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On secularism, Jinnah and Pakistan

jinnah delivering a political speechMy contribution for Jinnah Institute’s secular space

What are we fighting for? What are we aiming at? It is not theocracy, not for a theocratic state – Mohammad Ali Jinnah

Sixty-three years after the country was created, the term secular remains the most contested and misunderstoodpolitical concept in Pakistan. Mention the word secular and there is a litany of protests. The right wing thinks that secularism is an outright blasphemy of sorts, while the liberals hold that the genesis of Pakistan was through an anti-secular process. It is amazing that this happens in a country which was founded by a genuinely secular leader of the subcontinent. Until the 1930s, Jinnah was an undisputed ambassador of Hindu-Muslim Unity and even in 1946 he was willing to make political bargains within the context of a secular and decentralized India.

If anything, the Indian National Congress despite its rhetoric of secularism failed the ultimate test of being accommodative of the Muslim demands. Here ‘Muslim’ was not a religious identity but a broad banner for a community’s cultural, economic and political interests. It would be naïve to suggest that there was no religious motivation in Pakistan’s creation. In fact there were many who interpreted Pakistan as an Islamic country. However, Jinnah was categorical in his stance. There is enough evidence to suggest that he shunned the notion of a theocracy. Yet the contradiction of creating a country for Indian Muslims posed a challenge to the new state-project. For instance Jinnah is said to have told Raja Saheb of Mahmoodabad as to whose Shariah would Pakistan follow. Iskandar Mirza’s version is even starker when he quoted Jinnah: “Shariah? Whose shariah? No. I shall have a modern state.”

Whatever doubts on Jinnah’s intentions or political rhetoric employed by the Muslim League, Pakistan was meant to be a polity where state was separate from religion. Jinnah was unequivocal about the vision of the state when he spoke on the floor of Pakistan’s first constituent assembly on August 11, 1947:

“You are free to go to your temples; you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in the State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed. That has nothing to do with the business of the State.”

The controversies surrounding Jinnah’s politics were quashed when the statesman and the formal head of the state-to-be said: “Now, I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal, and you will find that in due course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense because that is the personal faith of the individual, but in thepolitical sense as citizens of the State.”

This rare speech by the founder of an ostensibly “Muslim” country was a watershed in history. Fortunately, unlike his successors he was not a mere rhetorician. His decision to retain J.N. Mandal as the first law minister of Pakistan made it amply clear that the Quaid did not want politics to be influenced by faith. It is a separate matter that Mandal resigned in 1950 once the pledges made by Jinnah were squandered by his successors.

Jinnah’s failing health and the capture of the Pakistani state by men, whom Jinnah reportedly described as khottey sikay (counterfeit coins), driven by power-quests and shortsightedness unleashed a process of Pakistan’s descent into ideological anarchy and a serious identity crisis that haunts us to date.

Less than a year after Jinnah’s death in 1948, the passage of Objectives Resolution was the first blow to the secular, progressive vision of Jinnah. The Objectives Resolution promised a vague sense of Islamic identity and statehood and was a clear attempt to pander to the hardcore religious lobby that had opposed Pakistan in the first place. The Resolution since 1949 has haunted us; and today it is an operative part of the Constitution (Article 2-A) thanks to a dictator who abused religion to amass and sustain power. Article 2-A of today’s Constitution cannot be touched. Not because there is nopolitical will, but because religious lobbies and fundamentalism writ large have gripped the Pakistani state, turning it into a sectarian and brutal society.

Religious fanaticism gained momentum in the early 1950s when a handful of Mullahs encouraged by an ambivalent state incited violence against the Ahmadiyya minority. The destruction of Pakistan’s democracy in 1958 meant that the legitimate political process was truncated and damaged resulting in social upheavals and break up of Pakistan in 1971. Even then the religious lobby supported the persecution of Bengalis – Muslims and non-Muslims – for Bengal’s essential secular culture was unacceptable to the West Pakistan-dominated institutions of the state.
Bhutto’s turbulent years and political mobilization of the 1970s was challenged by politics based on religion. Bhutto made his greatest mistakes by appeasing the religious lobby and playing with the fire of political Islam. This too was not enough, and a right wing movement fully backed by unelected institutions of the state led to Bhutto’s decline and fall in 1977.

