Last week, the Punjab Provincial Assembly unanimously passed Tahaffuz-i-Bunyad-i-Islam Act, ostensibly to guard against “objectionable material in books” published in the province. Such “objectionable” material relates to terrorism, sectarianism, racism, interfaith disorder, threats to the ideology of Pakistan or to its sovereignty, integrity and security”, along with defamation of the Holy Prophet (PBUH). It also refers to anything in conflict with standards of morality, such as obscenity and vulgarity. But before the ink had dried on the legislation, a public backlash forced the Punjab Government to refrain from sending it to the Punjab Governor for approval as required by law.
For starters, many of the “objectionable” matters, including “defamation of the Holy Prophet (PBUH)”, are also covered under various provisions of the Pakistan Penal Code. Why was a need felt for a new law to account for them? Then there is the matter of enabling the DGPR to adjudge violations of this law, a middle level bureaucrat who is singularly ill-equipped to perform such a role. He is also entrusted with the job of vetting all books (including sheets of music, charts, maps, signs, etc.) on Islam – thousands of titles every year — prior to publication or importation in the province. Unthinkingly, it prescribes nomenclature for the family, companions and descendants of the Prophet (PBUH) and the Khulafa-i-Rashideen, some of which are unacceptable to the Shias, thereby raising the spectre of sectarian conflict. Why the Speaker of the Punjab Assembly, Chaudhry Pervez Elahi, was in such a hurry to draft and push through the law remains unanswered, no less than why no member of the august house deemed fit to point out its obvious flaws.
Then there is the anti-money laundering Bill passed by the National Assembly as part of the government’s obligation to fulfil the requirements of the FATF. In its original scope, it allowed any of several organs and agencies of the state to detain suspects for up to 180 days, a clause that is open to gross misuse by persecution and intimidation of select targets for political purposes. It is only when the opposition vociferously objected to it that the clause was whittled down to 90 days. Still, the act is confused and relies on an inept investigation process for results.
The acrimonious debate between the government and opposition over proposed amendments to the NAB law continues unabated. The government is ready to offer relief to bureaucrats and businessmen but not to politicians. Indeed, it continues to lean on NAB to go after troublesome opposition leaders while leaving alone those from the treasury benches accused of wrong doing. The NAB chairman is under a dark cloud already and the Supreme Court of Pakistan has ticked off NAB in no uncertain terms for lacking transparency, neutrality and efficiency.
Meanwhile, the opposition is at its wits’ end deciding how and when to oust the PTI government from office and what to replace it with. The PPP wants an In-House change that replaces the PTI government with a national consensus government that leaves intact the PPP government in Sindh. The PMLN wants an In-House change in both Islamabad and Punjab that puts it in the driving seat. The JUI wants an In-House change in the KP assembly that enables a coalition led by it to rule the province. Then there is the undecided question of when fresh elections should take place. The PMLN wants general elections before the Senate elections in March next year so that it can exploit its current popularity to pack the senate and national assembly. This would severely circumscribe the term of the new consensus government as an interim government. But this is the point at which the whole debate is blocked by the Miltablishment.
To be certain, there is no doubt that the Miltablishment is fed up with the incompetence and bungling of the PTI government which is laid at its door because it brought it in and has since propped it up. But it doesn’t trust the leadership of the PPP and PMLN (that it has actively worked to target and belittle) to do its bidding in the event it chooses to bring both parties back to office. Indeed, it is afraid that if either or both parties are unable to deliver on the economic and political agendas of the day like the PTI and if, on top of it, the old anti-Miltablishment hostilities in the PMLN leadership re-emerge in one way or another, it will be a case of getting out of the frying pan and into the fire. It is also known that the Miltablishment is not ready to risk another general election soon in the midst of an economic and health crisis that has laid the state low and increasingly tense border issues with India and Afghanistan that could escalate into full blown crises without warning.
Is the sacking or desertion of PTI team members, or the proposed APC, a sign of the times? Change or no change, the curse of interesting times simply won’t go away.