Whose sovereignty?

Published: July 24, 2012
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The writer is the Chairperson of the History Department at Forman Christian College Lahore

The writer is the Chairperson of the History Department at Forman Christian College Lahore

Recently, a lot of people have opined about who is ‘sovereign’ or ‘supreme’ in Pakistan. While the chief justice of Pakistan asserts that the Constitution is supreme, parliamentarians and most recently, the president have argued that parliament is supreme. Interestingly, however, if we look at the history of Pakistan and its Constitution, we would find that actually, ‘God’, or what General Ziaul Haq changed to ‘Allah’ is sovereign. The preamble of our Constitution, which is the Objectives Resolution passed in March 1949, explicitly states that “Sovereignty over the entire universe belongs to God Almighty alone”. This critical phrase should make us think about a few things.

Firstly, when the Objectives Resolution was being debated, some members of the opposition foresaw this as politicisation of religion and Indian revolutionary Bhupendra Kumar Datta stated that with this resolution, the house was “run(ing) the risk of subjecting religion to criticism, which will rightly be resented as sacrilegious”.

Secondly, this resolution has led to the existential crisis that we are currently in. Laws in Pakistan are generally based on the British parliamentary system, where all powers emanate from parliament as the supreme body. The Act of Settlement of 1701 showed that parliament could legislate on the succession of the Crown and restrict its assumption by certain people. Thus, in effect, it was even above the so-called ‘Sovereign’. Therefore, in most commonwealth countries, laws are based on sovereignty of parliament, though in most countries, the judiciary has now been separated from the legislature and given independence. In any case, in all commonwealth countries, it is clear that the work of parliament is ‘political’ and does not necessarily reflect the will or work of God. After all, making God responsible for the actions of mere human beings in such a way is indeed sacrilegious.

In Pakistan, as with other things, we have mixed up concepts. So, within a parliamentary system, we have tried to infuse religious values — which can only be enacted and regulated by people who are well versed in religious law — into politics. While normatively it would not be an issue to assert the ultimate sovereignty of God in our lives, it is dangerous to put it in legal form in the government since someone can simply argue that their mandate is from God to rule. Let us not forget the thankfully ill-fated Fifteenth Amendment brought by Nawaz Sharif in 1998, under which it was widely believed that he was going to declare himself Amir al-Momineen and rule for life! Thanks to Ziaul Haq, we have further complicated our system, where parliament is formally called the ‘Majlis-e-Shoora’ or ‘house of the learned’ and not the house of the ‘elected’. Therefore, one day, it can clearly be argued that the Majlis-e-Shoora does not really need to be elected as long as the people sitting in it are ‘learned.’ And finally, we have a stipulation in Article 62 of the Constitution that the person elected to parliament must be ‘ameen’ and not have violated Islamic injunctions. I do not want to judge our parliamentarians and their religious observances but I wonder how a layperson is even supposed to judge such a thing?

The current tussle is a clash of egos and largely political in nature but since the Constitution is evoked by all sides to legitimatise their cause, we need to address the existential issues that we have been saddled with. I have no problem with the people agreeing to a theocratic government as it is ultimately their choice, but we must be clear about what system we actually want. Being a halfway house between parliamentary democracy and a theocracy will not work and will only add further confusion to our already convoluted situation.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 25th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (28)

  • Ejaaz
    Jul 24, 2012 - 11:35PM

    Pakistan’s constitution has to be the Quran. Its laws must be Sharia. This does not mean it has to be ruled by Mullahs and by a clergy. At the present moment we are really being misruled by an unelected PCO power hungry judiciary. There is no reason why the Majlis Shoora cannot be elected. It should be. There is no reason why this elected body cannot run a democracy that is consistent with the Quran and Sharia.

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  • hamid
    Jul 25, 2012 - 12:17AM

    Quran is based upon interpretations……….whose interpretation are we going to follow…..what about things not mentioned…….

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  • Jul 25, 2012 - 12:51AM

    Over indulgence in religion cannot shun the danger of individual self-righteousness.Those who take pride/ power in being pious can start claiming authority inspite of even their own shortcomings.When everybody tends to assert his lordship,then limbs of the same Body start fighting each other, injuring one´s own system.And the same religious belief which is meant to save the Nation will start undoing it.Good luck Bangash.

