There is no scope for a counter response from Ahmadis – by Farah Zia & Amel Ghani



On September 7, 1974, exactly 40 years ago, the Second Amendment to the Constitution that declared Ahmadis as non-Muslims was passed. It was a kind of culmination of their social ostracisation that began after the intense and violent anti-Ahmadiyya movement of the early 1950s. Thereafter, they became non-Muslims legally speaking. But then the ulema began their next set of demands which led to the promulgation of Ordinance XX in 1984 during Ziaul Haq’s rule. This effectively curtailed their social and political exclusion in every manner possible.

An academic work drawing sustenance from research and open discussion has the potential to influence public discourse which seems to have reached a dead end in this case. This is how one should read Ali Usman Qasmi’s recent book Ahmadis and the Politics of Religious Exclusion in Pakistan. Pathbreaking and insightful, the book relies on the recently declassified parliamentary debates from 1974 as well as the proceedings of the Munir Inquiry Committee.

A PhD in South Asian History, Ali Usman Qasmi who teaches at LUMS shared his thoughts on the book which is going to be available in Pakistan in December this year. Excerpts of interview follow.

The News on Sunday (TNS): How did you become interested in a work of this kind and what did you hope to achieve with this?

Ali Usman Qasmi (AUQ): I have been working on themes relating to South Asian Islam, the idea of reform since the 19th century and the kind of changes which have taken place in the discourse of Islam. That’s what my first work on the Ahl al-Qur’an movement was about as well.

I would say that I stumbled upon this particular project as I was working on another project in the Punjab Archives. I found a stack of volumes just lying in a corner. I picked up one particular volume which was about the proceedings of the Munir Inquiry Committee.

Before this, people had just seen the report. No one knew that this kind of record existed. In fact when Justice Munir, the author of the report, wrote a book From Jinnah to Zia he mentioned that the record which was collected for this particular inquiry was lost. But there it was; in fact multiple copies were there. I got those and that’s how I got interested in the topic.

Luckily, around the same time, Barrister Bashir A Khan had filed a petition with the speaker of the National Assembly to get the parliamentary proceedings of 1974 declassified. The detailed and official record of both these very important episodes became available. That’s how I came to work on this issue.

TNS: What is the sense that you got out of the 1974 parliamentary debates?

AUQ: The way the discussions were held was determinant of the outcome itself. My understanding is that the ulema had become very influential in the proceedings: they were the main opposition group. So it was difficult for Bhutto to deny them the kind of role they came to play during the proceedings of 1974. And this was stated by none other than Mufti Mahmud himself after the proceedings had been concluded. He made a public speech saying that we failed to achieve whatever we wanted to achieve back in 1953 because we did not have political power and were not represented in the Assembly. Now that we are in the Assembly, we have been able to achieve that.

The second was a sort of a gap between the theological debate taking place between the Attorney General and the Ahmadi representative and the sense that ordinary members of the Assembly were getting. Once the cross examination ended, individual members of the assembly got up to make speeches which showed they had not understood much of what was debated for 30 days or so. They did not know what the term Khatam e Nabuwat meant or the nuances which the Ahmadi representative was trying to invoke.

This comes out very strongly that there is a communication gap as a theological issue was being translated into a precise legal statement or legal question.

TNS: Were they aware that probably parliament was not the correct forum to debate such an issue?

AUQ: That’s the key point. That was the main argument of the Ahmadis themselves because they said that this parliament is not sovereign in anything it wants to do. It has put certain restrictions, like individual rights and so on, on itself which it cannot undo. It cannot go outside that framework.

But I think the ulema’s point of view since the 1950s or since 1947 has been that since Pakistan has been declared an Islamic state, since the Basic Principles Committee report says that the head of the state should be a Muslim, it is therefore necessary that a Muslim should be defined and a non-Muslim should be excluded from exercising the same rights that are exclusively held for a Muslim.

So this distinction between a believer citizen and a non-believer citizen is pretty much there. Until and unless you do away with this distinction it will inevitably come to the point where the parliament or state will be involved in questions relating to religion.

It’s not trying to support or endorse or say that parliament should have done that or it has the right to do this; one needs to go into the genealogy of things as well. If citizenship rights are to be determined along religious lines, it will then invariably involve state in religious affairs. There will be some authority that will have the power to define and include certain communities and exclude certain others on the basis of religious beliefs.

TNS: It appears that you have focused on two events — the Munir Kiani Report and the proceedings of the Assembly in 1974.

AUQ: We should look at these two events in different perspectives. In a way Pakistan in the 1950s was not the kind of popular democracy as it was in the 1970s. The 1950s Pakistan was still dominated by an elite which had a certain modernisation vision for Pakistan. This is why it is important to contextualise these two events differently. When I say that ulema were dominating the proceedings in the 1970s, you immediately need to realise how the modus operandi of the Munir Kiani Commission in the 1950s was different. In a judicial inquiry report, you don’t have the right to express your viewpoint as you have in a parliamentary setting.