General Zia’s draconian era (1977-88) saw the worst perversion of the ideology of Jinnah, when the state was turned into a flag-bearer of one particular school of religious thought. A systemic perversion of history and textbooks was carried out as a state policy and the inaccurate slogan ‘Pakistan ka matlab kia, La Illaha Illala (What is the meaning of Pakistan? There is no God but Allah) was sold as the ‘truth’. This conception of Pakistan was patently false. Worse, children were indoctrinated with myths, such as that stating the raison d’être for Pakistan was the implementation of Sharia.

The persecution of minorities was sanctified and man-made laws against women were promulgated, citing them as divine pronouncements. The Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union financed this ideological ascendancy and stuck the last nail in the coffin of Jinnah’s Pakistan.

Today, a distorted ideology of Pakistan and the misconstrued concept of secularism have so deeply penetrated the minds of Pakistanis, especially the youth, that it will take nothing short of a revolutionary social change to bring back the Pakistan which Jinnah had envisaged.

In 21st century Pakistan, secularism is un-Islamic and anti-religion. The Urdu translation of ‘secularism’ is ‘La-Deeniyat’ (irreligious). Most importantly, the demonizing of this ideology through state institutions has resulted in deliberate engineering of Pakistan’s history and ethos, and Jinnah is now patronized as a devout and pious Muslim.
Pakistan’s secular irony is deepened when one looks at history. Many have argued that the idea of a secular state and the ascendancy of reason was something that traveled to Europe via the scholarly works of Muslim thinkers such as Ibne Rushd and Ibne Khaldun. Even the Charter of Medina negotiated by Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) was a treaty between believers and non-believers, which gave equal rights to non-Muslims. The primitive nomadic society of Medina was secular – a fact that the denizens of political Islam conveniently forget in the Land of the Pure.
The implications of abandoning Jinnah’s ideological path have been disastrous. Pakistan is now at the forefront of Islamist militancy and a haven for several variants of political Islam. Tragically,political Islam wants to capture the Pakistani state and has orchestrated a reign of terror for civilians and state institutions alike. Yet there are people in denial about this gritty reality. At the end of the day, recourse to Jinnah’s vision is the only answer to our existentialist crisis.

Pakistan’s first Law Minister Mandal’s resignation letter addressed to the then Prime Minister of Pakistan stated: “Every one of these pledges is being flagrantly violated apparently to your knowledge and with your approval in complete disregard of the Quaid-e-Azam’s wishes and sentiments and to the detriment and humiliation of the minorities.”

We share Mandal’s anguish and pose the same question to Pakistan’s ruling classes, especially the moderate and progressive politicians who have a rare chance to undo several failures of the past. It may be late but any reformation within the Pakistani society will require these essentials: bringing back secularism into public discourse, adding Jinnah’s August 11 address to the Constitution, and thwarting the onslaught of political-sectarian Islam by reverting to Jinnah’s lost ideals.

Raza Rumi is a policy advisor, writer and editor based in Lahore. He blogs at and edits on online magazine Pak Tea House

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16 Responses to "On secularism, Jinnah and Pakistan"

  1. Raj United States Safari iPad says:

    Religious fanaticism gained momentum in the early 1950s

    This is the tragedy of paks!

    You have to suffer more , may be then you will consider truths and shed fantastic delusions and lies on which Pakistan was erected.

    If you want to write you want Pakistan to be different, we could sympathize….but then regurgitating old lies….

    Rafiq zakaria, IM historian has written extensively on how the then undivided India, Jinnah criscrossed the country spewing venom. After listening to a Jinn speech in 1945 inBombay, zakaria reported the speech was so venomous, “communal harmony was disrupted as never before”.

  2. amaar United States Mozilla Firefox Windows says:


    Well said but

    1. Jinnah Institute can look into distributing and spreading Jinnah’s philosophy in Urdu medium – start a newspaper if that is possible. This is an utterly critical need of the hour. Reaching out to the masses it vital.

    2. One intellectual contribution of the institution should be to come up with a non-pejorative/neutral translation for ‘secular’ in Urdu – that too is badly needed.

