The doublespeak among Pakistan’s middle class is pushing the country backwards. But there is still hope

The founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah never claimed that all Muslims were a nation. He said that only for Muslims in undivided India who he felt constituted a nation within the subcontinent and were therefore entitled to an equal say in the Constitution-making regardless of their numbers. He made it clear when he said that Muslims had demanded self-determination on the basis of India for Indians and that Muslims were Indians. In other words, their claim to the right of self-determination was based on the principle that Muslims were the sons and daughters of India and not outside its milieu.

When Jinnah termed Indian Muslims as a nation, it was consociationalism that served as a counter to the Congress party’s claim to speak for all Indians. Jinnah pointed toward — and he was not the first — the superficiality of the Hindu-Muslim interaction. Regrettably for Jinnah, Hindus and Muslims had failed to forge a common Indian identity on a mass level and instead had formed communal identities that had been rendered non-negotiable by the Khilafat and Non-cooperation Movements. The former ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity argued therefore that Hindu-Muslim interaction had been limited to the educated upper classes, and while Hindus and Muslims lived together, they did so in silos.

The decline of Jinnah’s postulates

When Jinnah proposed Pakistan, whether independent or within an Indian union, he maintained that it would have almost equal numbers of non-Muslims in it. In any event, Jinnah’s conception of citizenship, whether in India or in Pakistan was completely secular; he stood for equal citizenship for all people regardless of their religious or cultural identities. Pakistan as a state, in his view, could only be based on a social contract between the state and the people regardless of what religion they followed. In due course he expected, perhaps naively, that Hindus and Muslims would forge new secular identities on both sides of the border. Even in India that has not come to pass and is not likely to happen unless and until India faithfully follows its constitutional directive and implements a uniform civil code for all people of India — a move that ironically is resisted by front-rank secularists in India. In many ways, by keeping the magnificent, secular Constitution of India hostage to the Muslim minority’s special status, as was evident in the aftermath of the Shah Bano case, India has squandered the one major benefit of Partition.

Was Jinnah right or wrong is beyond the scope of the discussion here; it is an issue that lends itself to subjective interpretation. What we do know is that Pakistan abandoned Jinnah’s postulates soon after his demise. The “Indian” in the identity of the “Indian Muslim” was downplayed by the state which was seeking to identify itself as non-India. Pakistan, despite its constitutional guarantee of equality of citizenship, has in practice failed to give non-Muslim Pakistanis the equal rights that were promised to them. Consequently, Jinnah’s Law Minister, a Scheduled Caste Hindu, left Pakistan in the early 1950s, alleging a breach of faith. Since the departure of Bangladesh in 1971, Pakistan replaced the ethnic and cultural interpretation of the Muslim identity for a theological one and has burdened itself with the constitutional responsibility to “Islamise” its state and society. General Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorship gave this constitutional imperative its teeth and restructured society around a selective and medieval interpretation of religious doctrine. The remaking of society under Gen. Zia coupled with a highly effective re-education of Pakistanis has created a generation of bigots. Simultaneously, the class structure in Pakistan has changed considerably owing to the former lower peasantry’s elevation into the ranks of an ever-increasing middle class. A drive on the famed Grand Trunk Road from Lahore to Islamabad shows how a rural middle class has emerged and has in fact urbanised.

