South Asia

Pakistan as a Cautionary Tale of Religious Fanaticism

As the BJP champions sectarianism in India, Pakistan's trajectory is a striking example of the consequences of enabling and capitulating to religious zealots.

By now, you are sure to have seen a tweet from @bjp4india which promises to roll out the National Register of Citizens all over India and expel anyone who isn’t “Buddha, Hindus and Sikhs”. Can we look at the history of our neighbourhood to understand what any policy of sectarian exclusion leads to?

In March 1953, when Pakistan was a mere six years old nation-state, the Ahmadiyya community – which many in the conservative Sunni establishment believed to be apostate – had grown in wealth, power and prestige. Zafarullah Khan, a prominent Ahmadi, had risen to the position of a foreign minister; many others from the community occupied high government offices and were ascendant in the world of business.

The majority Sunni community saw this as an affront to their majority and the Ulema, the religious leaders, all too ready to fish in troubled waters, incited mobs to action because the government seemed unwilling. Riots erupted in Lahore and the Jamaat-i-Islami, the largest of Pakistan’s religious parties at the time, led a carnage that left thousands dead.

In June 1953, the government of Pakistan appointed the then Chief Justice of the Pakistan Supreme Court, Justice Muhammad Munir to head a commission of inquiry into the Punjab Disturbances. The commission was tasked with an inquiry into:

  • The circumstances leading to the declaration of Martial Law in Lahore in March 1953
  • The responsibility for the disturbances and
  • The adequacy of measures taken to quell them

The commission held over a hundred sittings running into early 1954 and finally submitted its report on April 10, 1954. Almost exactly 55 years ago, as it happens.

Also Read: Imran Khan Points Fingers at India, but Can Pakistan Reassure Its Minorities?

Justice Munir’s acumen as a scholar of Islamic jurisprudence and his astute line of inquiry in examining witnesses and producing incisive analysis resulted in a report which belongs among the highest achievements of judicial thought in the 20th century – not merely in the subcontinent – but arguably anywhere in the world.

For many students of the report, the greatest takeaway was this:

“If there is one thing which has been conclusively demonstrated in this inquiry, it is that provided you can persuade the masses to believe that something they are asked to do is religiously right or enjoined by religion, you can set them to any course of action, regardless of all considerations of discipline, loyalty, decency, morality or civic sense.”

It was not, and is not by any means, the only one.

Evolution of societal divisions


While the immediate cause of the Munir Inquiry was the 1953 riots, there were numerous fault lines in the society and polity of the young country which had been building ever since the country’s independence in 1947.

Jinnah announcing the creation of Pakistan on All India Radio. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

While Jinnah championed the Partition, arguing that, in an undivided India, minorities, and in particular the Muslims, would be permanently relegated to a subordinate position, his view on minorities in post-Partition Pakistan was remarkably liberal. His famous interview by Doon Campbell of Reuters in May 1947 made Jinnah’s position clear:

“The minorities must be protected and safeguarded. The minorities in Pakistan will be the citizens of Pakistan and enjoy all the rights, privileges and obligations of citizenship without any distinction of caste creed or sect”.

This view was anathema to the ulama, Islamic religious leaders and scholars, who imagined a theocratic state of Pakistan, run in accordance with Shariah law. For them, the idea of unitary citizenship for all Pakistanis, with no reference to religion, amounted to diluting the rationale for the Partition.

From the very day that Pakistan began life as a nation state, a debate began to rage about its constitutional structure. Jinnah – like Nehru and his cohorts on the other side of the border – saw the merits of a Westminster-style democracy and was unwavering in his efforts to construct enabling structures and processes. The ulama found a huge problem with democracy. Here is what Justice Munir’s report says on page 218:

“When it is said that a country is sovereign, the implication is that its people or any other group of persons in it, are entitled to conduct the affairs of the country in any way they like, and untrammelled by any considerations except those of expediency and policy. An Islamic State, however, cannot in this sense be sovereign because it will not be competent to abrogate, repeal or do away with any law in the Qur’an or the Sunna”.

Also Read: In Pakistan, the State Keeps Capitulating to Zealots

Attendant upon this was the precarious status of all minorities: Hindus and Christians were repeatedly mentioned specifically; in this Islamic State.

  • The Objectives Resolution – in many ways a parallel to the Preamble to the Indian Constitution – set the country on the road to endless confusion with its very first statement. “Whereas sovereignty over the entire universe belongs to Allah Almighty alone and the authority which He has delegated to the State of Pakistan, through its people for being exercised within the limits prescribed by Him is a sacred trust”.
  • Just a few lines later, and condemned to eternal precariousness, is this: “Wherein shall be guaranteed fundamental rights including equality of status, of opportunity and before law, social, economic and political justice, and freedom of thought, expression, belief, faith, worship and association, subject to law and public morality”.

Many people who identified themselves as Muslims, from almost all parts of undivided India, decided to move, after Partition, to Pakistan. Upon arrival, they began to discover that their acceptance and integration into their new host country was not as effortless as they might have imagined. A leading trigger for the friction – the many sects within Islam with mutually irreconcilable differences on various beliefs.