    3. My suggestion for ‘secularism’ is ‘masawat-i-adiyaan’ (equality of paths) where a ‘deen’ and its plural ‘adiyaan’ denote any given philosophy or way of life rather than Islam per se (I think that the lexicon permits this meaning). It is neutral even from a non-religious perspective.

  3. amaar United States Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Also, the pejorative translation of ‘secularism’ is ‘la-dineyat’ so basically the above translation would serve to refute the precise charge using the same root word ‘deen’. Masawat-i-adiyaan is clearly better than la-dineyat in any sense of the word since even an irreligious person can have a way/philosophy of life.

  4. YLH Pakistan Internet Explorer Windows says:

    Rafiq Zakaria was a biased author. Patrick French destroyed his arguments in his review of “Man who divided India”. You should read it.

    Genuine scholarship- not written by Pakistanis- has very clearly laid down the events that led to the creation of Pakistan. To blame Jinnah exclusively for fighting his client’s case and not blaming the Congress for respecting the mandate that another representative party had is a travesty of history.

  5. Talha United Kingdom Safari Mac OS says:

    Rafiq Zakaria much like his son has spewed nothing but venom for Pakistan and Jinnah. Some of the accounts in his book which seems more like an envious man discrediting a leader to satisfy his ego.

    His son on CNN continues his tirades against Pakistan and even stated that the Pak Army would loose in SWAT because of his biased views.

    Well SWAT is all clear now.

  6. Samachar United States Mozilla Firefox Mac OS says:

    Sure, Jinnah had a mandate that he was true to – which was for a separate nation. What I object to is the pretence that Pakistan was forced on him or that it was a bargaining position only. Jinnah was very very clear that no scheme for even very limited political union would work in the long run. Any union would be for tactical purposes only, whether to present a united front to the British, or as a intermediate state after the British departed that would be terminated by secession.

    So there is Pakistan today. In order to get Pakistan, Jinnah let Pakistan be all things to all Muslims. After achieving Pakistan, his August 11, 1947 speech was insufficient to throttle the forces that would turn Pakistan into quite the opposite of the vision presented in that speech. Jinnah did not make that speech prior to independence, precisely because it would be a dagger in the heart of the Pakistan scheme. If both Congress and Muslim League were promising secular nations, and Hindus and Muslims could live together in Pakistan and in Hindustan, though they were two nations as per Jinnah – then, ***whatever Jinnah might have intended***, the popular political will to implement Pakistan would have evaporated.

    “Congress did this” or “Hindus did that” or “Pakistan was forced on us Pakistanis” is simply excuse-mongering.

  7. Milestogo United States Safari iPhone says:

    The other way to translate secularism could be freedom of religion to all without any outside force.

  8. Bin Ismail Pakistan Google Chrome Windows says:

    Raza Rumi:

    Brilliant article.

  9. Talha United Kingdom Safari iPad says:

    “Jinnah let Pakistan be all things to all Muslims”

    Your figment of imagination once again. Had Jinnah wanted to please all quarters, he would have collaborated with the clerics from known parities such as the JI leadership and Deoband in general. He could have pleased them by doing things as they liked and I’m turn would have gained support.

    Jinnah also did not kick out the Ahmadi’s when asked by a number of religious clerics who had told him that they would support him once the Ahmadi’s were out of the way.

    You state something and do not back it up with facts but rather your opinions. I know it’s hard for you to swallow that there is a nation called Pakistan but for conversations sake, could you be a bit less biased.

  10. libertarian United States Google Chrome Windows says:

    @YLH: could it be that secular Pakistanis are fixated on Jinnah as the Uber-Dude because there are no other options? The options – for acceptable heros – seem limited to Jinnah and his proteges (all increasingly more depressing), or else rewind all the way to Muhammad Bin Qasim. As great of a guy as he might have been, the reflex to figure out “what Jinnah would have done”, as a panacea to every problem, is the secular equivalent of blind faith. My point: quit looking back. Jinnah’s gone – Pakistan’s still around. Job One is making sure it stays that way. Drawing up a new social contract may be more profitable than safeguarding Jinnah’s legacy.

