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Pakistan: Sixty-six shades of green

August 6 2013





Our political discourse is dominated by two competing narratives of the recent history of Pakistan. Each claims to be ideologically rooted. The dominant one describes Islam as the main driving force behind the country’s creation and argues that the same shall define its present course.


The other narrative, however, tells us that Pakistan was founded by a liberal lot. The Quaid spoke English, wore western dresses and posed with his pet dog. Liaqat Ali’s wife Ra’ana shook hands with foreign dignitaries. Ayub Khan gave the US president a pat on the cheek and so forth.

These ‘liberal’ founders had set the country, continues the narrative, on the path to become a liberal, secular and yet, Muslim country – something similar to, but better than Ataturk’s Turkey. The country stayed on this ‘original’ liberal course till 1970s.

Interesting evidence presented to support the assertion is a gallery of photographs. The romantic black and white shots from the 1950s, 60s and 70s are shared on the social media a thousand times a day and framed in articles along with nostalgic captions. They show us women in sleeveless dresses playing cards and sipping wine in a Lahore hotel, European hippies smoking pot while waiting to be served chapal kebabs in Qisa Khani Bazaar in Peshawar and a goree madam struggling with a mouthful of paan as onlookers at Burns Road, Karachi chuckle.

Those were the days, my dear! The mullahs were all either in jail or strictly confined to their mosque duties and everyone was free to do whatever he or she wanted to. But then, the machinations of the political right derailed it and that’s how the country ended up in the present extremist abyss.

I have many problems with this so-called liberal-secular narrative but would focus on just one point here.

Has there ever been a liberal and secular Pakistan?

I sincerely believe that such a country has never existed. In its 66 years, Pakistan has never really changed its hue. It has stayed green all the way, one shade darker or one shade lighter.

The country was born to a confused Muslim ideology that was interpreted differently by various interest groups. The elite wanted to use Islam as a camouflage to its rule; there was no other way they could hold on to power. The clergy owned the Islamic franchise and wasn’t willing to lend it without getting a share in power.

Let me elaborate my point. The first draft of our constitution presented by Prime Minister Liaqat Ali Khan was incomplete and sketchy. It was not accepted by any party for different reasons. The second presented by the next prime minister, Khwaja Nazimuddin, in 1952, was comprehensive and detailed – ready for approval. The draft contained a complete plan to Islamise the entire state structure. Its details are astonishing. It proposed a separate electorate system for non-Muslims, exactly the way General Zia introduced it three decades later. The draft even provided for a supra parliamentary body of clerics with the powers to reject any of the acts of the elected House as un-Islamic. This scheme of rule of clergy was adopted by Iran after its 1979 Islamic Revolution. In Pakistan, however, the powers of the proposed body were substantially diluted by successive constitutions and it now, exists as an advisory institute named the Council of Islamic Ideology. The second draft thus, presented a complete model of theocratic rule, and the Prime Minister had the guts to put it before the House.

Now add to it, the anti-Ahmedi riots that happened a few months before the presentation of this draft. The riots occurred while the memories of Hindu-Muslim bloodshed were still fresh and these were so severe that Martial Law had to be imposed in Lahore, the first one of our history. So within the first five years of our life, we had witnessed wide spread sectarian killings that demanded the state to declare Ahmedis as kafir. The religious parties had a blue print to Islamise the state, and society, ready in their hands and were successful in rioting their way into the corridors of power.

The ruling elite, however, could still afford to have a ball on the weekend and enjoy brunch at their luxury clubs the next day.

The second draft too, was not approved and whatever did pass through after the passage of another four years was of no use to anybody. Ayub Khan ostensibly stemmed the rot. He wrote himself a constitution, a treatise of liberalism, shunning the entire Islamic plan. He named the country, The Republic of Pakistan dropping the word Islamic and substantially amended even the Objectives Resolution, only to eat his own words in a matter of months. The first amendment to the 1962 constitution brought back the word Islamic to the name of the country, besides allowing religious parties a number of other Islamic insertions.

Ayub had banned all political parties. He persecuted politicians under his Elective Bodies Disqualification Order (EBDO) and when they collectively tried to hide behind the stature of Fatimah Jinnah, he defeated her as well. He was deadly against all political activities and dealt with all of them with an iron hand. The law enforcers would raid even literary gatherings in tea stalls and pick up poets for writing in Punjabi or Sindhi as the government considered it against the ideology of Pakistan.

The government hounded political opponents, jailed and tortured them. The country, by now, had joined the anti-Soviet and pro-Imperialist camp in the great Cold War divide. Secretary General of the Communist Party of Pakistan, Hasan Nasir, was brutally tortured to death in the infamous Lahore Fort in 1960. Students possessing ‘red books’ were treated like youngsters with suicide jackets are these days. Working classes faced the worse kind of oppression at the hands of 22 khandaans (families, industrial tycoons) who grabbed the new country’s entire wealth and monopolised all of its resources.

And all through this period, PIA’s air hostesses served liquor on-board.

I believe that this ‘display of liberalism’ did not imply that the Pakistani society was making progress by pursuing a liberal political discourse. It only meant that the country’s callous elite had successfully insulated itself from every aspect of the commoners’ lives. They were born to our Colonial masters and continued to live like them, and to hate everything indigenous. And yes, please do factor in a small middle class as well whose only excellence was in mimicking the elite, howsoever idiotic that may have looked.

I have no problems with the moral side of these amusing ‘displays of liberalism’. My concern is that the romanticisation of this period of our history has started to pretend as an alternative political ideology, which I find flawed, misleading and even dangerous. Liberalism is a political philosophy. Pakistan was never a liberal country. It was always poised to outdo the worst of a liberal political workers’ nightmares. Its elite’s culture was Colonial or western. This had no bearing on their tyrannical politics and should not be mistaken as political liberalism.

I think that the elite still lives the same life and practices similar politics. It has only gone clandestine. Maybe we will find their pictures from today in our Facebook news feeds, a few decades later. Will you still hit ‘like’ then?

Originally published by Dawn Pakistan

Illustration by Tahir Mehdi.

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