White flags for them, green for us

Published in The Express Tribune – cover photo by Arif Ali

Even after deliberating for 60 years, the jury’s still out on Muhammad Munir. Pakistan’s second chief justice was a symptom of the times he lived in: brilliant but tragic, visionary but weak. He cared nothing for the rule of law; he cared for nothing but the rule of law. However one chooses to look at him though, Pakistan was never the same again.

1954 was the Year of Munir: when our first parliament was sacked for the first time. The CJ stamped his approval, and disaster ensued (A.R. Cornelius wrote the sole dissent — Lord Cornelius was the North Star of the judiciary; all others can be measured by how far their positions fall from his).

But 1954 was also the year of the Munir Report, and there haven’t been many like it since. The report raised some of the most profound moral questions splitting Pakistan at the seams, questions that haunt us today. Justice Munir found that, while the ulema were adamant as to who fell outside the pale of religion, they were far less clear as to who made it in.

‘Who is a Musalman?’ the judge asked; a question so simple, each had a different answer. When one aalim expressed his opinion, the judge asked whether he would change his mind if the subject ‘steals other people’s things, embezzles property entrusted to him, has an evil eye on his neighbour’s wife, and is guilty of the grossest ingratitude to his Benefactor?’

‘Such a person,’ came the answer, ‘if he has the belief already indicated, will be a Muslim despite all this.’

The justices eventually threw their hands up, penning those famous few lines: ‘Keeping in view the several definitions given by the ulema, need we make any comment except that no two learned divines are agreed on this fundamental […] and if we adopt the definition given by any one of the ulema, we remain Muslims according to the view of that aalim, but kafirs, according to the definition of everyone else.’

The justices also went for a parting kick, calling the rioters ‘subversives’ who ‘were opposed to the creation of Pakistan.’ But everyone knew that already: the ideological distance between our founders and fundamentalists is no coincidence. ‘Pakistan is not going to be a theocratic state,’ said the Quaid, ‘to be ruled by priests with a divine mission.’

The barrister from Bombay read Dicey, was interested in the Liberal Party, and thought Islam the most pluralist of philosophies. His foes, meanwhile, looked to literalism — more revivalist than rational — to stand firm against the Raj. This lost all relevance when the Empire ended, and the maulanas repackaged themselves as the purest Pakistanis around. ‘He wears a mask,’ said Orwell, ‘and his face grows to fit it.’

But Pakistan, at its purest, was built over a sacred trust: the protection of minorities. That ideal has come crashing down — in Gujranwala and Gojra and Joseph Colony, again and again and again. Courtesy this government’s fetish for flyovers, ‘legislation’ and ‘pluralism’ and ‘inclusivity’ are words too big, too complex, too intangible to sate the Punjabi voter.

Never before have the aspirations of so many been reduced to language so low: ‘bullet trains’ and ‘metro buses’ and, hold your breaths, ‘underpasses’. Enough bricks and mortar, this government says, and Istanbul’s not far ahead.

But if the Muslim League can tolerate southern Punjab becoming a sectarian swamp, it certainly doesn’t lose sleep over Hazaras in Quetta, over Christians in Peshawar, over Hindus in Ghotki. Tahir-ul-Qadri rallies, maybe — the killing of our most vulnerable, not so much. Meanwhile, our sectarian groups grow stronger, the will to fight them grows weaker, and Islamabad spends its workdays appointing DCOs and DPOs.

Which is why when it comes to setting policy, in making the gears of this country grind, minorities are nowhere. They are treated as tokens by political parties. They have never been accorded four stars in any service, let alone charged with chief. They can never be PM or president, courtesy the Constitution. Even sans modest goals, they face crippling prejudice in all walks of life.

The judiciary fares better: the only thing Justices Dorab Patel, Rana Bhagwandas and A.R. Cornelius have in common is sound adjudication. And it is the judiciary again that led the way last June.

In the autumn of his tenure, Chief Justice Tassaduq Hussain Jillani decided the landmark SMC 1 of 2014 — a suo motu after Peshawar’s horrific church bombings (among other evils). It stands the most significant judgment for our religious rights jurisprudence in memory. It is also testament to the influence one good man can have after decades of division: it has singlehandedly changed the national conversation.

‘The very genesis of our country is grounded in the protection of religious rights for all, especially those of minorities,’ writes His Lordship. The judgment fleshes out the ambit of the Constitution’s Article 20, […] every citizen shall have the right to profess, practice and propagate his religion’ and interprets it as it was meant to be.

It both takes 2013’s Human Rights Commission Report in context, and finds toeholds in international human rights law: weighing its ruling against the UN’s Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, 1981.

And it tells us how to cure the disease: a federal taskforce to encourage tolerance, a special police force for minorities’ places of worship, a national council for minorities’ rights, reform in curriculum, the punishment for hate speech and the enforcement of quotas. Directives so clear, even this administration can implement them.

Yes, minorities are central to the idea of Pakistan, white fused with green. But the white is bleeding out, as these pages scream day in and day out. Before they split apart — white surrender flags on one hand, PML green on the other — it’s time we act.

Pakistan is no longer the country Justice Munir wrote about 60 years ago. But it can still be made into the one Justice Jillani foresees today.