Forty years ago, General Ziaul Haq seized power and put the country under its third and longest martial law. Over the next decade, he decisively transformed what was left of Jinnah’s dream of a secular democratic Pakistan into an almost completely theocratic polity. His handiwork has survived more than three decades and appears unlikely to be replaced with another political structure in the foreseeable future.

In order to understand Ziaul Haq’s success in redefining Pakistan and the survival of his scheme we have to examine the genesis of “the Pakistan idea” because he drew upon the tussle between two groups of people over what Pakistan was meant to be.

The Lahore Resolution of 1940 offered a constitutional scheme as an alternative to the one embodied in the Government of India Act of 1935. In his address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on August 11, 1947, the Quaid-i-Azam also described the creation of Pakistan and Partition as the only solution of India’s constitutional problem. This would imply that the movement for Pakistan was a purely political struggle unrelated to any religious objective.

Role of religion

However, the new constitutional scheme advanced for two parts of the British Indian territory was based on the fact that these were Muslim-majority areas and, after the failure of the Muslim leaders to secure adequate safeguards to which they were entitled as a large minority, the All-India Muslim League had won considerable support for the Two Nation Theory. This theory defined the Muslims of India as a nation completely different from the majority (Hindu) community and one entitled to a state of its own.

The grounding of the Pakistan demand in the religious identity of the people for whom a state was being demanded gave rise to the idea that Pakistan could be an Islamic state. Jinnah did not advocate a religious polity but he did not completely disown the religious motivation either. He ignored Gandhi’s offer of persuading Congress to concede Pakistan if it was not demanded on the basis of religion. Jinnah often maintained that he was asking for a democratic state and that was what Islam stood for. The only people who believed Pakistan was not going to be an Islamic state were the ulema, with rare exceptions.

The elections of 1945-1946 revealed a significant division in the ranks of Pakistan’s supporters. While the League leadership continued demanding Pakistan without disclosing in detail what Pakistan was going to be (like, religious slogans were raised especially in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa). Although the slogan Pakistan ka matlab kia, La Ilaha il-Allah was not the battle cry, it was frequently raised at some places. Other religious slogans, such as Muslim hai tau Muslim League mein aa [If you are a Muslim join the Muslim League] and Pakistan mein Musalmaanon ki hukumat hogi [Pakistan will be ruled by Muslims] were freely used.

That religion did play a role in the movement for Pakistan was confirmed by the request made by Congress campaign organisers in Punjab to their high command to send some Muslim scholars to help them. Thus the Pakistan supporters were divided into two camps; one may be loosely defined as the group that swore by democracy while the other was vaguely attached to the concept of a religious state. The roots of Zia’s Pakistan lay in this division.

Emergence of an Islamic state

With the creation of Pakistan, there was a reshuffling of posture by both groups. The Quaid-i-Azam realised he no longer needed the religious card. Three days before Pakistan’s emergence as a new state he said goodbye to the Two Nation Theory and called for the formation of a new nation on the basis of people’s citizenship of Pakistan. The religious parties that had opposed the Pakistan demand did a complete volte-face and called for making Pakistan an Islamic state.

Two factors guided them: they had opposed Pakistan because they had no hope of its becoming an Islamic state; in the Pakistan the League had demanded, the Muslims were going to be in a nominal majority and declaring it as an Islamic state would have been almost impossible. The partition of Punjab and Bengal changed the situation. In the new Pakistan’s population of 65 million, non-Muslims were only around 20 million, and most of them were in the eastern wing. The ongoing riots could further reduce the non-Muslim population. Besides, the religious parties had seen in the elections the strength of the religious slogans. These two factors had brightened the prospect of declaring Pakistan an Islamic state.

Maulana Maududi was among the first ulema who decided to benefit from this situation. He migrated to Pakistan, deleted the anti-Pakistan thesis from his major publication Musalman aur Siyasi Kashmakash [Muslims and Political Struggle], accepted the Punjab government’s invitation to lecture the bureaucrats on Islamic values and broadcast similar messages on the radio. However, he soon lost the government’s goodwill when he declared that Pakistan’s involvement in Kashmir was not jihad as the state was not Islamic.