  11. Humane Pakistan Google Chrome Windows says:

    Q. Was Jinnah a proponent of the Two-nation theory ? if he was than
    Pakistan should have Islam as state religion…. If he wasn’t than what are
    reasons that led to the creation of Pakistan ??
    This question is what the common man asks when they are told that Pakistan was to be a secular country.

  12. Raj United States Safari iPad says:

    What? How surprIsing!

    Fareed zakaria talking about Pakistan army,supported by pak civil elite sponsoring terrorism on it’s neighbors is “spewing venom”.

    Senior zakaria’s accounts of Jinnah are accurate. Your cuurent predicament of state of Pakistan and your holding on to your dear old lies are interconnected.

    I don’t expect you to accept it now!

  13. Bin Ismail Pakistan Google Chrome Windows says:

    @Humane (December 12, 2010 at 12:48 pm)

    In examining the genesis and evolution of the Pakistan Movement, we need to clearly understand and correctly apply four distinct concepts. Students of history somehow tend to interchange and misapply these four terms:

    1. Islam
    2. Muslims
    3. Muslim-majority states of Undivided India
    4. Economic security of the Muslim-majority states and the Muslim minority living in the Hindu-majority states

    It was the latter of these four, that served as the driving force of the Two Nation Theory. At its inception, the Two Nation Theory was not a Two State Theory – although it eventually evolved into one. Initially, the goal was “economic security for both the Muslim-majority states of Undivided India as well as the Muslim community existing as a minority in the Hindu-majority states of Undivided India. Sir Syed’s focus was on the secular education of the Muslims of India, inhabiting both the Hindu-majority regions as well the Muslim-majority states. Of course, better education was the first step towards economic progress. Sir Syed’s campaign was actually a counter-movement to the clergy-sponsored decades of boycott of “Kafirana Taaleem”, a term coined for education provided by the British. In its next phase of its evolution, the Two Nation Theory, shifted its focus to the political well-being of the Muslim population of British India. Following this, came a shift of focus towards the conglomerate of Muslim-majority states of Undivided India, a safer political and economic future being sought for them. The Lahore Resolution advocated greater autonomy for the conglomerate of Muslim-majority states.

    The Cabinet Mission Plan of 1946 offered an arrangement for the Hindu-majority states, the Western conglomerate of Muslim-majority states and the Eastern Muslim-majority region to exist as sub-federations within India. Jinnah endorsed the CMP, while the Congress leadership has reservations and could not offer similar commitment to the Plan. Since there was no other plan on the table, the only rational way forward was Pakistan.

    Jinnah was essentially pro-minority and Muslims were not the only minority whose future he cared for. His concern for the community of the Untouchables was even greater. He said, “in the name of Humanity, I care more for them [the Untouchables] than for Mussalmans. ” [address at the All India Muslim League session at Delhi, 1934].

    Jinnah never envisioned Pakistan and India as rival neighbors, one representing Belief and the other Disbelief – certainly not. If anything they were intended to exist as two parallel and friendly secular states, one comprising of the Muslim-majority states and the other comprising of Hindu-majority states. In November 1946, he said, “The two states [Pakistan and India] will be friends and will go to each other’s rescue in case of danger and will be able to say ‘hands off’ to other nations. We shall then have a Munroe Doctrine more solid than in America.”

  14. YLH Pakistan Internet Explorer Windows says:

    Hardly accurate…. Senior Zakaria’s illogic was blown to bits by Patrick French in his review of Senior Zakaria’s ridiculous book.

    After H M Seervai’s account of partition… there is no longer any room for ideological narratives- Pakistani or Indian- like the one Senior Zakaria had to offer. Senior Zakaria mind you was the president of Khilafat Association in India… so much for “secular Indian Muslim”.

    If we are holding on to lies …. what about all the Indian authors who hold the same view… is A G Noorani a Pakistani elitist as well?

  15. Bin Ismail Pakistan Google Chrome Windows says:

    Raza Rumi:

    “…..adding Jinnah’s August 11 address to the Constitution…..”

    Jinnah’s 11th August 1947 address provides the perfect text for the Preamble of the Constitution of Pakistan.

  16. [...] a secular state. In his address to the first constituent assembly of Pakistan on 11th August, 1947, Jinnah had said: “You are free to go to your temples; you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of [...]

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