The writer is a former member of the Foreign Service.
The Constitution is absolutely clear. Article 63 (1) (c) states unambiguously that anyone who has acquired the citizenship of a foreign country stands disqualified from being elected to parliament and the provincial assemblies. This provision of the Constitution is reiterated in Section 99 of the Representation of the People Act, 1976. Yet, it is public knowledge that many of our lawmakers possess foreign nationality and happily continue sitting in our legislatures in open violation of the Constitution.
When the Supreme Court suspended the membership of Farahnaz Ispahani last month for being a United States citizen, she protested loudly on the grounds that there were also many other lawmakers holding dual nationality against whom no action had been taken. This, she complained, was against the principle of equality of law. It is difficult not to sympathise with her. But she should blame the Americans-or, should we say, her fellow- Americans-for the misfortune that has befallen her. If her husband had not been serving as ambassador, the State Department would not have revealed information about her US citizenship and she too would still have been enjoying her privileges as a member of the National Assembly.
It is to be hoped that Ispahani will now find some consolation in the fact that she is not alone and has company in the person of none other than Rahman Malik, our erstwhile interior minister and current Advisor to the Prime Minister on Interior, with the status of federal minister. But there is a minor detail: while Malik claims to have renounced his foreign citizenship, Ispahani is not prepared to give up hers, and yet would like to remain an MNA. We might have lost the chance of hearing Malik sing “God Save the Queen,” but there is still a possibility of seeing Ispahani belt out “The Star-Spangled Banner,” though probably not in parliament.
Ispahani is certainly right in complaining that there are many others like her who have dual nationality but retain their seats in our legislatures. This has never been a secret. They are rich and well-connected. Their first loyalty is to their new lands of adoption, while Pakistan serves as a convenient second home which they can milk to enrich themselves further. But they have never been unmasked. They have taken great care to conceal their foreign citizenship, apparently with the connivance of our authorities. They come not just from the PPP but also other political parties.
The most common foreign nationalities are US, Britain and Canada. According to one reliable estimate, there are about 35 of them. Only one of them, Azam Swati, has so far publicly admitted being or having been a dual national and he did so only on the termination of his six-year term in the Senate. He claims now to have surrendered his US citizenship, but we do not know if he has made a legally effective renunciation in conformity with US law.
Despite this open breach of the Constitution, neither the executive nor the legislative branch of the government has taken any meaningful steps to implement the constitutional ban on foreign nationals becoming lawmakers. If the government had been serious in ensuring compliance, it would have initiated legislation that would require all candidates for election to disclose if they hold foreign citizenship and provide for deterrent punishment of those who make false statements in this regard. But the government has not done that.
For its part, the legislature has similarly failed to take steps to enforce the ban on dual nationals. All attempts to raise the matter in parliament or its committees have been brushed aside. Questions from the public – and occasionally from members of the legislatures themselves – about lawmakers holding dual nationality have evoked the stock reply that no official record is maintained on this subject and that our lawmakers are under no legal obligation to disclose information on foreign citizenship.
The speaker of the National Assembly and the chairman of the Senate have also been complicit in keeping open the doors of our parliament to those who owe allegiance to foreign countries. Under Article 63 (2), they are under the obligation to refer to the Election Commission any question whether a member of parliament has become disqualified on having acquired foreign citizenship, but they have never done so, not even when it has become public knowledge, as in the case of Ispahani.
The same disregard for Article 63 (2) is evident in the speaker’s failure to refer disqualification cases of holders of fake degrees to the Election Commission. The last straw was the highly partisan ruling given by her in the case of Gilani’s disqualification on his conviction for contempt of court. What this means in effect is that those who belong to the ruling political party do not have to fear disqualification proceedings under Article 63 (2).
Like the executive and the legislature, the Election Commission has also in the past been shying away from enforcing the ban on foreign nationals becoming members of parliament. It was only in December last year that the Commission issued a directive ordering the returning officers to obtain a declaration on oath from all future candidates to parliament or a provincial assembly that they do not possess the nationality of another country.
Despite the clear language of the Constitution disqualifying those who have acquired foreign citizenship, Gilani claimed in a TV interview on May 28 that dual nationals can become members of parliament. He called for a decision by parliament on the issue and urged that dual nationals should be allowed to sit in our legislatures. His logic was peculiar, that “things have changed in the world,” and if Pakistan disqualified its dual nationals, people of Pakistani origin would also be disallowed to sit in the British parliament. Obviously, Gilani is incapable of thinking beyond the narrow interests of his party’s co-chairman to whom he owes his job and has no idea of how other countries make policy.
Gilani was right, though, when he said that there are no constitutional restrictions on dual nationals becoming civil servants. He could also have added that there is currently no constitutional prohibition on dual nationals joining and holding senior positions in the armed forces and being appointed to the post of Advisor to the Prime Minister. Most countries do not allow foreigners and dual nationals to be appointed to the civil service and the armed forces. We should also impose a similar restriction in Pakistan.
The first priority should be to cleanse our legislatures of dual nationals. The Election Commission made a good beginning last year when it made it mandatory for all those who seek election to parliament to make a declaration on oath that they do not possess the nationality of a foreign country. But that might not be enough. In addition, candidates should also be asked to disclose if they have held a foreign citizenship at any time in the past and, if so, to provide documentary proof of having renounced it in conformity with the laws of that country.
Since our own authorities have been unable or unwilling to help the Election Commission in identifying dual nationals, the commission should consider writing to foreign embassies to obtain this information. They could hardly refuse because the nationality of a person is not a personal or private matter.
In addition, the election laws should be amended to impose deterrent punishment, including imprisonment and heavy fine or forfeiture of property, on those who make a false declaration with regard to any foreign citizenship they might have held. Currently, they do not face any real penalty if they lie in this matter. It is to be hoped that the Election Commission will initiate steps for the necessary amendments to the election laws.