By Yasser Latif Hamdani
November 19, 2018
Just before partition of India, the founding father of this country Mr Jinnah attempted to woo the Sikhs to the new state by offering them 40 percent guaranteed representation in Pakistan’s Armed Forces, Judiciary and civil services. He also offered them an autonomous region Patiala — within the Pakistani federation. If that was enough Jinnah also promised them a veto over any legislation or constitutional provision, which they thought would infringe on their rights. The Sikhs rejected the proposal after serious consideration by calculating that Jinnah did not have long to live and any promises he was making would not be honoured by his successors. Jinnah argued in vain and perhaps disingenuously that his word would be like the word of God in Pakistan and no one would go back on it in Pakistan. This turned out to be a vain boast given that we have all but buried his clear promises to the minorities and citizens of Pakistan.
Regardless of whether the Sikhs were right or wrong in their estimation, given the pogroms against them in the 1980s by the Republic of India, we must consider similar safeguards for minorities in Pakistan. Remember Sikhs also constituted less than 5 to 7 percent of the total population of proposed United Pakistan comprising all of Punjab and Bengal. There were many reasons for it not the least that Jinnah desperately wanted to avoid the partition of Punjab and Bengal, which was key to his ultimate parity strategy for Pakistan with Hindustan at an all India level in an all India union, either by treaty or in confederation.
If there was ever a need in human history for affirmative action to fulfill not just the promises the founding father made but the promises contained in the principles of policy enumerated in the Constitution of Pakistan, it is for the Non-Muslim minorities in Pakistan
India was to Jinnah the entity above Pakistan and Hindustan, an idea the India of today torpedoed by framing it as a case of secession from the Indian union. It was also because Jinnah knew that a civilized government can only be called civilized if it treats its minorities generously above and beyond mere equality. It was for this reason that Jinnah had appointed a Scheduled Caste Hindu on a Muslim League seat in the Interim Government of India. The same Scheduled Caste Hindu had become the First Law Minister of Pakistan and remained so till two years after Jinnah’s death, when he resigned and left Pakistan for good. His letter makes for extremely sad reading.
We must freely admit that we in Pakistan have failed to live up to the various promises we made to the minorities. They are not equal citizens of the state. Even on best of days they barely make the cut for second class citizens. Alienated, hapless and completely frightened by the prospect of an unthinking radicalized Muslim majority in 2018, many minorities are escaping Pakistan by moving elsewhere.
The recent events in wake of the Aasia Bibi ruling drove home this important realisation to every minority in Pakistan. Even if there was communal peace of which there is none, minorities are made to feel as inferior citizens by the very fact that they cannot hold the offices of President or Prime Minister. Non-Muslim citizens and even Shia Muslim citizens (Jinnah’s own sect) are routinely denied promotion above the colonel rank in the Pakistan Army. In all of Pakistan, there is one High Court judge who is a Christian. Since Bhagwan Das there has been no minority judge in the Supreme Court.
Obviously no one expects there to be a spirit of generosity towards minorities that Jinnah alone was capable of. Nevertheless we can at the very least give them a proportional representation in judiciary, military services and the parliament. Most Non-Muslims are spread all over Pakistan and as such one does not see a prospect of an autonomous region for them, but we can at least allow their Mohallas and localities to be incorporated as self-governing municipalities protected against interference by the majority, so that at least within those municipalities they can live as free and independent citizens of Pakistan, without harassment or discrimination.
We can at least ensure that 5 percent of the Federal Cabinet and Provincial Cabinets comprise non-Muslims, not just in ceremonial token departments but real effective departments. If there was ever a need in human history for affirmative action to fulfil not just the promises the founding father made but the promises contained in the principles of policy enumerated in the Constitution of Pakistan, it is for the Non-Muslim minorities in Pakistan. Without harassment and discrimination, Pakistan’s Non-Muslims would be able to progress and contribute to the Pakistani economy much better than they do presently. It would uplift the Pakistani economy in addition to ensuring that Pakistan fulfils its obligations under international law. Some of our finest jurists, teachers, pilots and diplomats have been Non-Muslims. Why should we not then allow them the opportunity to harness their talents in a manner befitting free and independent citizens of a proud country?
Such a proposal is not only in congruence with international human rights law but has ample precedents in Islamic history especially that of the Ottoman Empire which implemented successfully the Millet system designed to provide autonomy and a measure of economic independence to the Non-Muslim citizens of the Islamic Caliphate. Pakistan can do well to learn from that noble Islamic example, if it refuses to become a modern secular state, as I feel it should. Legal pluralism in addition to multiculturalism was what defined the Ottoman Empire spanning 500 plus years. Like Pakistan, majority of the Muslims of the Ottoman Empire also followed the Hanafi Islamic Jurisprudence. Imam Abu Hanifa’s dictums with regard to religious pluralism were well advanced of his time. Why must we not follow that example and instead allow barely educated self styled religious clerics of today define Islam? Islam as a culture and civilization has had a history of broadminded interlocution between various faiths and belief systems.
Maimonides the great Jewish philosopher thrived under the Islamicate system. We also have the example of the Ismaili Shiite Fatimids who ruled a plural Egypt in a most humane manner. Then we have the example of Zaghlul Pasha the first Prime Minister of Egypt after colonial rule, who gave the Coptic minorities of Egypt a blank cheque for safeguards. These are all noble Islamic examples that Pakistan, so conscious of its Muslim identity, can follow to be an example to the world of how a Muslim majority nation treats its minorities fairly and equitably as equal citizens in closest association with the majority. As things stand though we are the one example not to follow.
Yasser Latif Hamdani is a practising lawyer and a Visiting Fellow at Harvard Law School in Cambridge MA, USA.