The rumpus over an oath by Muslim candidates for election to the national and provincial assemblies was the result of ignorance and groundless misgivings. And the adoption, post-haste, of an amendment to the Election Act, that had been passed only a few days earlier, was an act of surrender by a beleaguered government that is gasping for breath and is afraid of losing its allies and voters on the extreme right.
More ominous than that was a warning of the shape of things to come.
What had happened was this: The Representation of the People (Conduct of Election) Rules 1977 included a “Declaration and Oath by the person nominated (to contest election)” which required the candidate to “solemnly swear” that he believed in the absolute finality of the prophethood of Muhammad (PBUH) and that he was not an Ahmadi.
The authors of the Election Act changed the heading of the form to “Declaration by the candidate”. They also dropped the words “I solemnly swear that” and went straight to the affirmation “I believe in” the finality of the prophethood and the denial of being an Ahmadi.
This exercise in editing was challenged on the ground that it protected a non-believer from being disqualified. All such objections were untenable because the critics ignored the fact that the declaration was not meant to be made by a non-Muslim and it had nothing to do with disqualification; that matter is covered by Article 63 and Khatm-e-Nabbuwat is mentioned neither in Article 62 nor in Article 63.
The government tried to defend the change with two arguments. First, that the change in the text made no difference to affirmation of belief in Khatm-e-Nabbuwat, and secondly that the change had been approved by a parliamentary committee that included religious parties’ members and which had been seized of the reform proposal for two years. But soon, fearing a possible religious backlash, they agreed to restore the original text “in order to avoid further controversy” and in accordance with a “consensus amongst the political parties in the National Assembly”. A bit smart.
Incidentally, nobody seemed to have noticed the fact that all Muslims enrolled as voters so far have affirmed their belief in the finality of prophethood. Form ll (Rule 5), prescribed under the Electoral Rolls Rules of 1974, includes an oath to the effect that each head of family, who gets his family’s names registered as voters, “solemnly swears” that he and all members of his family believe in the finality of prophethood and are not Ahmadis.
This form is no longer valid and Chapter IV of the Election Act, that has replaced the Electoral Rolls Act of 1974, says nothing about a voter’s belief or any oath. However, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), that can frame rules under the Act and can now do this without the President’s prior approval, could make sure that each Muslim voter affirms faith in Khatm-e-Nabbuwat and the candidate’s declaration might again become only an additional effort to protect the faith.
Where did the government go wrong?
They made the mistake of transferring a declaration from rules to the body of the relevant law and that made a change in the Act of 2017 necessary. Had the declaration been left in the rules, a change could have been made by the ECP with a stroke of the pen.
Secondly, the editors of the laws that were being put together perhaps tried to justify their perks by unnecessarily crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s – a dangerous task in a status quo-loving country like Pakistan.
Anyhow that part of the matter is over. The second point of contention was the exclusion from the new Act of sections 7B and 7C of the Conduct of General Elections Order 2002, issued by General Musharraf. Sec 7B says that despite reversion to the joint electorate system, the status of Ahmadis will continue to be what has been laid down in the constitution, meaning that they will be treated as non-Muslims. And that is all the basic law says about the Ahmadis. Sec 7C says that if a non-Muslim gets himself registered as a Muslim he should be asked to make an oath about the finality of prophethood and if he declines he should be declared a non-Muslim.
These sections have become redundant after the designation of Muslim seats in assemblies as General seats; a non-Muslim could not contest a Muslim seat but there is no bar to his contesting a General seat. However, if this strange amendment, that is, saving three sections of an order that has been repealed, satisfies the religio-political parties, let it be so.
The challenge to the Election Act and the amendments made to it are, however, less grave matters than the confirmation of the public view that the government and the so-called mainstream parties have placed themselves at the mercy of religious extremists. If both sides continue to behave like they have recently conducted themselves no room will be left for voices of reason, compassion and humility.
The leaders of religious parties raised a storm that the issues in debate did not warrant. It was said that no change in the Khatm-e-Nabbuwat law would be tolerated. Which law was being referred to? The only reference to this subject is in the two clauses of Article 260 that Ziaul Haq inserted in the constitution to replace the somewhat safer clause added vide the much-disapproved Second Amendment of 1974.
The defence of everything done by dictators, especially General Zia, as an immutable injunction of faith, however far removed from Islam it may be, will not bring credit to true Islamic scholars. Nor will it benefit any government that beats retreat at every sign of challenge without a sincere exchange of views. However unyielding the ulema may appear to be they should be helped to realise the limits of their unreasonableness.
A glimpse of what wild bellicosity lies under the garb of religiosity can lead to was offered during the National Assembly last Tuesday when Captain (retd) Mohammad Safdar unleashed a torrent of invective any sensible person should be ashamed of. It is not difficult to understand his state of mind after finding himself caught in the jaws of NAB and like a drowning man he will try to clutch at any straw but nothing entitles him to go berserk and rant against a community that has already been marginalised.
Speaking in the manner of Ahmadi-baiters of the last century, when Ahmadis could be found in civilian and military services in significant numbers, he called for purging all services, especially the judiciary, the armed forces and the Atomic Energy Commission, of Ahmadis, and he was unfair to all of these institutions. He thus betrayed not only a surfeit of malice in his mind but also his ignorance, since Ahmadis have been removed from important positions many times over.
He also fulminated against the appointment of Zafrullah Khan as Pakistan’s first foreign minister for which he should file a case against the Quaid-i-Azam. His call for the cancellation of the small honour the Quaid-i-Azam University has done, as an after-thought, to the memory of Professor Abdus Salam, Pakistan’s first Nobel Laureate, an outstanding scientist and a man of many parts, deserves to be condemned in the strongest possible terms. None of this was necessary to please the conservative voters of his constituency in Mansehra district or to help his party overcome its jitters.
The freedom allowed to Captain Safdar to viciously attack a grossly battered community has raised serious questions about the parliament’s attitude towards the minority communities. There was a time when legislators were advised that while criticising the administration it was improper to attack bureaucrats by name, because the latter were not able to defend themselves on the floor of the house. The same privilege should be allowed to groups of people who are not represented in parliament.
Moreover, the parliament is supposed to be the guardian of all citizens including those who are not represented in its houses. The grant of freedom of the house to a purveyor of hatred and violence has compromised the dignity and majesty of the parliament and this at a time when the people expect it to guide the state out of its multifaceted crisis.