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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Pakistan’s identity crisis: can it explain itself without India? Aitzaz Ahsan explains

On Pakistan’s 74th birth anniversary, Moeed Pirzada, Editor Global Village Space, sat down with Pakistan’s most prominent legal and constitutional expert, Aitzaz Ahsan, to revisit his provocative work, “Indus Saga and the Making of Pakistan” – that first appeared in 1996. Constitutionalist cum historian remembered the painful identity crisis his generation faced when confronted by the world with the question, “Who are you? And Why Pakistan?”. And he explains why Pakistan, inheritor of Indus civilization, was never part of the Gangetic plains of Hindustan that constitute modern India.

Moeed Pirzada: Mr. Aitzaz, you do not neatly fit into any box, neither as a politician nor a lawyer nor as an author/academic, you have written more than one brilliant academic book. How do you define yourself?

Aitzaz Ahsan: That is a tough one. I am very devoted to the legal profession and not really as an income-yielding activity. While it does yield me a lot of income, I opted to remain in this profession even when I was a briefless lawyer and had the option of joining the civil service of United Pakistan as a premium candidate.

Moeed Pirzada: That intrigues me because I left civil services too, but I would like people to understand that you topped the civil services of Pakistan, which was considered an enormous pride, but you never joined?

Aitzaz Ahsan: The first question that needs to be addressed is why I took the examination at all? Coming back from England in 1967 after having done the bar and law from Cambridge, the next few years were disappointing because I remained a marginal, briefless lawyer at a time when people would ridicule young barristers. “You lift a brick, and there’s a barrister.”

Moeed Pirzada: But you took the CSS exam, topped the country, and still decided not to join. Why?

Aitzaz Ahsan: I would not have fitted in. By this time, I was a lecturer at the University of Punjab, part of a leftist-Marxist group of professors, teaching law part-time. That job got me Rs. 400 a month; it was a retainer.

Moeed Pirzada: Many critics of the Indus saga have pointed out that Aitzaz Ahsan’s writing has a leftist-Marxist leaning in it.

Aitzaz Ahsan: It is Marxist analysis, in fact, closest to a Marxist analysis.

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Moeed Pirzada: Will it be correct to say, while looking at the Indus Saga, that Pakistan has been defined for Pakistanis by outsiders? The British and Indians historians of the twentieth century have defined what Pakistan is.

Aitzaz Ahsan: Pakistan, unfortunately, has not even been defined. We do not have a history; our history starts from 711 AD with Muhammad bin Qasim; before that, we just do not.

The definitions we accept today are not those given by Indian or colonial/postcolonial historians, but the Pakistan that we define today is the Pakistan of all those who opposed Pakistan, the orthodoxies view.

The history of Pakistan starts with analysis through the vision of Islamic Pakistan. But Pakistan has been a plural, multiracial, and multi-ethnic country and has had a history prior to Islam also.

Moeed Pirzada: In one of your plenary closing lectures in January 2012 at Columbia University, you said that Pakistan is a state for Muslims and not an Islamic state. What is the difference?

Aitzaz Ahsan: An Islamic state is one where the state itself adopts a religion like Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Iran, like the Taliban in Afghanistan, but a Muslim state is where the overwhelming majority is Muslims.

It is like France, UK, Denmark; as much as they are Christian states, we are a Muslim state, which barrister Jinnah wanted to create. Because the state does not adopt a religion and the state does not decide based on religion between men and women.

Pakistan identity crisis

Moeed Pirzada: How would you respond to all those who take up and say the “Islamic Republic of Pakistan” like a law minister, then in 2011, also challenged you on the parliament floor saying,” Aitzaz is going bonkers, here is the Constitution of Islamic Republic of Pakistan?”

Aitzaz Ahsan: Well, as I said to the law minister, and I am amazed you remember that “What is in a name? What is important is in the contents. Pakistan is a parliamentary democracy and a federation. The minster was called Sher Asghar, ‘the killer of lions,’ and I am sure he’ll run from his chair if he even saw a mouse.”