In general, the dominant Sunni Deobandi community saw all Shi’a as apostates. Within the broad Shi’a rubric, Ahmadiyyas were subjected to particularly vehement hostility. We note, as an aside, that hostility to and oppression of Ahmadiyyas continues to be a feature of Pakistan even today. In August 2018, Dr Atif Mian, a leading economist of Princeton University, was appointed Economic Advisor by PM Imran Khan, only to resign just weeks later, under pressure from Islamist hardliners.

Civil society members hold a peace vigil for the Ahmadi community outside an Ahmadi prayer hall attacked in Lahore in 2010. Credit: M. Arif, White Star

Civil society members hold a peace vigil for the Ahmadi community outside an Ahmadi prayer hall attacked in Lahore in 2010. Credit: M. Arif, White Star

The ‘infidel’ Ahmadiyya

Ahmadiyyas are adherents of a sect founded by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, an Islamic mystic born in 1835 in Qadian, a small town in the Gurdaspur district of Punjab. He claimed to be the Mahdi or Messiah promised in various Semitic religions and even an avatar of Krishna. The singular feature of his theology was an absolute repudiation of violence in the name of the Islamic faith. Here are some quotations verifiably attributed to the Mirza which make this point forcefully:

1. “Main ekhukm le kar aap logon ke paas aaya hun. Woh ye hai ki ab se talwar ki jihad ka khatima hai” (I bring you a divine instruction that from now, swords may no longer be used in the conduct of Jihad).
2. “Ab jihad deen keliye haram hai.” (Jihad is forbidden in the name of religion).
3. “Masih ke aane ka ye nishan hai ke woh din ki ladaiyan khatm kardega” (The sign of the advent of the Messiah is that he will stop all wars for religion).
4. “Mere firque mein, jis ka Khuda ne mujhe imam aur rahbar muqarrar farmaya hai, talwar ka jihad bilkul nahin. Ye firqa is baat ko qatan haram jaanta hai ke din ke liye ladaiyan ki jaein” (In my community, of which God has appointed me leader and guide, it is unequivocally prohibited to fight wars in the name of religion).

You can see how a religious community so committed to peace and repudiating all violence in the name of religion could become a source of acute discomfort for many groups which derived their raison d’être from war and violence without end.

Also Read: ‘The Pakistani State Should Not Define People’s Religion for Them’

The ulama were adamant that the Ahmadiyya were ‘kufr’, infidels, and could play no role in the government. This presented Justice Munir with a question which he framed with exquisite precision.

“Whether a person is or is not a Muslim (is of) fundamental importance and we asked leading ulama their definition of a Muslim, the point being that if the ulama… believed the Ahmadiyyas to be kafir, they must… be clear…about the definition of a Muslim, because the claim that a certain person or community is not within the pale of Islam implies on the part of the claimant, an exact conception of what a Muslim is”.

He went about this in typically methodical fashion by assembling top scholars from various mosques, seminaries and other institutions which pursued Islamic scholarship. He asked these luminaries to write their own definitions of what it meant to be a Muslim and to place it on the inquiry’s records as sworn affidavits.

File Photo: Supporters of the Tehrik-e-Labaik Pakistan religious political party. Credits: Reuters

File Photo: Supporters of the Tehrik-e-Labaik Pakistan religious political party.
Credits: Reuters

The conclusion was stark and unsurprising. J. Munir’s words can’t be improved upon:

“Keeping in view the several definitions given by the ulama, need we make any comment except that no two learned divines are agreed on this fundamental. If we attempt our own definition, as each learned divine has done, and that definition differs from that given by all others, we unanimously go out of the fold of Islam. And if we adopt the definition given by any one of the ulama, we remain Muslims according to the view of that alim but kafirs according to the definition of everyone else”

To the untrained, often prejudiced, eye, Islam is a monolith with a singular theological doctrine and system of worship. Justice Munir, now seen by subsequent generations of the ulama as a blasphemer and apostate, (no surprises there), demonstrated the futility of defining Muslim in a country, which at its birth, declared itself to be committed to Islam.

India’s takeaway

We are now confronted with the possibility of having to develop a robust, legally binding, definition of the three religions which the BJP’s tweet in question identifies as “Buddha, Hindus and Sikhs”. Set aside Hindus, for a moment. Are we unaware of the rifts and fractures in Buddhism and Sikhism?

Also Read: Seventy Years After Partition, India Is Beginning to Look a Lot Like Pakistan

Never mind ethos, emotion or any of those other ‘soft’ issues. Think only about the question of definition and taxonomy.

Fahmida Riyaz, the great Pakistani shayaraa, who for many years received asylum in India, and was eventually disillusioned by what she saw as India’s drift towards Pakistan-style majoritarianism, said, “Kaun hai Hindu, kaun naheen hai, Tum bhi karogay fatwe jaari” (Who is Hindu, who is not, You will also issue fatwas).

It does seem like her satirical dystopia is closing in on us.

Paritosh Joshi is the Principal at Provocateur Advisory, an independent media consulting practice.

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