Within a few months of Pakistan’s creation, in February 1948, the ulema of various shades of opinion presented the government with a charter of demands containing steps required to establish a religious state. They were put off with promises of favourable consideration of their demands. But the government was rattled by East Bengal’s demands for acceptance of its cultural rights and tried to face these demands by raising the standard of Islamic solidarity. Eventually, it took refuge under the Objectives Resolution of March 1949, which displayed a variety of wares to suit different sections of the population.

The most important feature of the resolution was a declaration that sovereignty belonged to Allah. The ulema were jubilant. The slogan-walas had defeated the Jinnah lobby. The Jamaat-i-Islami now declared Pakistan an Islamic state. The most telling observation on the Objectives Resolution came from a Congress member of the assembly who warned the house that the resolution had cleared the way for the emergence of an adventurer who could claim to be God’s appointee. And General Zia behaved exactly like that.

Front page of Dawn newspaper July 6, 1977

Thus we find that between 1947 and 1953 the “religious slogan group” acquired a toehold in the political arena, thanks to the failure of the “democratic ideals group” to honour Jinnah’s advice to keep religion out of politics and also its failure to promote democratic norms. Further, it made the grave mistake of resisting democratic demands by seeking refuge under a religious canopy. The “religious slogan group” took an exaggerated view of its strength and challenged the government by launching the anti-Ahmadi agitation in 1953. It lost because the state services, especially the army, had not abandoned the colonial policy of denying religious/sectarian elements any accommodation at the cost of law and order. But this was the only victory the ‘democratic ideals group’ was able to achieve against the “religious slogan group”.

Increasing influence

Between 1953 and 1958 the “democratic ideals group” had to contend with a new challenger – a civil and military bureaucratic combine that had scant respect for the democratic facade that had hitherto been sustained to a certain degree. Neither party paid much attention to the “religious slogan group” that was left to lick the wounds it sustained in 1953. However, while preparing the country’s first constitution, the civil bureaucracy gave considerable concession to the religious parties by calling the state the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, reserving the presidentship for Muslims and creating an Islamic board to advise the government on its religious duties, including the task of ‘Islamisation’ of laws. These provisions were later to be used as the foundations of a theocratic state.

The Ayub regime tried to crush both the “democratic ideals” and “religious slogan” groups. The former were Ebdo-ed out of the political arena (Ebdo was the Elective Bodies Disqualification Order which threatened prosecution of politicians for purported misconduct unless they promised not to participate in politics for seven years). The latter were controlled by putting mosques under the Auqaf department. Further, Jamaat-i-Islami was subjected to a propaganda campaign in addition to the detention of its leader. When the regime brought in its constitution in 1962, it dropped the word “Islamic” from the state’s title. (It also dropped the chapter on fundamental rights.)

However, the Ayub regime was responsible for strengthening the religious parties’ place in national politics. After most of the politicians had been sent into the wilderness, mosques were the only platforms left for any agitation. When the opposition parties got together to set up their candidates to contest the 1965 presidential election, the alliance had as many religious parties as the quasi-democratic ones and they gained in terms of popular support while campaigning in favour of Fatima Jinnah.

The anti-Ayub agitation was a secular, democratic movement and therefore Yahya Khan concentrated on removing the people’s political grievances by accepting the “one-man, one-vote” principle, and undoing the one-unit. He did not think of pandering to the religious lobby till his attempt to issue a new constitution on the night of surrender at Dhaka but these parties’ support to this draft constitution was of help neither to Yahya nor to themselves.

