Over the decades, so much has been written and discussed about exactly what sort of a country the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, envisioned. One of the reasons why this debate is still raging is because its founder passed away just a year after the country’s inception in 1947.

In the decades that followed Jinnah’s demise, numerous theories and claims have been aired by historians, intellectuals, politicians and dictators about what Jinnah wanted Pakistan to evolve into.

One side has insisted that he wanted a progressive, Muslim-majority state where the state would devise and then infuse into the society a modern, democratic spirit of Muslim nationalism, but where matters of faith and the state would be kept separate.

The other side suggests that though the founder was largely Westernised in habit, he eventually grew into a leader who strived for a separate Muslim country that could then be evolved through legislation into becoming an Islamic state.

Both sides liberally dig out and air assorted quotes attributed to Jinnah in this regard. And the truth is, apart from certain sayings of the founder that have been clearly concocted, many quotes do strengthen the arguments of both sides! This is the other reason why this debate has continued to mushroom without reaching any consensual conclusion.

The first cabinet

Nevertheless, the response to the question of what kind of a Pakistan Jinnah was envisioning may more convincingly be found well outside complex intellectual debates on the issue and certainly, away from the awkward agitprop battles, which, too, continue to rage between the two point of views.

For example, an answer can be extracted by simply studying the make-up and mindset of the country’s first ever federal cabinet. In her book, The Federal Cabinet of Pakistan, professor of history Naumana Kiran Imran provides the names of the men who constituted Pakistan’s first federal cabinet.

More interestingly, she uses the archived minutes of meetings of this cabinet to explain what these men were discussing during the very first days of the country.

She says that Section 17 of Pakistan’s interim Constitution, which was framed and adopted by the country’s first Constituent Assembly, gave the powers of appointing the cabinet to Pakistan’s governor-general, Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

Thus, the country’s first cabinet (headed by Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan) was entirely picked and constituted by Jinnah.

Formed on Aug 15, 1947, the cabinet initially had eight ministers. Names of two of these ministers stand out in the much-polarised Pakistan of today: Zafarullah Khan (minister of foreign affairs and commonwealth relations), and Jogendra Nath Mandal (minister of law).

Khan was a member of the Ahmadiyya community, which, 27 years later in 1974, and on the demands of the religious parties, was outlawed as a Muslim sect by the populist regime of ZA Bhutto.

A highly respected diplomat, Khan has been an often-discussed man by Pakistani historians, not only because he was from the Ahmadiyya community, but also because he was one of Jinnah’s closest colleagues.

In the early 1940s, when Jinnah was trying to form a broad-based collation to bolster the fortunes of the All India Muslim League, he was asked by some of his potential non-All India Muslim League allies to declare the Ahmadis as non-Muslim.

In May 1944, during a press conference in Kashmir, Jinnah said to the gathered pressmen, “who am I to call a person non-Muslim who calls himself a Muslim …”

It is now a well-documented fact that Jinnah insisted on Khan becoming the country’s first foreign minister.

The forgotten minister

The case of the other stand-out minister in the first cabinet has, however, largely been forgotten. Mandal was a Hindu from Bengal. He belonged to the scheduled caste of Hindus in India and had joined Jinnah’s Muslim League believing that in Pakistan, his caste would be able to flourish more than they would in an India dominated by higher caste Hindus.

Mandal became a member of the Muslim League in 1943 and mustered support for the party among East Bengal’s scheduled castes in the important 1945 general elections, and then the 1946 provincial elections in India.

On Aug 11, 1947, when Pakistan’s first Constituent Assembly chose Jinnah as governor-general of the new country, Jinnah asked Mandal to preside over the assembly’s inaugural session.

Renowned scholar Ayesha Jalal and historian Dr Mubarak Ali have both maintained that Jinnah did this to physically manifest a portion of the speech which he (Jinnah) delivered in that session, and in which he declared: “ … you will find that in course of time [in Pakistan] 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.”

Mandal was gradually isolated after Jinnah’s demise in 1948, and in 1950, he wrote a long letter of resignation to Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan. In it, he bemoaned that Jinnah’s vision was being undermined by the politicians and bureaucrats, and that the scheduled caste Hindus who had followed Mandal’s lead to become Pakistanis were not being treated any better than they were in India. Mandal migrated to India in 1950 and died there in 1968.

A quest for answers

So, what was the country’s first federal cabinet discussing? Professor Imran, in her book, sifts through the minutes of the cabinet meetings to inform that much was discussed about the importance of giving the governor-general (Jinnah) extraordinary powers; but also set “the ideal of developing Pakistan as a democracy based on the British model”.

Economics, too, was an important subject in the meetings and ideas were discussed to provide Pakistan a sustainable economy through the creation of industry, banks and economic boards. It was, however, well understood by the cabinet that Pakistan was an agrarian economy.

In an October 1947 meeting, cabinet members decided that Pakistan was “not bound for explanations to any other country” regarding its response to Indian accusations (on Kashmir). In fact, the Kashmir issue was frequently discussed by the cabinet.

Imran’s interpretation of these cabinet meetings suggests that the cabinet saw Jinnah as a benevolent figurehead who needed to be sufficiently empowered as the final decision maker.

However, cabinet members also saw Jinnah as a man who had conceived a country built on Muslim nationalism, but one that was to be driven by a pluralistic code of governance and statehood with all of its ethnic and religious groups made part of the nation-building process.

Ironically, Imran also mentions that even the very first cabinet had divisions. There was tension between the so-called Punjabi group and the Bengali group.

The study of the minutes of the meetings of the first cabinet, and the ethnic and religious nature of its members, can be an effective tool to understand exactly what was on the minds of the founders of Pakistan right after the country’s creation.

It can provide an interesting glimpse into the initial contradictions, as well as the nobility of purpose, behind the men who were the first to try making sense of a unique nationalistic emergence in South Asia called Pakistan.

This article first appeared on Dawn.