What the Quaid said on August 11, 1947, and how it has been distorted

It seems that both the liberals and the conservatives in Pakistan have been missing the main point of the Quaid’s famous speech.

You are free; you are free to go to your temples; you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the State. As you know, history shows that in England conditions, some time ago, were much worse than those prevailing in India today. The Roman Catholics and the Protestants persecuted each other … The people of England in course of time had to face the realities of the situation and had to discharge the responsibilities and burdens placed upon them by the government of their country and they went through that fire step by step. Today, you might say with justice that Roman Catholics and Protestants do not exist; what exists now is that every man is a citizen, an equal citizen of Great Britain and they are all members of the Nation.

Now, I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal and you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State.

These words appeared in the speech delivered by Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah before the constituent assembly of Pakistan (including the present-day Bangladesh) on August 11, 1947. Some debates may have started immediately but much of what we hear now can be traced back more directly to the argument presented by the members of the Congress Party in the constituent assembly of Pakistan while opposing the Objectives Resolution in March 1949. They said that in the light of this speech, the constitution should not be based on the principles of democracy, freedom, equality, tolerance and social justice ‘as enunciated by Islam’ but rather on the general conception of these principles.

It is usually overlooked that the speech of the Quaid emphasizes a vision for the future that is to be achieved gradually: ‘in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims,’ etc.

What is the process through which it may happen? What is the first thing to do in order to start the process? How long the entire process may take? What will be happening in the meanwhile? These questions were not raised by the leaders of the Congress in 1949, and our intellectuals have not raised them either. Ironically, the whole point of the Quaid was to answer these very questions.

He offered a parallel from the British history as a case study: (a) the Roman Catholics and the Protestants used to persecute each other; (b) then they began to discharge the duties imposed on them by the government of their country and ‘went through that fire’; (c) now, they are equal citizens of Great Britain.

The period of transition from (a) to (c) is actually 210 years – from the passing of the Corporation Act in 1661 to the adoption of the Ecclesiastical Titles Act in 1871. We cannot say how long the Quaid expected it to be in the case of Pakistan but under any circumstances it cannot be said that according to him the desired goal should have been achieved already.

In Britain, the process started in 1661, when the Protestants passed the Corporation Act, according to which nobody could be in government service without receiving communion from the Church of England (and hence the Roman Catholics were barred).

Four penal laws were also passed in 1661, 1662, 1664 and 1665, collectively called the Clarendon Code. Among other restrictions, clergy from other sects was prohibited from using titles related to the Church.

This was topped up with the Test Act in 1763, requiring all civil and military employees to take an oath that they did not believe in transubstantiation, a fundamental doctrine of the Catholic faith. From 1678, it also became obligatory for the members of parliament to take the oath in an even more comprehensive manner.

These acts were repealed only in 1828 and 1829, when it was presumed that Protestantism had become so effectively dominant in the land that even the Catholics could be expected to support and defend it. The government servants were then asked to take oath that they would never exercise the power of their office ‘to injure or weaken the Protestant Church’, and so on. The oath was to be taken by both the Catholics and the Protestants ‘upon the true faith of a Christian’ (the Jews and the atheists continued to be barred till 1858 and 1886, respectively). The Clarendon Code was also being repealed gradually at this time, but a part of it lasted till the passing of the Ecclesiastical Titles Act in 1871.

Hence, it seems wrong to presume that the Quaid was promising on August 11 that discriminatory laws would never be passed in Pakistan because the example he chose from history was of a people who obeyed their government even when its commands appeared to be discriminatory. The Quaid was actually promising that if the citizens of Pakistan do this, as the citizens did in Britain, they too would become a nation of equal citizens ‘in course of time’. The British, according to the Quaid, faced these ‘realities of situation’ and succeeded in transcending them only because they ‘had to discharge the responsibilities and burdens placed upon them by the government of their country and they went through that fire step by step.’

We seem to have been doing the opposite. Some of us refuse to obey because we believe that the laws of the land are too religious by our standards, and others refuse because in their opinion the laws are not religious enough. Our liberals and our conservatives have jointly pushed us back to point (a), when the Roman Catholics and the Protestants used to persecute each other – the executions carried out during the Tudor period, the Gunpowder Plot, the beheading of Charles I, the Civil War, its aftermath and so on. Our political experiences have been similar to these.

Are we ready even to start that long ‘course of time’ which, according to the Quaid, will eventually make us equal citizens? Like it or not, the process started when everybody agreed to respect the law, irrespective of one’s political views or religious beliefs.

1 thought on “What the Quaid said on August 11, 1947, and how it has been distorted”

  1. We need the right people to make the common people understand how the system works, if the people governing the country don’t make an attempt to clear the misunderstandings that exist how will the ordinary people whom we call a layman understand?
    Thank you for this post, Mr. Shafique.

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