The religious parties benefitted a great deal from Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s attempts to win them over to his side. The constitution of 1973 declared Islam as the state religion and invested the Council of Islamic Ideology with wide powers. In February 1974, Bhutto joined King Faisal’s efforts to counter the forces of Arab nationalism with Islamic nationalism and organised the Islamic Summit. About six months later, his government had the Ahmadis declared non-Muslims. All this did not help him.

And after the mishandling of the 1977 election by his advisers, the religious parties spearheaded a movement for his ouster under the slogan of Nizam-i-Mustafa, which called for Islamic laws to be implemented in the country. Further concessions to the clergy – such as imposing of a ban on the sale and consumption of liquor and declaring Friday as the weekly holiday – did not help Bhutto because Zia had already decided to overthrow him. Now it can be said that the Bhutto government of 1971-1977 provided Zia with a broad enough platform to launch his plan to redefine Pakistan. And he went about this task with the zeal and confidence of a neo-convert.

Transition is complete

Between 1978 and 1985, Zia took a number of steps to complete Pakistan’s transformation into a theocracy of the medieval variety. A Federal Shariat Court was created for enforcing religious laws, striking down laws it found repugnant to Islam, and with some power to make laws. The state assumed the power to collect zakat and ushr. Ahmadis were barred from calling their prayer houses mosques, from possessing and reading the Quran or using the Muslim ways of greeting one another, using Islamic epithets or naming their daughters after women belonging to the Holy Prophet’s (PBUH) family.

The Penal Code was amended to provide for punishment for desecration of the Holy Quran and for punishing blasphemy with death or life imprisonment (later on the the Shariat Court made death for blasphemy mandatory). The parliament was designated as the Majlis-e-Shura, and an arbitrarily amended Objectives Resolution – used hitherto as a preamble to the constitution – was made its substantive part. Furthermore, an attempt was made to subvert the system of democratic elections by holding party-less polls.

In addition, Zia amended the constitutional provisions relating to qualifications for membership of assemblies and disqualification of members to make them suggestive of respect for religious criteria. He also subverted the education system, firstly by facilitating the growth of religious seminaries (while extension and improvement of general education were neglected and books on rights and democracy were burnt) and increased religion-related lessons in textbooks at all grade levels. Further he tried to consolidate his measures through a constitutional amendment (the ninth amendment) but it was not adopted. He was also unable in his attempts to create morality brigades to enforce the system of prayers and puritanical regulations.

Many factors helped Zia to impose his belief on the people including measures that lacked Islamic sanction. He fully exploited the political advantages the religious parties had won from poorly performing quasi-democratic governments. And the conflict in Afghanistan yielded him enormous dividends. He was able to convince a large body of people that through his Afghan policy he had brought glory to Islam.

Zia’s stamp

That Pakistan today is what Gen Zia made it into cannot be denied and the reasons are not far to seek.

First, it has not been possible to undo the changes made by Zia in the constitution and the laws. Every bit of change made by him is treated by the religious lobby as divinely ordained. Some of the parties that are not included among religious outfits are unabashedly loyal to Zia’s legacy – those that are not are afraid of taking on the religious mobs. The secular elements lost the streets to the hordes controlled by the clergy, especially by the madressah authorities, long ago. The judiciary, never keen to rule against religious extremists, has often declined to touch Zia’s amendments on the grounds of their having been endorsed by elected governments through acquiescence.

The difficulty in interfering with Zia’s disruption of the Pakistan structure can be judged from the fact that his name could not be removed from Article 270-A of the constitution until April 2010 – that is, 22 years and five elections after his death.

Secondly, the religious landscape is dominated by arch-conservative elements who do not allow any intra-religious discourse and those who can challenge them dare not stay in the country. Further, the ouster of left-of-centre parties from the councils of influence and power has made the so-called mainstream parties hostages to the orthodoxy.

In this situation, there is little hope of relief from exploitation of belief in the interest of an unjust and oppressive status quo. The curse of the Zia legacy will continue to bedevil the state and the people for quite some time till ordinary citizens realise it has nothing to offer them except for unmitigated misery.

This article first appeared on Dawn.