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A problematic bill

May 18, 2017

ACCUSED of delaying the implementation of the Fata reforms, the government convened a session of the National Assembly to pass the Riwaj bill and has lobbied for support in the National Assembly Standing Committee on States and Frontier Regions. But the government is now facing parliamentary opposition because of the perception that it is not serious about implementing the cabinet-approved Fata reforms, a five-year plan for mainstreaming the tribal areas. The government has also come under fire for the Riwaj bill itself as the implications of the problematic bill, a part of the overall Fata reforms that have been widely praised, become clear. Some context is important here. At the outset of the Fata reforms debate, even before the reforms committee headed by Sartaj Aziz was formed, there was one unambiguous consensus: the Frontier Crimes Regulation had to go. The infamous law had become the very symbol of Fata’s unacceptable constitutional status and the oppression of its people.

The solution was obvious too: repeal the FCR and replace it with the normal criminal and civil justice system that exists in the provinces. After all, while there are vast disparities between, for example, parts of Sindh and Balochistan and the most developed parts of the country, no serious legal observer would suggest that different provinces need different systems of justice. A uniform system of justice is one of the elements that unite a people and a country. But the government did not have the courage to develop one, and, instead, drafted the Riwaj bill, a hybrid entity that retains the jirga system but tries to give it a modern, constitutional gloss. Imperfect as the bill itself was, the overall Fata reforms proposed by the government were sensible — a five-year mainstreaming project leading to Fata’s eventual merger with KP.

The problem is the government now appears reluctant to implement the wider reforms and unwilling to commit to the eventual merger of Fata with KP. In this changed scenario, the issue of the Riwaj bill becomes trickier, a potentially permanent change that may be an improvement on the FCR but that falls unacceptably short of the standards of justice and democracy. The controversy in parliament too should not obscure what is at stake: many parliamentarians opposing the Riwaj bill are doing so only because they sense the government is backtracking on a Fata-KP merger, not because they necessarily disagree with the core values that the bill embraces. Whatever the protections in the bill itself, the fear is that a hybrid justice system will quickly be made subservient to conservative dogma and entrenched interests, and will produce results very similar to the current FCR-jirga system. The people of Fata deserve a justice system that is modern and constitutionally the same as the rest of the country.

Published in Dawn, May 18th, 2017