PRIME Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi shakes hands with Leader of the Opposition Syed Khursheed Shah in the National Assembly on Thursday.—PPI
PRIME Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi shakes hands with Leader of the Opposition Syed Khursheed Shah in the National Assembly on Thursday.—PPI

ISLAMABAD: Despite having a rare agreement over the draft of the bill, the defection-hit ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and opposition parties — the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) — had to labour for ensuring the presence of at least 228 members (two-thirds of the 342-member house) that is mandatory for passing a constitution amendment bill.

The bill, which will be numbered as the 25th Constitution Amendment Bill, was tabled by Law Minister Chaudhry Bashir Mahmood Virk after a wait for more than two hours.

Dawar Khan Kundi, a PTI dissident from Dera Ismail Khan, was the only dissenting vote after the lawmakers of two government allies — the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazal (JUI-F) and the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP) — which chose to walk out from the assembly ahead of the vote as a mark of protest.

The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which had earlier declared that it would not support the bill, finally voted in its favour after Shah Mehmood Qureshi of the PTI, Railways Minister Saad Rafique and the PPP’s Syed Naveed Qamar persuaded it to do so on the condition that Dr Farooq Sattar would be allowed to speak out his party’s reservations over the move.

National Assembly passes landmark bill to merge tribal areas with KP; JUI-F, PkMAP boycott vote

Both JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman and PkMAP president Mehmood Khan Achakzai, who have been forcefully opposing the planned merger of the tribal areas with KP, preferred to stay away from the proceedings, perhaps anticipating that they could face the wrath of the majority of the members for their stance.

Maulana Fazl is reportedly in Saudi Arabia these days and there was talk in the galleries that he had been sent there by the government as a face-saving measure.

In the absence of the two leaders, Fata MNA Jamal­uddin and Naeema Kishwar of the JUI-F and Abdul Qahar Khan of the PkMAP reiterated their party position and termed the passage of the bill an act that could have “dangerous consequences” for the country.

“Today is a black day as the parliament is about to remove the name of Fata from the country’s constitution,” said Jamaluddin, alleging that Fata was being merged with KP as part of a foreign agenda.

Jamaluddin said the PML-N and the PTI “curse each other” all the time, but today they joined hands to “usurp the rights of Fata people”.

Qahar Khan said Fata people should be given the right to decide about their own future. He said, “The people of Fata want their own province, their own chief minister, their own governor and their own public service commission.”

The JUI-F and PkMAP members also targeted Imran Khan and Sheikh Rashid in their speeches, saying “those who have been cursing the parliament until now are today sitting here without having any regret.”

Dr Farooq Sattar delivered an emotional speech which was frequently interrupted by the PPP members when he called for creation of more provinces in the country on administrative grounds.

The MQM members thre­atened to stage a walkout from the house before the voting when the PPP members started raising slogans during Dr Sattar’s speech as he indirectly called for creation of Karachi province. The MQM members, however, were prevented from staging the walkout by Shah Mehmood Qureshi who also requested the PPP members to stay calm and allow the MQM leader to wind up his speech.

Dr Sattar said the MQM was supporting the bill “only for the sake of political unity” as the party still believed that Fata should be turned into a separate province and a referendum should be conducted in the area to seek the people’s opinion.

Farooq Sattar also called for the formation of 19 provinces — including Karachi — on administrative grounds before recalling that in the past the MQM had put forth bills for creation of provinces of southern Punjab, Hazara and Fata. He said the KP alone should be divided into four administrative units.

“We fear that if Fata is merged with KP, it will become difficult to create a new province in the future,” he said, adding that the country’s constitution was “most difficult one” in terms of creation of new provinces.

He also warned of violence and terrorist activities in Karachi in the wake of severe water crisis in the city.

“We are the last shield in defending Karachi and the country,” he said, adding that they should not be pushed to wall.

Bilal Rehman was the other MNA from Fata who opposed the bill and staged a walkout.

On the other hand, Shah Gee Gul Afridi, an independent MNA from Fata, alleged that Maulana Fazl and Mehmood Achakzai were opposing the merger because they knew that “they would not get any funds from abroad after the bill is passed.” He said “real faces of those who want to keep the people of Fata divided for their political advantages have been exposed in the parliament today.”

The bill will now be taken up by the Senate on Friday (today).

The highlight of the day’s proceeding was participation of PTI chairman Imran Khan in the voting who had appeared in the assembly after about two years.

The long-awaited mainstreaming of the tribal areas had been in the works for four years, pointed out Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi. He thanked the opposition parties for their support to the bill and termed its passage a “historic occasion.”

Imran Khan also congratulated parliament on coming together despite differences between the ruling and the opposition parties.

The bill seeks an amendment to Article 1 of the Constitution which defines the country’s territory and mentions Fata as a separate entity along with four provinces. The bill also amends Articles 51 and 59 which specify the number of seats allocated to each of the federating units in the national and provincial assemblies.

Another daunting task for the political leadership is to get the bill passed with a two-thirds vote in the KP Assembly before the expiry of its term on May 28, three days before the National Assembly’s dissolution.

As per Article 239(4) of the Constitution, the president cannot assent a constitutional amendment bill which affects geographical boundaries of a province without approval by the assembly of that province.

If the bill does not get through the KP Assembly, then the fate of Fata merger will be in the hands of new representatives to be elected in the coming general elections. Even after its passage from the National Assembly and the Senate, the president will have to wait for giving his assent till the installation of the new KP Assembly.

Published in Dawn, May 25th, 2018