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Dawn: Strengths and Pitfalls

Author: Asma Jahangir
April 16, 2010

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The much-awaited Pakistani constitutional reforms may have sailed through the National Assembly and Senate but there are trials ahead. Senator Raza Rabbani deserves praise as do the other members of the committee that worked on the reforms. The proposed amendments are not perfect but they do lay the foundation for a clearer direction in the future,writes Asma Jahangir in a Dawn editorial.

However, the amendments may face obstructions - not for their weaknesses but for their strengths. They touch upon three basic parameters: the strengthening of democratic institutions, the recognition of provincial rights and the extension of two new fundamental rights - the right to information and primary education.

In places the reforms are illogical and confused about the basic concept of rights. The committee reinserted the word ‘freely' in guaranteeing freedom of religion to minorities in the Objectives Resolution, but contradicts this spirit of promoting tolerance elsewhere. By reverting to the original 1973 Constitution, the 18th Amendment makes it mandatory for the prime minister to be a Muslim. However, the chief ministers may be non-Muslims.

In reality, Pakistan's disempowered religious minorities can never even dream of reaching such pinnacles of power, but for the constitution to brazenly discriminate against them is indefensible. Non-Muslims may contest elections to the National Assembly and command a majority of votes, but cannot be elected as prime minister. Consequently, only Muslims will be able to be parliamentary leaders. Our political leadership must make up its mind: either it commits itself to non-discriminatory policies on minorities or confesses to bigotry.

Fata as usual has a generous quota of seats in parliament but reserved seats for women in Fata do not exist. Is one to conclude that women do not live or indeed suffer in Fata? Are they not as vulnerable as women elsewhere to warrant special representation?

The committee has retained Articles 62 and 63 of the constitution that provide for the qualification and disqualification of parliamentarians. They have made a few - sly - changes, but to no avail. Members of and candidates to parliament are assumed as "sagacious, righteous, non-profligate, honest and amen," unless a court declares them to be otherwise. In other words, each member of parliament will be presumed virtuous unless proven otherwise as a consequence of human foibles. The committee has removed the disqualification clause for those convicted under criminal charges or for giving false evidence.

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