By Zulfiquar Rao
70 years ago on August 11, Quaid-e-Azam Jinnah inaugurated Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly in Karachi. His inaugural speech should have served as the Magna Carta for the country’s constitutional foundation, which was then due for independence three days later. In his speech he assured the citizens of the new country saying, “You are free, you are free to go to your temples; you are free to go to your mosques or any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or cast or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the State... and you will find that in 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 each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State”.
While many among the rightist sections of our society, including the official narrative of the state too, especially since 1971, trivialise it as a mere speech, it is one of his enumerable and diverse assertions he made throughout his political life. The reality is far powerful than this downplayed view. Trained under the likes of Dadabhai Naoroji, one of the prominent founders of Indian National Congress, and the reformist GK Gokhale, Jinnah as a lawyer and as politician was an outright constitutionalist, away from demagogy, who believed in and practiced the principles of democratic coexistence and rule of law.
Not that Jinnah discounted the obvious religious differences between Hindus and Muslim, but he wasn’t swayed by this distinction. Instead he always believed that with good faith and spirit of co-existence Indian leaders of opposing persuasions could direct their followers along a common path of social progress and reform. The famous Lucknow Pact 1916 between Muslim League and Indian National Congress which he moderated between the two parties, as he was the member of both, was a milestone in bringing Hindu and Muslim communities towards a much needed conciliatory approach which had gone dead since the incidence of riots and acrimony on the eve of Bengal’s partition. It was for this extraordinary feat that he was then dubbed as ‘the ambassador of Hindu Muslim unity’.
One may also notice his constitutionalism and democratic credentials through his avoidance of populist and archaic religiosity in his political preferences following the defeat of Ottoman Empire in World War-I. Despite the disinterest of the Turks and Arabs in continuing with the Caliphate following the defeat of in WW-I, religious oriented Muslim leaders of the subcontinent saw as if the British were hell-bent on doing away with the Muslim Caliphate. These local leaders got together to save the caliphate and came up with Khilafat Movement. Jinnah had no love lost for caliphate being an archaic and irrelevant institution in view of the multitude of ethnic, racial, and linguistic diversity among Muslims of the world. Moreover, he foresaw the demise of Ottoman Caliphate in view of local political developments in Turkey. So he was never excited to lead this movement, unlike Gandhi, a populist, a demagogue, who exploited Muslim religious sentiments to win them over and add their energies for his Non-Cooperation Movement.
Jinnah’s secular streak in his personal and political life continued throughout, despite parting of ways with Congress in 1920 and later having led Muslim League. As late as 1946, when the Cabinet Mission Plan arrived in India to find a mechanism to transfer the power to Indians, Jinnah was first to accept the plan although it didn’t cater for a separate country for the Muslims of the sub-continent. What the plan had offered was India becoming a confederation state, somewhat like Canada or Switzerland, where confederating units had all autonomy except for defence, currency and diplomacy resting with central government. However, Congress could not have stood the idea of having the groupings of Muslim-majority and Hindu-majority provinces with the intention of balancing one another at the central legislature. Ironically, what Congress leadership could not think of accepting in 1946, a confederation state, was still far better for a united India than the outright partition of India into two that they agreed with, only a year later.
All his life, Jinnah stood for a modern state where all citizens would have full rights and nobody would be discriminated against on the basis of their ethnicity, caste and creed. The tatters that Pakistani polity has stuck in for decades is certainly for scrapping what Father of the Nation had exhorted us to follow. It’s not too late for us to own his ideals.
Zulfiquar Rao is a sociologist with interest in history and politics.