Moeed Pirzada: The framers of the 1951 constitution wanted to call it the Objective Resolution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, so there is an aspiration coming from within Pakistan for it to be an Islamic state?

Aitzaz Ahsan: All right, let us be an Islamic state, but we will be an Islamic state as Pakistan. We must have some individuality, some identity, and what really kept agitating me on the issue was “what am I?” Why did East Pakistan break up? We were just Muslims, then that would suffice, we were Muslims and they were Muslims.

Why does Kuwait deny me a visa, or why require the permission of Saudi Arabia to visit Makkah and Madinah? Because of the permission of human beings and not of Allah Almighty. If we were just Muslims, that would suffice.

Moeed Pirzada: In New York at Columbia University, you said, in the context of Bangladesh, “Pakistan and Bangladesh, were born as two twins, tied at hips and the surgery to divide them, ultimately had to be painful.” What were you really saying?

Aitzaz Ahsan: I developed that in the Indus saga. Civilizations, in my estimation, are sired and sustained by huge geographical divisions or features, like China and India, separated by the Himalayas. If they were flatlands, there would have been an imperceptible change over the region of thousands of miles.

Mountains are one, oceans are second, and third are rivers: they sire and sustain nations and distinct civilizations. The Indus flowing from the north to the west into the Persian Gulf/ Arabian sea sired and sustained a different civilization from the Ganges, Jamuna, and the Brahmaputra, coming into a delta, 1200 miles away in Bengal.

Read more: Mass Graves of Kashmir

Moeed Pirzada: So you are militating and rejecting two predominant definitions of Pakistan. One is the British Indian definition that this is the broken part of India, “it was one India,” as Nehru said in ‘Discovery of India.’ The second is General Zia and his followers’ definition that it is part of the Islamic world, the Arab world.

Aitzaz Ahsan: I do not think we are not part of the Muslim world; that is an extreme position. I think we are a distinct Muslim country; Turkey, Jordan, Kuwait, Pakistan, there is something distinct about each of them, and I draw emphasis on their differences.

What is a Pakistani? A Muslim? It is not a complete answer as there are Hindus and Christians also. When I went to university in England, Bernard Palmer, a friend of mine, invited me to spend the weekend with his family during my first Christmas.

They were a wealthy family that lived in Bradford and had a huge house. I went there, sat down for dinner, and Mrs. Palmer, his mother, asked me straight away, “son, where are you from?” I said Pakistan, she said “where is Pakistan?” Imagine its 1965 and there were people around the world who had not heard of Pakistan. So I said, “Aunty, it is North-West of India.” She responded, “oh you are the ones that broke away from India.” I said yes, thinking that was a sufficient answer.

However, she then asked, “why did you break away?” And I answered, “because we are not Indians.” So she asked, very casually, “What are you?” To which I replied, “we are Muslims.” She asked me, “then aren’t the Arabs, Muslims?” I said they are. “So are you in one state?” I said, “no, there are some 22 Arab-speaking states.” So she said, “you can’t be an Arab, you can’t call yourself Pakistani if you’re an Arab? So what are you?” I said, “we could be Persians and Arabs.”

She said, “you could either be Persian or you could be Arabs. You can all be Muslims but you can’t be un-India. I want to know what you are.” At that point, Mr. Palmer got a little worried and intervened; clearly, I was embarrassed and cornered a bit about my origins because she said, “all you’ve said is that you’re not India, but you haven’t said what you are. You haven’t defined yourself.” I did not have an answer to that, at that time, and that haunted me.


Moeed Pirzada: Do you now have an answer?

Aitzaz Ahsan: Now I have an answer: I am an Indus person.

Moeed Pirzada: Then how do you explain Sikhs snatching away Peshawar valley from Afghanistan’s Durrani rulers? British took away almost 50 percent of the present Ba lochistan. Why are Pakistan and Afghanistan then not one nation or one country?

