourable life.”

Certainly by the time Mr Chattopadhyaya was speaking, West Pakistan had almost been denuded of its non-Muslim population. From forming about 24.6 per cent of East Pakistan, non-Muslims were merely 5 per cent of West Pakistan, and that too mainly composed of Punjabi Christians — who weren’t even represented in the august house. Only a smattering of the once formidable Sindhi Hindu community remained, and they too were too weak and scattered to receive any representation, even in a chamber in the city they had helped build. Even in East Bengal, from where all the non-Muslim representatives in the Assembly hailed from the 25 per cent non-Muslim population, was fast depleted.

The members of the Pakistan National Congress were desperate to prevent people from migrating to India, but the general suspicion and hatred towards Hindus was taking its toll, and despite their impassioned exhortations, hundreds of thousands of Hindus kept crossing the border into the western part of Bengal, so much so that within a decade the 25 per cent came down to 15 per cent.

When Mr Chattopadhyaya uttered these words, he knew that this was perhaps the last chance the non-Muslims in Pakistan had to ensure their full and equal rights with their Muslim compatriots. After the passage of this Resolution, the nature of future constitution making would be purely Islamic in nature, with little consideration for the non-Muslims.

To be concluded

Yaqoob Khan Bangash

Yaqoob Bangash
The writer teaches at the IT University in Lahore. He is the author of ‘A Princely Affair: The Accession and Integration of the Princely States of Pakistan, 1947-55.’ He tweets at @BangashYK.


  • I hope it is for the sake of irony that The News has illustrated this article with a picture of the Constituent Assembly of India, with Sirdar Patel sitting rather prominently.

    • @C M Naim: Yes, I thought I saw a familiar face. Ironic indeed!

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