Mohammad Ali Jinnah envisaged Pakistan as a modern democratic state. Threatened by a deadly insurgency in the northwestern tribal areas linked to the American-led war in Afghanistan, and rent by conflict between and within the elected and non-elected institutions, Pakistan today could not be further away from its founder’s vision.
The disregard shown to the rule of law by successive governments, military and civil, is an unconscionable blot on the legacy of the great constitutionalist lawyer, whose memory is invoked with ritualistic fervour.
With recurrent derailments of political processes, deteriorating educational standards and curbs on the press, the public discourse on Jinnah’s vision has been open to widespread political manipulation and distortion.
Instead of realising professed ideals, Pakistanis are mired in a sterile debate between so-called ‘Islamic fundamentalists’ and ‘secular modernists’, the latter defined incorrectly as la din or anti-religion.
To pose the problem in such terms leaves little scope for a satisfactory resolution of the central question Pakistanis face at this vital juncture in their history: what sort of Pakistan do they want—an inward looking, orthodox religious one or a modern, enlightened and progressive country?
To try and find approximate answers to this crucial question requires going beyond the debate pitting religion against secularism. The focus instead has to be on the disjunction between ideals and realities in Pakistan.
More than six decades after independence, the celebrated homeland for Muslims in the subcontinent has been unable to extend the elementary rights of citizenship, not just legal but also social and economic, to the vast majority of its people. Many Pakistanis are worried that their country has lost its moorings.
Some believe that the solution lies in reinstating the moderate and progressive vision of their founding father while those in power mechanically claim ownership of Jinnah, if not quite his ideals. Contestations over Jinnah are the most important sign of his continued relevance.
An appreciation of how his ideals are applicable for today’s Pakistan requires an understanding of the historical context in which they were formulated and articulated.
Pakistanis can build upon Jinnah’s vision only by accepting some stark truths about their own history and make the tough decisions that are needed. At this critical moment when the country is engulfed by grave internal and external threats, Pakistanis have to make a hard choice.
They can seize the opportunity and take the necessary steps to shoulder their responsibilities alongside other nations in the world or they can join those who in defiance of global trends advocate isolationism in pursuit of their own narrow visions of Islam.
The Islam that the Quaid-i-Azam embraced was neither reactionary nor bigoted, but one ‘based on the highest principles of honour, integrity, fair play and justice for all’. He hailed the example of the Prophet (PBUH), who was successful in all walks of life, and ‘laid the foundations of democracy’.
Acknowledging the compatibility of Islam and democracy did not mean consigning the constitutional future of the country to historical ideas purportedly dating back to the inception of Islam. Nor was there any question of the seasoned constitutionalist allowing autocracy, whether of the civilian or the khaki variety, to substitute the rule of law.
‘Pakistan is now a sovereign State, absolute and unfettered, and the Government of Pakistan is in the hands of the people’, Jinnah had told a gathering of civil servants in February 1948.
As servants of a state they had ‘a terrific burden’ on their shoulders that he likened to a ‘sacred trust’. It was imperative in Jinnah’s view that the constitution and ‘the fundamental principles of democracy’ not bureaucracy or autocracy or dictatorship, must be worked’.
While Pakistan has taken a dramatically different course, few have ventured so far as to publicly disavow the vision of a creator they revere more than heed. This is cause for cautious optimism. Can Pakistan renew its commitment to the ideals it professes but shuns in practice?
Not without real determination, individual and collective, to correct course. Jinnah’s memorable statement—‘failure is a word unknown to me’—ought to be inspiration for Pakistanis as they grapple with the daunting challenge of saving their country from chaos and disintegration.
‘We …have a State in which we c[an] live and breathe as free men and which we c[an] develop according to our own lights and culture and where principles of Islamic social justice c[an] find free play.’ The Quaid was endorsing the notion of a state of temporal and spiritual union presiding over regions with shares of sovereignty and citizens with multiple identities.
It was an idea of freedom where Pakistanis in all their diversities and differences could live the lives they value with dignity, responsibility and a sense of security.
The tragedy is that a nation-state, which was supposed to be the embodiment of Muslim aspirations and distinctive culture in the subcontinent, has not only departed from the vision of its main architect but also made a travesty of the federal and constitutional principles on the basis of which he ultimately won his case for Pakistan.
–The writer is the Mary Richardson Professor of History at Tufts University, US, and the author of The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League and the Demand for Pakistan (1994)