Aitzaz Ahsan: Pakistan and Afghanistan are different countries because, again, due to the mountains’ physical barrier, the Sulaiman range.

Moeed Pirzada: We have more Pashtuns in Pakistan than in Afghanistan.

Aitzaz Ahsan: We have, but they do not call themselves non-Pakistanis they call themselves Pashtuns in Pakistan. They are as much Pakistani as the Pashtuns living in Afghanistan are Afghanis. There may be the same religion, creed, descent, but language alone will not define their identity.

The point is that there can be several sub-nationalities, but the Indus person combines the Sindhi, the Punjabi, the Pathan, the Balochi, and the Kashmiri. I suggest to my Indian friends to recognize that Indus flowing in one direction has created a separate civilization over centuries.

Moeed Pirzada: But if this definition has to be accepted, where do you position the Sikhs, who could have joined Pakistan. Jinnah and the Muslim League wanted them to join, but Congress prevailed with religious consideration. They were Punjabi speaking, same culture, and even the same cuisine?

Aitzaz Ahsan: Very good question. I have attempted an answer, and I am at peace with it. Between every two civilizations, there is always the place where the tectonic plates meet. The Indus and the Gangetic, I am not calling it Hindu because there are Hindus in the south that are very different from the Hindus in the north and these differences are greater than the northern Hindus have with even Muslims in the north; that is why I am calling it the Gangetic region.

Sikhs are the attempt to bridge these two together. If you recall, in the Sikh beliefs, when Guru Nanak died, there was a contest between the Hindus and Muslims on his burial. The Hindus wanted to burn him, and the Muslims wanted to bury him. This intense engagement was going on when some stranger came along and inquired what the argument was about.

They told him there is a debate over the dead body of a highly venerated person, and so he said at least remove the cloth and let me see. Instead of the body, there were flowers, half were buried and half burnt. Now there is a grave and pyre platform of Guru Nanak in Darbar Sahib, Kartarpur.

Read more: Escaping the graveyard of nations: Expert Opinions

Moeed Pirzada: But look at the problem, given the idea that Sikhism was a bridge between Hinduism and Islam, Sikhs moved more towards the Hindus over time. If Sikhs had not decided to join Congress in 1947, they would have been half the masters of this land. Sikhs had Lahore, the wealth, the land, and the businesses on Rawalpindi, large parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Gujranwala, Gujar Khan, and other areas?

Aitzaz Ahsan: Certainly, they would have been in a very strong position in an independent nation-state had they joined us. However, Master Tara Singh saying, “Jo maangay ga Pakistan usko denge kabristan” (whoever asks for Pakistan will get a graveyard instead) while wearing the sword on the steps of the Punjab assembly; was perhaps a mistake.

Moeed Pirzada: You can call it a blunder, but the point is, there has been an affinity between Hindus and Sikhs, so the whole romanticized saga of Sikhism being a bridge between Hinduism and Islam falters in that.

Aitzaz Ahsan: Sikhs are a very adaptive people. I was walking in Delhi, looking around Humayun’s tomb, because the former chief election commissioner of India, Manohar Singh Gill, wanted to show me since he was put in charge of restoring the mausoleum.

While we were going around, I said to him, “by the way, Manohar you will have to drop me at a certain place,” so he said, “oh very good, Firapna jaa ke mathaa bhi taik lawaan ge Nizamuddin Aulia te” (Then we will also go bow at the Nizammudin place), and we went to Nizamuddin Aulia’s tomb.

He is a devoted follower of Khwaja Nizamuddin and devotee of Khwaja Moeen Ud Din Chishti. Every Sikh friend that I know of wants to go and pray in these Muslim places. To them, it is not so much different from Pakistan or Muslims.


Moeed Pirzada: So, Sikhs represent a special case. Do you then, as a historian feel that India and Pakistan will become, at some point, friendly states that can work in a cooperative framework in South Asia?

Aitzaz Ahsan: First, I rather define myself as an anti-historian, because of the history taught to my children. I am anti that history. A book on history was compiled during Zia ul Haq’s time, where the first chapter discusses Mohenjo Daro and Harappa. Fine, you cannot avoid them because you have them on your banknotes.