In the judicial setting the judge was to ask questions and the respondents had to respond in a specific manner and the court decorum had to be maintained. So in that particular setting it was possible that this issue could have been dominated or determined in the way the modernising elite wanted it to be settled. In a parliamentary setting that was not possible because each member had a right to express his own opinion.

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TNS: It is important to see what was happening between 1953 and 1974 to bring us to a point where the modernising elite had vanished and ulema had become politically powerful. Also retrospectively, the Munir Kiyani Report does have a more positive value than the Second Amendment?

AUQ: That depends on where you stand. Pakistani society today is so polarised between the mullahs and the modernists: the mullahs think Munir was a real villain and modernists think he was a great hero who exposed the mullah.

I think 1970 and 1971 are two very important dates. My main argument is that if you look at the outcome of the 1970 election, people just focus on the fact that the Awami League swept the polls and Pakistan People’s Party emerged out of nowhere. If you closely look at the data, in a united Pakistan the ulema would have been a very minute kind of minority. In West Pakistan their numbers magnified — they had won around 18 seats. If you add the various Muslim League groups, the ulema plus the right wing parties had almost 30-35 seats. They were the main opposition groups and they were coalition partners in NWFP and Balochistan. Mufti Mahmud was the NWFP chief minister.

Secondly, 1971 is important because of psychological reasons — the trauma of losing to India, surrender and the creation of Bangladesh. Indian Marxist theorist Aijaz Ahmad says Pakistan was created on the basis of making a homeland for the Muslims of South Asia and there were more Muslims living outside Pakistan — in India and Bangladesh. The argument now was to make Pakistan a home for ‘good Muslims’ of South Asia.

Thus there is an increased dose of religiosity which comes post 1971: this feeling that we lost, we are backward because we are not good Muslims and that we have to become better Muslims. In the reconstituted Pakistan, Islam as a marker of identity becomes a very important factor. This is what I think was happening in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Bhutto being a populist did realise the potential of such an issue. Otherwise clearly the movement in 1974 was absolutely not comparable in its intensity with that of 1953. The movement in 1952 and 1953 was more violent and intense.

TNS: Coming back to the Munir Kiani report, at places you seem to be suggesting that they gave a rather simplistic solution to a more complex problem. What is your assessment of the report and proceedings?

AUQ: The report actually has many parts and many aspects. It reproduces a lot of data — the FIRs, the IB reports and excerpts from speeches. The most important aspect of the Munir Kiani Report for which it is remembered today is the aspect where it talks about an Islamic state and the question of definition of a Muslim.

Here I have relied on arguments which have been made by academic Asad Ahmed in his doctoral thesis that the question of definition of a Muslim was more complex. Munir inferred from ulema’s statement something that was not justified or not correct. The best tag line for the Munir Kiani Report today is that he exposed the mullahs: the mullahs were not able to define a Muslim. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, I would say. The issue is much more complex. The ulema were not giving definitions saying their definition alone is to be accepted and whoever falls outside the parameters of this definition has to be considered a non-Muslim. That is not what they were saying.

The ulema failed to understand or comprehend as to what was being asked of them. So the fault lies clearly with them as well. By the time they realised it, it was too late. So when Maududi wrote a critique of the Munir Report that was published around 1956 and tried to clarify the ulema’s position, by that time maybe it was too late.

TNS: What was the significance of Maududi’s criticism?

AUQ: By that time people had moved on. This question had become irrelevant. This is why at the height of it, during the proceedings, people had realised that the ulema were exposed. It appears to be a very simple question: Define who is a Muslim? If you want to declare Ahmadis non-Muslims, so you should give a definition of a Muslim. That question itself was tricky in the first place. The ulema were not saying that let’s define a Muslim. They were saying they all agreed that Ahmadis were non-Muslims.

TNS: What about the status of Ahmadis after 1954 till 1974?

AUQ: It is my understanding that the mass movement (1952-53) and its fallout did socially ostracise the Ahmadis who accepted some of the restrictions on themselves. Their economic interests were greatly damaged and they voluntarily slowed down propagating their religion.

In Lahore when the movement was very intense, in the first week of March before the imposition of martial law, there was an incident where the chief secretary and all other secretaries were trying to leave the Punjab secretariat for a meeting at the Governor’s House. The clerical staff and all other people surrounded their car said they would not let them leave. They said why was the administration firing at protestors who were fighting for the sanctity of prophethood? It [the Movement] was really popular and had a deep social impact [on Ahmadis]. I was just reminded of this incident because of this present situation in Islamabad where law enforcing authorities are largely supportive of government efforts. But back in March 1953, public sympathy was with the protestors to the point where junior staff was clearly defying top bureaucrats.

TNS: It seems like what Daultana was trying to achieve politically through Ahrar, Bhutto was trying to do that through religious political parties in 1974.

AUQ: In the 1950s I have my doubts that Daultana could single-handedly do all of that. My personal impression is that it was the larger question of parity between East Pakistan and West Pakistan, the Basic Principles Committee Report and all of that. But in the 1970s, I think Bhutto had to do it reluctantly. Bhutto never attended any of these sessions. He came once on September 7, voted in favour of this amendment and then gave a speech on “the final solution”.

