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The once-in-a-year commission

Opinion

May 5, 2020

A few days ago, the federal government announced the reconstitution of the ‘National Commission on Minorities.’ Hailed, as usual, as a ‘historic’ decision, the announcement also noted that the commission’s chairman shall be a minority too.

Before one could laud this decision properly, another cabinet decision shook the country, with it being declared that a member of the Ahmadi community will also be included in it. While the government quickly backtracked on the Ahmadi inclusion, apparently unsure how to even treat it as a minority, full resolve was shown to constitute the said commission as soon as possible.

Before I discuss the merits of the present dispensation, a note on the background is certainly merited. I was about to be impressed by the commission till Google told me the said commission has existed since 1990. It was of course a shock for me to find that out from the yearly report of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, which gleefully copy pastes the information on the commission every single year. To use the phrase of the ministry itself, this ‘high powered’ commission has quite regularly met once every year, and often enough it has been such an important part of the agenda of successive governments that its terms of reference and members have been notified even twice in a twelve-month period as in July 2014 and May 2015.

By 2018, the issue was so critical that with the end of the three-year tenure of the members, it was realised that the whole commission had no legal cover and that unless the provinces agreed, its mandate was limited to Islamabad, as minorities were now a provincial issue. Thus, the big decision of introducing a statutory commission was taken, the ball thrown in the direction of the Ministry of Law and Justice, and the elections awaited.

Continuing the tradition of previous governments, this government also did not make any progress on the issue in its first year or so, by neither nominating members for the once-in-a-year commission nor by introducing a law in parliament to make it worthwhile endeavour. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court had also followed up the landmark judgement of Chief Justice Jillani on minority rights in 2014, and a one-man commission under Dr Shoaib Suddle was set up to implement the said judgment in January 2019, since four and a half years were quite enough time to wait for a judgment to be implemented.

Now perhaps to pre-empt the submission of the Suddle Report, or to just appear to have done something, the current government has decided to resurrect the old toothless commission, with some additional garnishing. However, the proposed commission still throws up some serious issues.

First, since it is still based on the 1990 cabinet decision, it is likely that it will remain a once-in-a-year commission, and not have any value. The decision to have a minority member as its chairman is certainly a good decision but it will hardly have an effect if it only meets once a year. The only way such a commission will likely have some use is if it is constituted under an act of parliament with independent members and statutory powers. At the moment it is still subservient to the ministry and will meet and operate at its whim. It needs to have independence, authority of a civil court in certain cases, and enforcement powers. Without such measures, its constitution is not worth the paper it is printed on.

Secondly, the remit of the commission needs to be clearly defined. As it is, it seems like it is still unclear what it will actually do. If the old terms of reference are anything to go by, it will say nice things about the government, recommend some cursory changes, and enjoy some tea and three biscuits. Its scope needs to be clear, broad, and actionable. It also needs to be focused on human rights, inclusion, and empowerment.

It seems that the commission is a ‘religious’ body, with a number of its members being heads of religious communities in the past, and, as it is proposed, in the present. But this commission should have nothing to do with how minority religions operate. It should focus on issues where the government can help non-Muslim Pakistanis develop and become full citizens of the country. Thus, its composition should reflect the mandate to address different issues facing the communities and their experts rather than mere religious figures.

It should also not include political leaders, since their proper place is parliament. Of course, the commission can always invite the input of political leaders and work with them, but officially including politicians merely replicates the work of the politician and takes away from their primary role. Since it is a national and non-political body, its composition should also reflect bipartisan consultation and a wide range of experts.

Third, the commission needs to have either provincial offices, or the provinces should be persuaded to constitute their own statutory commissions. Without provincial arms, the commission at the centre would only be able to issue grand proclamations without any enforceability mechanism. Having provincial bodies will also enable the strength of different minorities to be reflected in the local constitution, and also allow for province specific approaches to be adopted. It will also make enforcement easier as liaison with the local administration and police will be much easier from a provincial base.

Minorities in Pakistan only constitute about five percent of the population. Yet their existence is precarious, their rights socially and even legally curtailed, their economic outlook dismal, and their development chances dim. The government needs to do all it can to help this beleaguered population.

The federal cabinet is set to make the final decision on this issue. Thus, it is important that the government take cognizance that only a statutory and empowered National Commission of Minorities will be actually ‘high powered’ and able to change the future of the minorities, who are citizens of Pakistan, for the better.

The writer researches on the Christian community in Pakistan.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter @BangashYK