The second chapter of the history of Pakistan was Saudi Arabia before Islam. The third chapter was the message of Islam and Makkah. The fourth chapter was resistance to the message of Islam and Makkah. The fifth chapter was migration to Madinah. The sixth chapter was the Madinite state, which our current Prime Minister makes many references to.

The seventh chapter was the Conquest of Makkah, and by the thirteenth and fourteenth chapters, we see the Ummayads, and by the fifteen chapter, we come back to Pakistan with Muhammad bin Qasim. The Guptas, Ashoka, Chandragupta Maurya, the Kushans, the Huns, Sistanas, Scythians, the Bactrians, all had been wiped out from the book.

Moeed Pirzada: That is also the problem on the Indian side. I bought some books on Indian history, and they had no mention of Mahmood Ghaznavid. From the 9th or 10th century till the Mughal period, the book only had three pages on Muslim history.

Aitzaz Ahsan: Although Vajpayee himself resisted this, with the rise of BJP, there was an attempt to Hinduize the curricula, and that is when it really started. Under Modi, of course, they have lost all limits. There it is, Hindutva now.

Read more: Hafiz Saeed: Albatross around Pakistan’s Neck?

Moeed Pirzada: If you have rejected the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, you say it is a state for Muslims, and not as an Islamic Republic, so where does India stand now? Where is that ‘Modern India,’ which started with pure secularism and Nehru? What about it now?

Aitzaz Ahsan: India is in a very sad situation, and while technically we should be happy if India is in trouble, sadly it is the kind of situation where India is not going to disturb itself and be lesser, but it is going to cause much tension, frictions, and unnecessary agitation in the entire region. I used to say like a Marxist would, that the individual does not matter in history or make history; rather, history makes the individual.

Now I see myself going back on that long-held theory. I think three men in contemporary history have changed the world forever and for the worse. Donald Trump, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Narendra Modi. All three leaders, in my mind, are genociders. They would wipe out populations. Trump with his white supremacy that is why the Black Lives Matter movement arose in reaction.

Modi, with Hindutva, would put every Muslim in jail; he put nine million Kashmiris in an open jail. Netanyahu, is the biggest genocider of them all, look at what he did in Gaza. Is this a war? He locked up a million people who may have some catapults but then dropped the most sophisticated bombs with air artillery. It is not a war; it is genocide.

Pakistan identity crisis

Moeed Pirzada: So, you do not see India and Pakistan becoming friendly states in the near future?

Aitzaz Ahsan: No, I think they will. I think there is no other way to survive but to wipe out this mentality.

Moeed Pirzada: Let me come back, you met with Mrs. Palmer in 1966, and you could not explain your origins, then you published the Indus Saga in 1996, almost a thirty years difference, you spent that much time to recognize yourself?

Aitzaz Ahsan: I was very agitated by her remarks. I had no answer because every answer I gave she found a flaw, so what was it? Then, I was put in jail by Zia ul Haq, a prison can be a kind of detoxification, you start thinking and concentrating on questions you previously did not have the time to think about.

Moeed Pirzada: Your Indian critics believe that you were confronted by Nehru’s book ‘Discovery of India’ during the prison time, and there you wanted to come up with your answer to that?

Aitzaz Ahsan: Yes, indeed. Nehru is, probably to my estimation, the foremost Indian. Nehruvian India was truly an India that could probably have led the world, but Nehru had a vision for a ‘United India.’

Moeed Pirzada: Nehru was no doubt bright, brilliant, and romanticized, but his vision of ‘one India’ is what now gives rise to conflict between India and Pakistan.

Aitzaz Ahsan: Indeed, you are right. If misused, the Nehruvian concept can then submerge and smother other nationalities and minorities. But I do not believe that ever to be the purpose of Pandit Nehru because he was an enlightened man.

