Pandering to Extremists


Nadeem F. Paracha Published June 20, 2021 

Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

The Ahmadiyya community in Pakistan constitutes just one percent of the country’s population. Yet, almost every other day, social media sites are flooded with photos, videos and information highlighting the discrimination that this community has continued to suffer ever since its status was constitutionally reduced to that of a non-Muslim ‘minority’ in what became the ‘Islamic Republic of Pakistan.’

This happened in 1974, just a year after a new constitution was adopted by the parliament.

Even though the country’s first constitution passed by a constituent assembly in 1956 had also declared Pakistan an Islamic Republic, the name was changed to just ‘Pakistan’ when, in 1958, Gen Ayub Khan overthrew the government in a military coup. A new constitution passed in 1962 expanded the name to ‘Republic of Pakistan.’ However, it was soon changed back to ‘Islamic Republic of Pakistan.’ But interestingly, it kept appearing as Republic of Pakistan in state and government documents. This changed when the official name was reinforced in the 1973 constitution.

It is important to know this. In 1974, when anti-Ahmadiyya riots broke out, Islamist parties demanded that the ‘Ahmadiyya question’ and/or their status as a Muslim sect be discussed in the National Assembly. In his book, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Pakistan, the constitutional expert Rafi Raza writes that PM Bhutto refused to let the assembly discuss the issue because the parliament was not a place to debate theological matters.

But the Islamist parties retorted that since the country was now an Islamic Republic, its elected members had every right to discuss matters of religion. In 2013, while researching the 1974 ouster of the Ahmadiyya community from the fold of Islam through the 2nd Constitutional Amendment, I noticed that, till the late 1980s, not much was written about the issue. Even to this day, when comparatively more debates take place on the matter, it seems that most speakers still have a somewhat limited knowledge of the issue. 

Read | Ahmadis on the run: Fearing death in People’s Colony

As Umer Farooq, in his essay for the Pak Institute of Peace Studies, and Ali Usman Qasmi, in his 2014 book Politics of Religious Exclusion, demonstrate, the 2nd Amendment did not criminalise the Ahmadiyya from continuing to practise their beliefs or call themselves Muslim. This was actually criminalised a decade later, in April 1984, through an ordinance (Ordinance XX) issued by the Gen Zia dictatorship. It forbade the Ahmadiyya from calling themselves Muslim. They were also disallowed to call their places of worship as mosques or practise Islamic rituals.

Contrary to common belief, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government did not criminalise the Ahmadiyya from calling themselves Muslims or practicing their beliefs — that happened under Gen Zia. But Bhutto did allow the opening of a Pandora’s Box

My research shows that incidents of violence, against the Ahmadiyya, that had suddenly peaked just before the 1974 amendment, drastically dropped after the Ahmadiyya were declared as a religious minority. But the research also shows a gradual increase in violence against the community only after Ordinance XX was introduced. By then, the state too had become a party to the violence. 

Acts such as attacks on Ahmadiyya places of worship and graveyards top the list after 1984. But then there is also the question of how, in 1974, a parliament that just had a handful of members from Islamist parties — whereas the majority of parliamentarians were from overtly secular and quasi-secular outfits — agreed to enact a constitutional amendment that was tabled and debated through an entirely theological point of view? 

The origin of what led to the amendment is well known. A clash between Ahmadiyya youth and members of the student-wing of Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) in the Punjab city of Rabwah triggered the wrath of Islamist parties, whose anti-Ahmadiyya movement in 1953 had been crushed by the military.

When the Islamist parties began to protest more vehemently on the streets, Bhutto asked a judge to head an inquiry commission to investigate the Rabwah incident. According to Umer Farooq, as violence in Punjab gained momentum, Bhutto began to see it as a conspiracy against his government.

During this period, India had tested a nuclear device. Farooq writes that Bhutto was of the view that the anti-Ahmadiyya issue was constructed by his enemies at home and abroad to undermine his planned response to the Indian nuclear test. Bhutto also accused the leader of the left-wing National Awami Party (NAP), Wali Khan, of being part of the plot because Wali had met the Afghan President Sardar Daud, who was a passionate advocate of Pashtunistan.

In June 1974, as the Bhutto regime continued to warn that the anti-Ahmadiyya riots were a plot to destabilise Pakistan through Islamist parties, Shia groups too began to demand the ouster of the Ahmadiyya from Islam. When the intensity of the violence increased, opposition parties, both Islamist and secular, began accusing Bhutto of trying to “put the matter in cold storage.”

The June 4, 1974 issue of Dawn quotes an angry Bhutto asking the opposition, “Are we to allow cannibalism among the citizens of the country?” However, eventually, Bhutto decided to allow the parliament to debate the matter and suggested that a resolution against the community be passed. But the Islamist parties insisted that the Ahmadiyya should be constitutionally declared non-Muslim. 

Read | The 1974 ouster of the ‘heretics’: What really happened?

Some of the most heated debates on the matter in the parliament were held during in-camera sessions, and their minutes are not available. Even the inquiry report of the Rabwah incident conducted by the appointed judge is still classified. Findings of the parliament committee that interviewed religious scholars, including those from the Ahmadiyya community, too remain under wraps. Why? 

Raza writes that some contents of the report were leaked to the parliamentarians. And it is this that sealed the fate of the Ahmadiyya. No other source mentions this, though. The opposition was able to table a bill to amend the Constitution and turn the Ahmadiyya into a minority.

Bhutto allowed his party’s members in the parliament ‘to vote (for or against) the bill according their own conscience.’ On September 17, 1974, the bill was passed with an overwhelming majority by a parliament with a handful of Islamist members. Most members of the left-wing NAP and the ruling ‘socialist’ Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) also voted for the amendment. The 1984 Ordinance XX was, however, issued by a reactionary dictatorship. The rest is a history of persecution, discrimination and mob attacks, now even between recognised sects and sub-sects. 

A weak opposition had cornered a majority regime through a tricky theological issue. The government tried to usurp the issue in a bid to neutralise the opposition. Instead, the move strengthened the government’s opponents. The amendment and then the 1984 ordinance flung open a Pandora’s box, from which bigotry and violence have continued to spew.

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 20th, 2021


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