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  • ST
    Jul 25, 2012 - 1:14AM

    Why only B. K. Dutta, Chandra Chatterjee, another Bengali in the Constituent Assembly said this about the Objectives Resolution,

    ” All powers rest with the people and they exercise their power through the agency of the state. The state is merely their spokesman. The Resolution makes the state the sole authority received from God Almighty through the instrument of people. People have no power or authority. They are merely post-boxes according to this Resolution. The State will exercise authority within the limits prescribed by Him. What are those limits, who will interpret them? In case of difference who will interpret?” .

    As if anticipating future leaders like Nawaz Sharif he warned,

    “One day a Louis XIV may come and say, “I am the state, appointed by the Almighty” and thus paving the way for the advent of Divine Right of Kings afresh. Instead of the state being the voice of the people, it has been made an adjunct of religion. People of different religions live in a state. Therefore its position must be neutral with no bias for any religion and should help all the religions equally… Previous instances are sufficient to warn us as people were burnt alive in the name of religion. Therefore, sovereignty must reside with the people and not with anybody else”

    Later, H. S. Suhrawardy, prophetically wrote,

    “The nation had to reap the whirlwind. This involvement with Islam brought controversial doctrines to the fore. Clashes between two schools of thought, Deobandi and Barelvi, ended in several murders. The smouldering fires between the Shias and the Sunnis once again burst into flame and led to serious clashes marked with the utmost savagery in a remote village in Sindh and in the
    sophisticated capital city of Lahore ”

    All told, in its formative years, Pakistan had a chance to organize itself into a democratic republic with justice for all if only it listened it its own part of Bengal, much like India, where a secular liberal platform was already built by the Bengalis before the Nehrus and Gandhis took over. Instead Pakistan went through a violent cauterization to got rid of its more enlightened secular arm, and that is the tragedy of Pakistan.

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  • spacedoutwriting
    Jul 25, 2012 - 1:14AM

    Thank you for this post. Besides your always interesting historical perspective, I am glad when I get to discover hidden gems of the national movement. Gandhi, Nehru and Jinnah have, unreasonably so, overshadowed other actors in this history. I was glad to learn about Bhupendra Kumar Dutta.

    From –

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BhupendraKumarDatta#InterludeinPakistan

    emphasized textwhen Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan, while claiming support from Quaid-i-Azam declared before the Constituent Assembly that Pakistan was founded with the Muslims’ wish to live the teachings and the tradition of Islam, one of the members, Birat Chandra Mondal reminded that Jinnah had “unequivocally said that Pakistan will be a secular State.” Bhupendra Kumar Datta went a step further by commenting the PM’s statement : “…were this resolution to come before this house within the life-time of (…) the Quaid-i-Azam, it would not have come in its present shape.emphasized text

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  • upkar gill
    Jul 25, 2012 - 1:25AM

    @Ejaaz: bhai the world has gone way ahead and some laws need to be changed even in quran it says move with the world not against it,sharia laws are good to some extent but you cannot run a country on those laws.

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  • Mirza
    Jul 25, 2012 - 1:51AM

    A very insightful and pragmatic Op Ed and I must commend the author and ET for that. Thanks a lot for throwing the real issue out in the open for discussion. We have taken old British laws and linked them with Islamic sounding clichés. To quote a famous politician of old East Pakistan “you cannot circumcise a pig and think it became a Muslim”. We have to be honest with our approach to the fundamentals of Pakistan and not change them to our own benefit. Every dictator and his remnants have plundered and mutilated the constitution that cannot be brought back to its original form. It is about time and absolutely important that we treat our constitution and democracy as a holy scripture. The claim and dream of men with big egos that they are the God sent messengers and have divine right to rule must be stopped at all costs. These sick people belong in an institution not on the power chair. It is the will and power of the people and their collective decision that is supreme and nothing else.

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  • gp65
    Jul 25, 2012 - 1:56AM

    @Ejaaz: “Pakistan’s constitution has to be the Quran. Its laws must be Sharia. This does not mean it has to be ruled by Mullahs and by a clergy.”

