Tolerable inequalities

July 31, 2012

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Over the last two weeks the Supreme Court of Pakistan has been hearing a number of petitions challenging the constitutionality of the newly enacted Contempt of Court Act 2012. Though the cases are still pending and judgment has yet to be passed, it is relatively safe to assume that most of the arguments raised will rely heavily on Article 25 – the Constitutional provision which guarantees the equality of all citizens before the law, the equal protection of the law to all citizens, and equality between the sexes.

This Article is considered to be highly evolved by way of interpretation – every year there are scores of reported judgements, in which the general principle is applied to individual cases. Part of the reason for this large volume of cases, is the frequent application of this provision in cases involving heavy commercial interests. Companies and business people often rely upon it to challenge cronyism by bureaucrats and other government officials. For the most part this use is well justified, and it serves as a valuable check on the excesses which any government is wont to make.

Nonetheless I’m often bemused, not only by the frequent reliance which Courts and litigants place on this provision, but also by the Article itself. My amusement follows from the entrenched inequalities present in the remainder of the document which we refer to as our Constitution. To clarify: I am, in letter and spirit, a Constitutionalist. I do believe that it is only by blind loyalty to a central objective text based on political compromise, that the diverse communities which call Pakistan home can hope to prosper. Regardless, it would take either an idealist or a blind man to look past some of the grave excesses which form part of the fabric of our polity.

In a previous blog, I referred to the inequalities imposed on the Federally Administered Tribal Area and its residents – inequalities which are rooted not only in policy, but in the very text of the Constitution. Equally distressing, if not more so, is the condition of minority sects. A quick refresher: in 1974, a new definition was added to the Constitution for the term ‘Muslim’, which restricts it so as to apply only to those who believe in the finality of Muhammad as the last prophet; In 1985, yet another new definition was added: “260(3)(b) -- ‘non-Muslim’ means a person who is not a Muslim and includes... a person of the Quadiani Group or the Lahori Group (who call themselves ‘Ahmadis’ or by any other name)...” The circle closes with the enactment of the innocuously named Ordinance XX of 1984, which made it a criminal act for either Ahmadis or Quadianis to: have a mosque, make a call to prayer, refer to their adopted prophet as a prophet, propagate their faith, or “in any manner whatsoever, outrage the religious feelings of Muslims.”

Now, though this may come as a shock to most Pakistanis, there are many different sects of Islam both in Pakistan and around the world. All base their beliefs upon the Quran. Yet, they have differing interpretations regarding its true meaning. And yes, there is a significant proportion of people who proclaim themselves to be Muslims (whether in public or in private) and also believe in prophets who are not accepted by the majority of Pakistani Muslims.

The sensible thing then would be to engage with these differing viewpoints through theological discourse. What is not sensible is to criminalise differing beliefs in the vague hope that it will dissuade people from adopting them in the first place. If you must proselytise, then do it by way of reason and not by way of force – it is after all no accident that this is the means by which any religion takes root and then flourishes.

History itself speaks to the failure of the alternative. The alienation of a society. The criminalisation of an idea. And ultimately, violent and bloody bigotry. Though there has been a lot of talk recently regarding the civil isolation meted out to Dr. Abdus Salam, there is a more recent incident which continues to weigh heavily on my mind. On 28 May 2010, during Friday prayers, a group of seven men entered two Ahmadi places of worship carrying assault rifles, grenades and explosives. Nearly a hundred were brutally exterminated and over a hundred were injured. Media outlets later received a message from those claiming to be responsible: “this is a final warning ... leave Pakistan or prepare for death at the hands of Mohammad’s devotees.”

Meanwhile, the Pakistani public continues to remain silent regarding what it perceives to be a tolerable inequality. And through its silence, it has already acquiesced.

 


The writer is a lawyer practicing in Karachi.

 

 


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