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By Ghani Jafar
It was heartening to learn from a news report early last week that somebody had at long last mustered the courage of moving the Supreme Court for setting right a few of the distortions in the basic scheme of democracy inherent to the 1973 Constitution. The petitioner, Joseph M Francis, chairperson of the Pakistan Christian National Party, has challenged a number of constitutional provisions in this regard.
While nothing can at this stage be obviously stated about the outcome of his groundbreaking initiative, it has come as a breath of fresh air in a political atmosphere polluted heavily by the wild scramble for power by individuals seemingly incapable of seeing beyond their self-centred noses.
The petitioner has based his plea on the contention that the articles of the Constitution challenged by him violate his equality as a citizen, specifically with regard to his right to contest elections to the office of president. To that extent, therefore, the scope of the issues raised by him for adjudication by the Supreme Court is rather limited, even in terms of our history of legislation for so-called Islamisation of Pakistan’s state and society.
Noble as the attempt may be, mere patchwork on our constitutional framework would simply not suffice. What needs to be done, instead, is for a workable new social contract to be enacted that, first and foremost, restores Jinnah’s liberal, democratic, secular Pakistan where citizens are equal.
What is being proposed here is the formation of a constituent assembly to frame and adopt the basic law that not only incorporates the above principles but also brings the federal structure in line with the aspirations of the smaller units vis-à-vis provincial autonomy.
The scheme of the 1973 Constitution on the latter count, even though not infringed upon to the disadvantage of the constituent units in the past 34 years, has proved not to be tenable any more.
“Islamisation,” on the other hand, has been given a major boosts not only during General Zia’s dictatorial era but also by Nawaz Sharif’s elected government in 1991. We were mercifully saved from the latter’s attempt to establish a totalitarian caliphate of sorts through the abortive 15th Constitutional Amendment in 1998.
Starting with Liaquat Ali Khan right down to Nawaz Sharif, Ayub excepted, each and every ruler of Pakistan has not left the seat of power without adding some more weight to the burden of inequity on the corpus of law in the name of “enforcing” Islam.
Jinnah declared in his celebrated August 11, 1947, address, “You may belong to any religion or caste or creed, that has nothing to do with the business of the state.” Within six months of his death, Liaquat Ali Khan set out as the objective of Pakistan the establishment of a polity in which the religious minorities were to be relegated to the status of second-class citizens. At one stroke, democracy had been dealt a fatal blow.
The “Objectives Resolution” moved in the Constituent Assembly by the first prime minister on March 7, 1949, and adopted after a five-day debate, took away sovereignty from the people. “Whereas sovereignty over the entire universe belongs to Allah Almighty alone …” read the opening of the document. That may very well be understood in the metaphysical sense, and in conformity with the Islamic belief system, at that, but how in heaven’s name are the poor mortals on earth to determine His Will in worldly affairs?
Therein lay the catch. His Commands have most exhaustively been laid down in the Holy Quran and the Sunnah, but their “correct” understanding and interpretation is the exclusive preserve of the few “learned” among the mass of ordinary Muslims.
Republicanism was totally alien to this scheme of things. Democracy had been given a new definition in the “Islamic Republic of Pakistan” now envisioned for the state: government of the mullah, by the mullah, for the mullah. Even as the Muslim population of the country had been denied their inalienable right to rule over themselves, the fate of the religious minorities was to be even worse.
Society had come to be divided into three classes: the privileged lot of the mullah was to be first-class citizens, ordinary Muslims second-class citizens, and non-Muslims third-class citizens. It was on the same basis that Pakistan was declared an “Islamic Republic” through the coming into force of the first Constitution in 1956.
In came General Ayub through a martial law two years later, and abrogated the Constitution. While further restricting the democratic rights of the people, the Constitution he enforced in 1962 took away the “Islamic” infringement in the earlier document. Pakistan, henceforth, was to be a “Republic,” plain and simple – but on his terms of severely limited franchise through the mechanism of “basic democracy” contrived by him.
The eastern wing of the country broke away to form Bangladesh in 1971. The new constituent assembly for Pakistan that had been elected in 1970 now met on April 14, 1972, comprising 144 of those elected from West Pakistan alone (together with two who came from what had been East Pakistan). Bhutto had majority support in this assembly of what had remained of Pakistan. Efforts started anew to draft a constitution.
Realising that their only value was that of nuisance, the mullahs were now clamouring for even more “Islamisation” than that in the 1956 Constitution; and Bhutto was only too glad to oblige. Pakistan not only became an “Islamic Republic” once again in 1973, but also one in which not just the ceremonial office of the president but also that of the all-powerful prime minister were reserved for Muslims alone.
Through the “Constitution (Second Amendment) Act” the very next year, Ahmadis were declared non-Muslims. The legislature of the “Islamic Republic” thus came to arrogate to itself the celestial role of judging matters of faith as well.
That proved to be the beginning of sectarian warfare for power in Pakistan. Which of the sect within the main body of Muslims should be the next target for disenfranchisement? We had come to relive history, not in the earlier context of the Hindu-Muslim divide, but in the unending framework of intra-Muslim violence.
The details of further “Islamisation” in the post-Bhutto years of the Zia era and then during Nawaz Shairf’s days in power are too numerous to be recounted here.
If the terrorists of today are out to kill all those – women and children included – who do not subscribe to their skewed understanding of Islam, we are nothing but reaping the blood-soaked harvest of hatred and intolerance sowed, and so very carefully tended to, over the past half century.
No, any further tinkering with the Constitution would just not do. We have got to structure our polity on the firm principle that religion is a matter totally private to the citizen. The state has no business with that, whatsoever.
Let the parties go into an election to create a constituent assembly with clear-cut positions on that core issue, together with all other contentious matters related to the federal scheme as well as to the form of government.
The writer is a senior journalist working at present as a research analyst at the Institute of Regional Studies, Islamabad. Email: ghanijafar @ yahoo.co.uk