If you read his substantive writings, his letters to Indira, are a huge volume and his book ‘Discovery of India’ is a vision that comes out very softly. He has an image of a united India with Muslims and Hindus and Christians and Parsis. It’s not one with Hindu dominance, unlike that of Modi’s Mahabharat.

Read more: Wuhan spirit breaks down: Will India learn that it cannot have Chinese cake and eat it too?

Moeed Pirzada: Then, what is the difference? The BJP and the RSS have, in a very ironic fashion, inherited the same vision of one India. They also think Pakistan is a flawed state and should not have been created, and the Congress party made a mistake. They have a charge sheet against Congress that they should not have accepted the division of ‘Mother India.’

Aitzaz Ahsan: The difference is one of enlightenment. The enlightened mind seeing one Pakistan or one India would be a soft mind. But the RSS mind is harsh, militant, and oppressive. There is a huge difference between saying India is one country, one civilization, and many colors.

Nehru used the appropriate name for his concept of ‘palette set’ where a painting is put in transparent layers as they have in biology books, where the body parts keep increasing. So he used the word ‘palette set’ for the Indian civilization and that every layer had value and was integral.

Moeed Pirzada: You being a constitutional lawyer, like Jinnah, if you look at Ayesha Jalal’s book ‘The Sole Spokesman,’ it looks as if Jinnah’s mind frame was towards a loose federation out of British India in which your Indus Pakistan could have easily fitted with New Delhi being at the center of a loose confederation. Whereas Nehru’s vision of ‘a central India’ militates against that concept?

Aitzaz Ahsan: More than Nehru, it was Vallabhbhai Patel. After India had been divided virtually and the decision was taken, Vallabhbhai Patel then came out with his axe and hammer, bringing 600 out of 605 princely states into India by getting their rulers’ consent. Nehru, I still tend to admire and give benefit of doubt but not Vallabhbhai Patel and the militants.

Moeed Pirzada: Vallabhbhai Patel has subsequently been adopted by RSS and BJP. They have built a statue of him somewhere in Gujarat. Is he their inspiration against Nehru, and will India overcome this?

Aitzaz Ahsan: India has an enlightened ruling class. Per capita compared to us the number of books sold, the number of books written, the number of PhDs, and the diversity of those PhDs in India are substantial. In our premier Punjab University, most PhDs are on Islamiat or Iqbaliyat, while their PhDs are on nuclear and microbiology, etc. I think they have a course-correcting mechanism in them more so than us.

Read more: Kashmir: the death nail of ‘Incredible India’?

Moeed Pirzada: We are told that Narendra Modi is extremely popular and he will win the next elections with a landslide win.

Aitzaz Ahsan: The arithmetic enables him to do that, 80 percent of the population are Hindus. There is a certain form of complexity in their thought—seven hundred years of Muslims and then the British rule. The British were an overwhelming minority; some 300,000 ‘goras’ (British), including tailors and bootmakers, ruled us. A Hindu majority had been ruled for a thousand years by a minority, Muslims would have been the same under similar circumstances.

Now for them to find an option of a prime minister who prostrates himself on the floor before a statue of Ram must have been a moving moment for any Hindu. Suddenly they would have felt free. However, this is also a great tragedy in this, because I think that the Hindu was far freer before than with the current ruling government in India without the RSS/ Modi ideology

Moeed Pirzada: Your comment makes me think that the rise of RSS and BJP is due to the Hindu feeling as being victims on their own lands first by Muslims than by British, that it has some genuine bona fide roots inside the population. Moreover, if it is so, then why it would go away? As you also said, India has such a large broadbased educated intelligentsia that it will overcome itself from the RSS moment.

Aitzaz Ahsan: I think Modi is going to win the election. It is pure arithmetic since the population is 80 percent Hindu and he only needs a majority from that. However, I am also clear that while it may take 10-15 years, India will move on, but these RSS-Modi years will be tragic for India.

Aitzaz Ahsan Lawyer, Politician, and Author ‘The Indus Saga and the Making of Pakistan.’