TNS: But it was Bhutto who decided to bring this issue to the parliament?

AUQ: Yes that was Bhutto’s decision. In my interaction and interviews with different people the reasons have been brought forth. For instance Dr Mubashir Hassan says the pressure was coming from Saudi Arabia and by that time India’s atomic explosions had also happened. They said that if you want financial aid from us, do this. But then the question comes up that if Saudi Arabia wanted something done, why would it be this?

Ahmadis have their own point of view. They believe that Saudis wanted to claim leadership of the Muslims. They were emerging with petrodollars at the time and had started financing madrassas and Islamic groups throughout the Muslim world.

TNS: Has there ever been a demand to declare Shias as non-Muslims constitutionally.?

AUQ: At no time between 1947-74 was there a massive public demand or for that matter by any influential number of Ulemas to declare Shias as non-Muslim. It started afterwards during the 1980s and especially during the 1990s. When Azam Tariq was a member of the National Assembly, he had prepared a draft but he was not even allowed to present that draft because the Iranian government took it very seriously. It would not have got any votes but it was not even presented.

TNS: There is this sense that even the Ahmadis took 1974 in their stride. The actual persecution started after Ziaul Haq’s Ordinance XX?

AUQ: Yes that is true that if you talk to Ahmadis, they will tell you that 1974 did not damage them as much as 1984. Because the Second Amendment said that the Ahmadis are non-Muslim for the purposes of the Constitution and law. So it’s a very legal kind of definition.

Asad Ahmed has a very good argument where he says this created a gap between their legal and ontic identity. So legally speaking they were non-Muslims but in all their appearances and performance they were Muslims. They could go out and offer prayers, call their places of worship as mosques, recite kalima and there was no bar on that.

These contradictions were pointed out by the ulema almost immediately after 1974. So their next demand after 1974 was that they should not be allowed to have mosques or to print Islamic literature. The ordinance of 1984 is very problematic. The court cases where its provisions were discussed was finally settled in the famous Zaheeruddin case in 1993 also known as ‘Coca Cola judgment’. Before that even in 1974, during the proceedings Yahya Bakhtiar of all people had used the Lux soap analogy, saying that Lux soap could only be manufactured by Lever Brother.

But in the Zaheeruddin case it clearly says that the Ahmadis’ belief provokes the sentiments of Muslims. This implies that because of the provocation, if a Muslim strikes back and kills them it’s a crime of passion or the natural response of a Muslim who reveres the Prophet. The lacuna is that even if the Ahmadis agree not to call themselves Muslims, agree to call themselves non-Muslims or kaafirs and that their religion is not Islam, it will not solve any problem. Because the Ahmadi belief structure is such that they believe Mirza Ghulam Ahmad to be a prophet and his prophethood is not independent, it is derivative — from the prophethood of Prophet Muhammad. So unless you ban Ahmadi beliefs in totality and disallow anyone to be Ahmadi in any way, this lacuna will persist.

So even though the constitution says that, as a minority, Ahmadis do have a right to propagate their religion, they cannot do so because of this.

TNS: Where do you see Allama Iqbal in this entire debate? Was his definition of Muslim brought before the Munir Commission in any way?

AUQ: The definition of a Muslim has been there in the Anglo-Muhammdan law since the late 19th century. And the definition is that anyone who recites the kalima is a Muslim for legal purposes. It had been there until the 1980s, when it was changed.

Iqbal’s contribution is a little different. Iqbal in Pakistan’s context provides the ideological anchor to anything that has to be done. In the anti-Ahmadiyya movement in the 1950s, there were actually advertisements published in the newspapers asking if anyone had a copy of Iqbal’s pamphlet (later printed under the title “Iqbal and Ahmedism”) to be reprinted and translated into Urdu.

Obviously the idea was to use it as a propaganda tool. But Iqbal is basically making a much more nuanced kind of an argument. His concern was that Muslims as a minority group within India should stay together in order for them to retain their numerical strength. So any divisions or fissures among their ranks would be problematic. The Ahmadis insisted on registering themselves separately in census reports which was not acceptable to Iqbal. In addition to various religious issues on the basis of which he definitely considered Ahmadis as outside the fold of Islam — that was the main political concern Iqbal had. The way he argues his case was obviously much more different than the way it was being argued by the ulema.

TNS: We have come to a point where we feel the issue of Ahmadis can only be discussed in a purely academic way. Do you see this book as a window of opportunity or a loss of hope?

AUQ: Basically, people at large are not opposed to Ahmadis because they have listened to the Attorney General’s arguments in 1974 or because they have seen the evidence or read Mirza Ghulam Ahmad’s writings. They oppose or hate them because they have been fed a certain opinion about the Ahmadis and there is no scope or possibility for a counter response coming from the Ahmadis.

At this point it can only be hoped that this work will lead to academic discussion that will in turn influence the larger public discourse as well. The problem is that there is a human crisis; our concern is how to resolve this human crisis. This crisis cannot necessarily be addressed through legal or constitutional means. It requires changing the minds of people and influencing their opinion. This can only happen through research and open discussion. Only then we might be able to avoid the impending human disaster which is in the making.