The year was 1953. There were riots all over the city of Lahore. Traders, shopkeepers, students and people from diverse backgrounds came out to demand the removal of members of the Ahmadiyya community from prominent government positions. There were similar riots in other cities of Pakistan, including Sialkot, Gujranwala, Rawalpindi, Lyallpur (Faisalabad) and Montgomery (Sahiwal). Many Ahmadis lost their lives in these riots. The official sources put the figure at 200, while others claim the numbers were as high as 2,000.
Spearheading the protests was a religio-nationalist organisation called the Majlis-e-Ahrar. Founded in 1929, the organisation was politically aligned with the Congress in British India, and had together participated in the failed Khilafat Movement launched to urge the British government to preserve the authority of the Turkish Sultan as Caliph of Islam with the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Vehemently opposed to Muhammad Ali Jinnah and the Muslim League, prominent leaders of the organisation in their pre-Partition literature had referred to his idea of Pakistan as Palidistan (the land of the impure), Kafiristan (the land of the infidels) and Khakistan (a land meant for annihilation). In a couplet composed by Maulana Mazhar Ali Azhar, a leader of the Majlis-e-Ahrar, Jinnah was referred to as Kafir-e-Azam (the greatest infidel). Bitterly opposed to Partition, the organisation overhauled its political views after the creation of Pakistan and began supporting the Muslim League in 1949, abandoning all political aspirations and choosing to function solely as a religious group.
Joining them in protesting and rioting was the Jama’at-e-Islami, led by Maulana Abul Al Maudoodi, an Islamic scholar, who too was opposed to the idea of Pakistan. On one hand, his opposition to the Pakistani nation-state was ideological. He believed in the concept of Muslim Ummah (community) that could not be bound by distinct nationalities. Further he also believed that with the secular leanings of Jinnah and other members of the Muslim League, Pakistan would not have Islamic laws. As Pakistan underwent a process of Islamisation during the end of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s rule and the period of Zia-ul-Haq, Maudoodi and the Jama’at-e-Islami were to play an important role in the process.
The fall of Chaudary Zafarullah Khan
While people involved in the anti-Ahmadi riots of 1953 demanded the removal of all members of the community from important government positions, the focus of this wrath was one prominent member, Chaudary Zafarullah Khan. In contrast to the stalwarts of the Majlis-e-Ahrar and Jama’at-e-Islami, Khan had been a long time proponent of the idea of Pakistan. In fact several historians have pointed that it was actually Khan who was responsible for the drafting of the 1940 Lahore Resolution, which, in Pakistan, is imagined to be the foundational stone for the formation of the country. He later represented the Muslim League during the Round Table Conferences and the Radcliffe Boundary Commission. After the creation of Pakistan, he became its first foreign minister and represented the country’s perspective on the Kashmir conflict in the United Nations. The rioters demanded the removal of Khan from his post because of his religious background. They argued that because he was an Ahmadi, he was anti-Pakistan.
Khan was not the only prominent member of the community to be targeted during those riots. A couple of years earlier, the government had foiled what later came to be known as the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case, an alleged attempt by disgruntled members of the Army, along with members of the Communist Party, to overthrow the government of Liaquat Ali Khan. Major-General Nazir Ahmad, an Ahmadi, was part of the conspiracy. As the plan was foiled and its members arrested, Ahmad began to be referred to as anti-State and anti-Pakistan in popular media. The fact that an Ahmadi general was part of the conspiracy was used by religio-political organisations in the country to highlight the “anti-Pakistan agenda” of the Ahmadis.
With the riots spreading, the situation in Lahore was spinning out of control. Governor-General Ghulam Muhammad found it expedient to call in the Army to calm the situation. Martial law was declared in the city – the first time it had been imposed in the country. Under the guise of martial law, using his temporary special powers, the governor-general dissolved the Federal Cabinet, relieving Khan from his post. Thus while the government put up a front against the rioters, appearing to resist their demands, in reality it acceded to one of their most important demands. Deprived of his government position, Khan joined the International Court of Justice as a judge. The riots of 1953 had set a new standard in Pakistan – of patriotism, street power, and appeasement.
Attacks on Ahmadis
In the years to come, these patterns were further institutionalised. In 1974, following another series of riots, the first democratically elected Parliament of the country, headed by Bhutto, declared Ahmadis to be non-Muslims. During the peak of Zia’s Islamisation, stricter laws were introduced forbidding Ahmadis from what was termed “pretending” to be Muslims. According to these new laws, even saying the salaam greeting could be construed as “pretending”. Sporadic acts of violence against members of the community became the norm.
In 2010, two places of worship of the Ahmadiyya community were attacked by the Taliban in Lahore, resulting in the death of over 80 people. A few days later, the hospital where members of the community were recovering was attacked. While condemning the attack, Pakistan Muslim League (N) leader Nawaz Sharif, who was then in the Opposition, referred to the Ahmadis as brothers of Muslims. There was a severe backlash against the statement. He had to eventually retract his words.
In 2015, posters pasted in a prominent Lahore market said that Ahmadis were forbidden from entering the area. When the government removed the posters and arrested the trader responsible for the act, there was a massive protest. The government capitulated. The trader was released to a hero’s welcome and the posters were put back up. In July, the Islamabad High Court ordered that government employees holding key posts must declare their religious affiliation. The ruling is directed at identifying members of the Ahmadiyya community. The basic assumption behind the order and those that motivated the protestors in 1953 remains the same.
In this context it was incredibly naïve of the new Imran Khan-led Tehreek-e-Insaf government to assume that there would not be any backlash against their appointment of Mian Atif, an economist at Princeton University, who is a member of the Ahmadiyya community, on their newly-formed Economic Advisory Council. No government in the history of Pakistan has been able to resist these anti-Ahmadi sentiments. Some things remain the same even in Khan’s Naya Pakistan.
Haroon Khalid is the author of four books. His latest book Imagining Lahore: The city that is, the city that was, was published by Penguin Random House.