Middle classes everywhere tend to be more conservative and cautious. In Pakistan, the middle class is also one that has been radicalised by three decades of re-education by the state. The warped world view that has emerged has also given the middle class in Pakistan a sense of being a part of the global Muslim minority instead of being a localised majority. It is in this context that Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf has managed to mobilise the middle class around an agenda of self-righteousness, morality and anti-Americanism. The cricketer-turned politician — who is currently the most charismatic figure on the Pakistani political scene — has single-handedly managed to distort the narrative on the issue of Taliban and terrorism. The Taliban has been presented as the by-product of the imperialist American war on Pakistan and Islam with genuine grievances. At best, the Taliban is seen by the radicalised middle class as “our misguided brothers” but brothers nevertheless. It therefore is to be accorded every opportunity to come into the mainstream. The whole dialogue process, which enjoys considerable support from the middle classes, especially in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, has been put on the state’s agenda through the pressure exerted by Mr. Khan’s party and its more conservative allies like the Jamaat-e-Islami. The Jamaat-e-Islami, that had been one of the most notable opponents of Jinnah and the Muslim League in the pre-Partition era, has sought to infiltrate bourgeoisie institutions of the state — namely the civil-military bureaucracy and intelligence services — and was at the forefront of the ideological supporters of Gen. Zia’s Islamisation project. In doing so, it became the self-appointed guardian of Pakistan’s Islamic ideology. Today, it is the most vocal supporter of the Taliban with one ex-chairman of the party describing Taliban militants as warriors of Islam and the Taliban dead as martyrs.

All this means cognitive dissonance and a profound talent for doublethink among Pakistan’s middle class. On one hand, there is the same old flag-waving nationalism at cricket matches but on the other, opponents of the state like the Taliban are championed and celebrated. Socially, an increasing number of Pakistanis are becoming religious and more middle-class women are donning the hijab which, till a decade ago, was a novelty at best. More disturbing, however, is the willingness of this middle class to voluntarily give up on the civil liberties and constitutional safeguards promised to it by the Constitution. A recent survey revealed, for example, that more Pakistani citizens are open to the idea of censorship on the Internet than citizens of any other country. Consequently the YouTube ban, which is unconstitutional and illegal, enjoys widespread support despite the fact that the same people routinely access the website through proxy servers and Virtual Private Networks.

All is not bleak though. A nation state in the 21st century of over 180 million people, with the 26th largest economy in terms of purchasing power parity, cannot sustain the current state of affairs. Conservative and utterly confused the Pakistani middle class may be, but it is also increasingly globalised. Economic interests more than anything else dictate that Pakistanis increasingly are being confronted with ideas that challenge their hard-boiled notions about religion and the world at large. More middle class women are entering the workplace, hijabs or no hijabs, than ever before. A robust media, while also problematic at times, has helped unleash a multitude of voices that are keeping a check on the state forcing it to react differently, at times nervously, to the question of dissent. Obviously this comes with the risks in a transitional society as was so painfully obvious in the recent attack on the journalist Raza Rumi. But it will prove to be a Herculean task for the extremists to silence everyone in Pakistan. As a result, the debate in Pakistan continues on almost every contentious issue with refuseniks and dissenters holding their own.

Strengthening civil institutions

The solution to all of Pakistan’s ills lies ultimately in following faithfully the constitutional democratic process. One fervently hopes that with enough cycles of democracy, many of the things will fall in place. The persistent fear that Pakistanis have had in the last decade or so is whether or not their country will exist tomorrow. This is an irrational fear which can only be answered with a strengthening of civil institutions like Parliament and the judiciary. The independent judiciary — another favourite of the middle classes — has wrought a lot of harm on the jurisprudence in Pakistan since the successful conclusion of the lawyers’ movement five years ago. But seen in its proper context, it is merely a growing pain. With time, the judiciary will play its role as the guardian of fundamental rights of the citizens of Pakistan.

Ultimately, when enough voices will clamour to be heard, Pakistan will also revisit some of its national questions to positively reframe its identity, ideology and politics in pragmatic terms. It is too big a country to lend itself to one solitary idea or rationale. A stable prosperous and democratic Pakistan is sine qua non for the peace and security of all of South and Central Asia — a fact that is not lost on our neighbours. In the long run — on a sufficiently stretched-out timeline therefore — Pakistan will likely realise Jinnah’s aspirations of a modern progressive and inclusive democratic state.

(Yasser Latif Hamdani is a lawyer and the author of Jinnah: Myth and Reality.)

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