    As an outsider I have no desire to comment on what Pakistan’s laws should be and what its constitution should be like. That is for the Pakistani awaam to decide. I would like to pose the following questions to understand better what you are proposing:

    Are you proposing that punishment for various crimes should be as prescribed in shariah e.g. cutting hand if someone steals, stoning to death for adultery?Are all Pakistanis agreed with the types of punishments prescribed in Sharia?

    Currently it is the job of the judiciary to interpret Pakistani laws. Would they be best suited to interpret shariah? If not, whose job will it be to interpret these laws – if not mullahs and clergy?

    What about the types of situations which were not foreseen when the Quran was revealed e.g. identity theft, credit card fraud etc.? Would you agree that specific laws should be made for these situations? How is that different from current laws and constitution where specific laws exist under a broad guideline that nothing can be non-compliant with Quran or Shariah?

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  • Arindom
    Jul 25, 2012 - 2:04AM

    Yeah – why keep hanging half way? Just declare yourself a province of the Arabs and all will be fine!

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  • muhammad mahad
    Jul 25, 2012 - 2:07AM

    i am saying since one year that its now a high time to step forward but 90 percent our our population only wanted just to listen ,pass some coments or read a newspaper with m cup of tea……..!!my humble writter consitution is only a piece of paper written bu several minds,we should made ourself prepare to follow it,but m sorry to say we just have done nothing in the past nor we’ll done in near future!!

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  • Ali tanoli
    Jul 25, 2012 - 2:18AM

    @Ejaaz,
    U are right brother but dont forget how English changed our old Education system by building there own Anglo Urdu schools and universities and how they converts our children minds like above writter who is saying it was Gen Zia ul Haque who changed word God to Allah and many many others fuedals and then Army seculars librals Sapah salaars who specks or allowed to speak engliesh only and biggest irony is that even after 1947 we never tried to build a single school based on our islamic teaching ………….

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  • Uza Syed
    Jul 25, 2012 - 4:21AM

    @Ejaaz: “Pakistan’s constitution has to be the Quran.” —- How do you propose this ? Can you educate your readers a little, I mean you are suggesting this because of feeling holy during fasting time or fasting has deprived you of normal thinking?

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  • sabi
    Jul 25, 2012 - 9:07AM

    Ejaaz and Ali tanoli,
    Are you both a practising mulslim i mean are you abiding five fundamentals of islam i.e kalma, namaz ,ramazn zakat haj.if you say yes then what else you need from constitution?.And if your answer is in negation then are not you suggesting a religeios police should come to you and by force make you abide these fundamentals of islam.then immagine what would be the scenario .you would’nt be doing that willingly but out of
    fear of police and not God which is clearly a hypocracy and quran reject it catagoricaly.
    and second which law in pakistan constitution collide with the fundametals of quran.
    and what about muslims in non muslim countries is their deen in danger.remember just one thing there is no compulsion in islam.and quran give this gurantee to every human.

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  • observer
    Jul 25, 2012 - 9:24AM

    @Uza Syed

    Can you educate your readers a little, I mean you are suggesting this because of feeling holy during fasting time or fasting has deprived you of normal thinking?

    It must be the latter.Low Sugar levels induce a medical condition known as Hypoglycemia it is characterised by unclear/ confused thinking.

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  • kaalchakra
    Jul 25, 2012 - 10:12AM

    Brothers

    The argument that ‘Quran has to be interpreted, so it cannot be Pakistan’s constitution’ is inalid, ab initio.

    ‘Interpretation’ is fundamental to the very act of knowing. Even if we were to reject Allah’s guidance and settle for man-made ‘constitution’ the latter will have to be interpreted. So even the solitary ‘advantage’ man-made constitutions have over Allah’s words as blueprints for individual and group behavior is a delusion.

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  • kaalchakra
    Jul 25, 2012 - 10:22AM

    The five pillars of Islam are the pillars, not Islam itself. Don’t confuse Islam for a few rituals – howsoever central we may believe them to be.

    Islam is nothing more or less than one thing and one thing alone – total submission to Allah’s final message as reveled to mankind in the Quran and evidenced in the person of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

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  • Uza Syed
    Jul 25, 2012 - 11:31AM

    @observer: Agree with you completely. As a matter of fact, I suspected this to be Hypoglycemia induced nonsense bordering on craziness. Such weirdo must understand that a State, a country can not be run by any theocratic dictats as there are clearly defined differences among the believers about interpretation of the religion. Any such attempt would lead to further polarization and ultimate breakdown of this Federation where we all have agreed by implication to live as a citizen of a modern Republic with a parliamentary form of government, where we all may and should be able to practice what we believe the truth to be.

