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No Love Lost For British Colonialism. But Are We Really Independent? 

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Yasser Latif Hamdani responds to the criticism of his previous article for Naya Daur where he discussed what would have happened if Pakistan had continued as a dominion.

My last article seems to have inadvertently opened up quite a can of worms. As I write, the critics continue to undermine my argument. I would like to thank all of you for making this lockdown all the more thrilling.

Much of the so-called criticism is aimed personally at me instead of engaging with the basic idea that I have posited in the piece. I will come to that in a minute but let me first address some of the more outrageous claims that have been made against me and my motivations, especially as some of these may endanger me personally in a society that is increasingly intolerant of any dissenting view.

One commentator said that my article was a thinly disguised call for Pakistan’s consensual subordination to the British crown.  Let me begin by stating again- there is absolutely no possibility of Pakistan “consensually” or otherwise returning to any kind of subordination to the British crown. That is constitution impossibility and even if we were willing, which at least I am not, the Crown is unlikely to take us back.  That was not the point of the article in any event as I explain below. There are several other people who decided to vent their personal anger at me by ascribing meanings to the piece that I could not have imagined.

One social media user tweeted that no self-respecting historian or social scientist could write such an atrocious piece, while not offering any coherent argument vis a vis the points I raised. Well, I am neither.  I merely wrote the piece as a Pakistani living in 21st century, a citizen of an ostensibly free country who was foolish enough to think that one could express one’s point of view without being branded as an apologist for colonialism or being abused as a slave of the colonial masters.  Quite silly of me to assume that such a thing was possible in Pakistan.

As I pointed out in the original piece, I have no love for British colonialism, not now not ever. I do see it as a fact of history just as despotic Mughal rule was also a fact of history.  If there was any good that came out of either, it was not by design and even if it was, the British did not do us a favour by making railways, hospitals, universities etc.

Having imposed their rule on largely unwilling multitudes of the subcontinent, it was their responsibility which they discharged only patchily at best.

Any person who has read the history of British colonialism in the subcontinent knows the famines East India Company caused almost deliberately in 1770 and then again later that century by their bullish exploitation of the resources of the once rich province of Mughal India. Since they were a mercantile power, the damage done was doubly so. 

Even after the crown took over in 1857, millions continued to perish in the plague and then in Spanish flu under the Raj. Then there was the Jallianwala Bagh, the site of which I have visited in Amritsar and saw the bullet holes, too numerous to be counted. It was butchery of the worst kind. We also know that as eminent a British statesman as Winston Churchill did untold harm to Bengal by refusing to divert rations from the war effort.

 It was callousness at its worst.  So let us put this controversy to bed.  I do not want British rule to return. I am certainly not going to use Karl Marx’s famous argument that British rule was in the final analysis beneficial because it was not. What I have only done is put forth the question of what it means to be independent.

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Let’s explore the Dominion status argument.  Pakistan’s date of independence is 15 August 1947, according to the Independence of India Act 1947, not 23 March 1956. I do not want to get into the debate of 15th and 14th, which is immaterial here.  Pakistan did not become independent when it became a republic.  It became independent as soon as Pakistan’s own Constituent Assembly was empowered to make its own constitution and laws.

What does independence mean? The main problem with British rule was that big ticket items were all legislated in the British parliament and not the Indian Legislative Assembly. While the British rulers had been forced to concede some legislative powers to the Indians thanks largely to the advocacy of Jinnah, Gokhale and Motilal Nehru etc in 1909 and 1919, the real administration lay in the hands of the bureaucracy backed by a strong Indian Army. Sounds familiar? It should.

While we became ostensibly independent, at no time have we broken the hold of these two institutions.

All we have done since 1947 is replace the white bureaucrat and army officer with the brown one.  Meanwhile, what little democratisation has happened, it has been concerned not with the things that should matter but rather to forward majoritarianism of the worst kind.  

This is true on both sides of the border. We have two majoritarian behemoths facing off like two unruly and out of control elephants.

