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When Pakistan’s identity was decided

When Liaquat Ali Khan was making his point in support of Objectives Resolution, non-Muslim members were pondering over their future with fears

When Pakistan’s identity was decided

After Mr Chattopadhyaya’s sat down with his head between his hands, a beaming Liaquat Ali Khan rose to make the closing speech in the debate. The prime minister had been the initiator of the Objectives Resolution, and over the last few days he had closely observed, how one after another the members of the Pakistan National Congress opposed the Resolution. It was the afternoon of Saturday, March 12, 1949, when the members of constituent assembly of Pakistan were in deep discussion on the future direction of the country.

But he was also joyous as not only did all members of the Muslim League passionately support the Resolution, even the left leaning Mian Iftihkaruddin did not oppose it, rather he lamented the fact that it did not go far enough. Elated by the unanimous support of his Muslim colleagues, Liaquat was uneasy with the persistent opposition of the Hindu members.

He therefore rose to placate him and exclaimed: “I have listened to the speech of my Honourable friend, the Leader of the Congress Party, with great care. I assure him that whatever I say will be with full sense of responsibility and in all sincerity.” Liaquat then continued to assuage the fears of the opposition by noting that the Ulema they have been talking to — primarily those of the Jamaat-e-Islami — were purposefully leading them astray.

He said: “There are some people here who are out to disrupt and destroy Pakistan and these so-called Ulema who have come to you, they have come with that particular mission of creating doubts in your mind regarding the bona fides of the Mussalmans of Pakistan. Do not for God’s sake lend your ear to such mischievous propaganda.”

Continuing the speech, the prime minister indicated that there was indeed some disagreement between what he thought the ‘ideology of Islam’ was and what some others deemed it to be. He argued that his version was the ‘real’ version and the other interpretations were simply there to lead people astray. Liaquat continued: “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.”

Rather than assuaging their fears, this statement confused the non-Muslim members even further. Since they were not Muslims and therefore could not have a role in the interpretation of Islamic principles, they wondered how would divisions among the Muslims themselves be sorted? Today the prime minister was Liaquat Ali Khan and he was arguing that his interpretation was correct and that all others were ‘enemies of Islam,’ but what if another person who became prime minister after him rubbished Liaquat’s interpretation and imposed his own opposing version, and labelled all others as traitors and enemies, what could the non-Muslims do then? All these questions rattled their minds, as Liaquat continued his valedictory speech.

Liaquat retorted: “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.”

As Liaquat sensed the still tense situation in the chamber, and the uneasy, worried, and in some cases, despondent, faces of the non-Muslim members, he categorically declared that there would be no discrimination on the basis of religion in the citizenship of Pakistan. Liaquat emphatically stated: “Are the Pakistani nationals only Hindu or Muslims? I say we are both. There are Hindus and Muslims in Pakistan and every one of us is a national of Pakistan…You can be a national of a State, with equal rights privileges and equal responsibilities and yet remain Muslims and Hindus.” Jinnah — the founder of the country — had uttered similar words on August 11, 1947 but his speech had created more confusion than clarity.

In order to drive home his point that he was not doing anything Jinnah would not have approved of, Liaquat even clarified that under the dispensation he was envisaging a non-Muslim could hold any office of state, including that of the head of state and hence there was no chance of discrimination of any sort. Liaquat retorted: “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.”

But just when the confident words of the charming Liaquat Ali Khan had begun to soothe the tense nerves of the non-Muslim parliamentarians, the prime minister seemed to turn the topic on its head again. Liaquat began to end his speech by noting the significance of this resolution and stated that by the creation of Pakistan the Muslim League had only done half of its work. The other half “of its mission is to convert Pakistan into a laboratory where we could experiment upon the principles of Islam to enable us to make a contribution to the peace and progress of mankind.”

This succinct statement made the non-Muslim members feel like lab rats in an enormous experiment where they did not know the beginning or the end. They felt as if the reins of the country would be dependent solely on the principles of Islam upon which there was no consensus and whose direction they could not be sure of. Today Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan was promising them one thing by using Islam as the base, but tomorrow someone else could interpret Islam in another manner, detrimental to their interests — what would they do then, they wondered.

Undeterred by the cautious voices and worried faces of the Pakistan National Congress members, Liaquat Ali Khan was confident that Pakistan was on the threshold of something new, something unique, the ‘Via Media’ everyone had been waiting for. In closing, Liaquat thundered: “We feel that what the world today needs is not pure and simple materialism, but what the world needs is spiritual and moral values. In all these so-called advanced countries, all human intelligence, all human knowledge is being used today for the purpose of destroying humanity…We felt that we will not be making any contribution towards the peace and security of the world if we just framed our constitution on the basis of the other constitutions of the world…What we are trying to do and what we believe in is that we must at least try and see if we cannot put something before the world which might mean its salvation.”

With these powerful works, Liaquat again exhorted the still sceptical Congress members to ‘believe’ in him and give him a ‘chance’ to do something extraordinary, and sat down, exhausted, yet enthused by his spirited speech.

After the prime minister’s heart felt and fiery speech, an eerie silence fell over the house. It was the time for a decision to be taken on all the dozens of amendments put forth by the Congress members, and the final division of the house on the Resolution itself. Bizarrely the house was only half full; the fate of Pakistan was being decided and yet half of its fate-makers were absent. Several members like the premier of East Bengal, Nurul Amin, had gone back to their hometowns, while others simply did not bother to turn up. Perhaps some thought it was not significant enough resolution for them to turn up, while others knew that the government would have its day and get it passed without any hindrance. Even some members who had spoken during the debate, such as Mian Iftikharuddin and Kamini Kumar Datta, were not present. Both of them had wholeheartedly participated in the debate, and their absence was keenly felt, but the decision hour had come and the house could wait no more.

Announcing the end of the debate, the President of the Constituent Assembly, the honourable Maulvi Tamizuddin — the heir to Jinnah on that chair — began with the amendments. One by one all the seventeen amendments proposed by members of the Pakistan National Congress were put forth. As Maulvi Tamizuddin read each amendment one by one and then asked the members to vote on it, the division of the house became clear. After the first few amendments brought forth the same result, the good Maulvi didn’t even look up form his podium as he knew the expected result. The result every single time was the same: 10 Ayes and 21 Noes. The ten ayes were all members of the Pakistan National Congress and all Hindus, while all the 21 noes were members of the Pakistan Muslim League and all Muslims. The house had divided very clearly. After the seventeenth amendment was negatived, the time came for the full resolution, as put forth by the honourable Prime Minister, to be put to vote.

Raising his eyebrows to address the full house, Maulvi Tamizuddin, read the Objectives Resolution in pin drop silence clause by clause and then asked the house to vote on it. The result was again the same, though now in the opposite direction. All the Muslim members said ‘Aye’ while the non-Muslim members said ‘No.’ However, this time round the ayes were stronger and the noes feeble—the non-Muslims knew that the decision on Pakistan’s identity had been taken.

The above is an extract from a forthcoming work on Pakistan’s culture and identity. 

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.

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