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  • HUM
    Jul 25, 2012 - 12:36PM

    @kaalchakra:
    You are comparing apples with oranges. Quran is the book of guidance for individuals, while constitution is meant to run the affairs of the government. How can one substitute for other? Try thinking of using the tool suitable for the job.

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  • mateen
    Jul 25, 2012 - 2:31PM

    many issues of present era are not mentioned in Quran and Sunnah. Many ills of past which remained in force even under Muslim rule like slavery etc has no room in this modern age. So instead of being remained collectively confused whether an issue is justified under Sharia or not, its better to rely on common sense etc. I believe a layman is prudent enough to know what is rightful for him and society. However a society based on ruthless class structure may lack this common prudence.

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  • elementary
    Jul 25, 2012 - 4:28PM

    @HUM:
    Wrong my friend. Quran gives full systems of politics,economics ,governance,penal code etc to it’s followers which is very open ended often vague and therefore subject to different often diametrically opposite interpretations; each claiming absolute truth and authority of almighty,needless to say it often leads to bloodshed.
    I, for one, would like to keep religion well away from politics.Even if everyone can agree on one interpretation . it’s absoluteness make it impossible to implement . A rule or a law that cannaot be criticized and or modified according to evolving situation , can only lead to oppression.

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  • Anonymous
    Jul 25, 2012 - 5:20PM

    @Ejaaz:
    Society governed by guidelines laid down 1400 years ago! Societies are dynamic sir, what is relevant today was not relevant yesterday and will not be relevant a few decades from now. Laws should be based on what is relevant today.
    Please do not bring GOD into it. He has better things to do.

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  • Anwar Butt
    Jul 25, 2012 - 6:23PM

    Our country need to implement the strictures of the Quran to the letter. Sharia should be the law of the land. Look in the Gulf crime is so low. We need to learn from them.

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  • Ejaaz
    Jul 25, 2012 - 10:32PM

    My last few attempts at answering some of the questions directed at me have been rejected by the moderators. Perhaps this one will to.

    For those interested, they may wish to do a search on Morsi (the new president of Egypt) and his statement on “Quran is the constitution”. You may wish to think about why so many muslim countries around the world have essentially taken that position.

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  • Ali tanoli
    Jul 25, 2012 - 11:26PM

    Ejaaz,
    I agreed but remember any law is not wrong if u implemented and allows it and follows it look it England or any english country what we need in pakistan one educaton system and get rid of crruption every thing will be fine

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  • observer
    Jul 26, 2012 - 11:38AM

    @Ejaaz

    For those interested, they may wish to do a search on Morsi (the new president of Egypt) and his statement on “Quran is the constitution”. You may wish to think about why so many muslim countries around the world have essentially taken that position.

    You mean the House of Saud will rule Saudi Arabia, and Assad will rule Syria and the Ayatollahs will rule Iran and a minority sect will lord over the Majority in Bahrain, all this is preordained in the Holy Book?

    I find that difficult to digest.

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  • Sana Baloch
    Jul 26, 2012 - 4:59PM

    Wounderful piece Bangash sb, very well argued.

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  • skeptic
    Jul 26, 2012 - 5:38PM

    Those who assert that Quran is our constitution are confused. Constitution is a secular concept. Try and find some other term. Was there any Constitution during the reign of four caliphs? Was Allah sovereign during Mughal rule. By the way where the the term sovereign came from? The fact is that we Muslims are totally lost, confused and wavering as to how we should face the modern world which has come into being and is based on the utilization of science and technology which ultimately led to emancipation of people and democracy. Had it not been for the Colonial Masters to have introduced democracy,I am afraid we would still be calling our rulers Zil-e-ilahi who would have both supreme and sovereign in their own right.

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  • Jul 30, 2012 - 8:49PM

    Exactly, this sort of constitutional setting does not leave room for self-accountability of those running it. But, concept of “sovereign” authority has always been debated among theocratic mind-set and liberals. At-least in twenty first century, we should have to be more realistic.

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