When I originally tweeted about the Queen (the point of origin of this current controversy), I wanted to make a point that a country that today unfairly forecloses the right of Non-Muslim Pakistani citizens to become head of state or head of government once had not one but two Anglicans as heads of state.

Yes we can be proud of that fact, not because they ruled by the fiat of British guns but because independent Pakistan’s sovereign Constituent Assembly allowed them to for a brief period. 

To my mind the very idea of a republic is defeated when you discriminate on any basis between citizen and citizen. Religion is just one of these basis.  So no I do not think Pakistan is a republic.  Pakistan is a hybrid theocracy, at best.

Let us call a spade a spade. Theocracy has popular sanction in Pakistan.  Each person can draw their conclusion, but given this sorry state of affairs, I would have preferred Dominion – a self-governing, completely independent democratic Westminster style dominion with the monarch being a mere figurehead and show piece as Queen Elizabeth was from 1952-1956-over a highly militarised theocracy.

It is only because the third choice has never been historically available to us – the morally correct choice – a DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC that treats all its citizens, of whatever faith or culture or ethnicity or gender, equally? That is my ideal but I also realise that a wide gap exists between idealism and realism.

 It is Pakistan’s abject failure to become that state that makes one think of a time when it was not a theocracy. Sadly experience tells us that one Muslim majority country that came somewhat close to that ideal – Turkey- itself has slid into the same old pattern. Populism. Again this has no bearing on the present.

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To repeat again: Pakistan cannot, will not and should not become a constitutional monarchy again.  It is as I said a constitutional impossibility.  There is however no harm in remembering an earlier time when we were not an outright theocracy. It is not like we are going to petition the Queen to take us over even I was – as you fear- some kind of deluded monarchist (which I must insist I am not).

Finally, a law student described me as a ‘black letter constitutionalist’ and ‘an apologist for both Jinnah & formal Westminster style parliamentarism’ (sic).  I wonder what is with these academic snobs and labels?

No I am not sure if I am a black letter constitutionalist, given my adherence to the living constitution idea but then again I am not an academic. My sole experience is as a lawyer in the courts of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, where the current Constitution of Pakistan has often stood as a major roadblock for progressive change. I am a constitutionalist only in the sense that I do not believe in breaking the law and civil disobedience as legitimate methods of protest but that is not how it is meant here.  I also humbly submit to the charge that I am an apologist for Westminster style “parliamentarism” (sic). What I am not is an ‘apologist for Jinnah’ because Mr. Jinnah needs no apology.

Indeed one of the most amusing things is that people have dragged in Jinnah into this whole debate just because I have extensively written on the man. Seriously- you would scarcely believe it- but not everything I write is about Jinnah or linked with him. I do not need to defend his record; I only need to present the facts of his life.

One thing Jinnah was not was a monarchist and had no love for the British rule. British liberal thought as expounded by Lord Morley and others no doubt influenced him.  This made him a vociferous critic of excesses of British rule. The father of the Indian Constitution, Dr Ambedkar, wrote about him “Mr. Jinnah, who represents this ideological transformation, can never be suspected of being a tool in the hands of the British even by the worst of his enemies.” His parliamentary record speaks of his dogged commitment to the cause of self rule. His political goals, over time, may have shifted Hindu Muslim Unity to Muslim community’s rights but his view of the British remained the same. A few weeks before independence, Jinnah strongly objected to King George VI using the initials RI or Rex Imperator saying that he could not allow the King to use that title at least for Pakistan. This led to a somewhat heated exchange between him and Mountbatten.  So to drag in Jinnah is just unfortunate.

So as it stands these are my views, not borne out of any subservience or awe for the British but my complete disenchantment with the semi-theocratic state of Pakistan, of which I am a citizen and which I do not plan on abandoning. Instead of abusing me, perhaps it would be better if you proved me wrong and contributed in making Pakistan that progressive democratic republic which would shut my big mouth up decisively. Nothing would make me happier.

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