Civil liberties and Pakistani constitution – Umer Farooq

In Pakistan both complaints and protests have become a norm. Everyone is complains about every other thing and people come out on the streets at the slightest provocation. Most of these complaints are genuine, as the quality of life has generally deteriorated in Pakistani society.

This particular piece of writing, however, is directed towards a particular type of complaint– a complaint against the shrinking space of political freedom in the society.

People generally complain that Pakistan is a sham democracy and that people here do not enjoy full spectrum of political and civil liberties and freedom available to citizens in western democracies.

Enforced disappearances are a norm, people are put behind bars for protesting against incumbent political governments and that high handedness of military, police and intelligence agencies are on full display. Media is not free. Most of these complaints are correct.

In this situation, opposition political leaders complain that the sitting government has usurped all political freedoms and media leaders talk about the shrinking space of freedom of expression. Besides, there are civil society activists who are always complaining that expressing dissenting opinion has become dangerous in the society.

I don’t disagree with any of the abovementioned assertions.

But, in addition to joining this chorus of complaints, I would like to point out a positive aspect of political freedom in the society. In Pakistan, there is a strong framework of law and tradition that supports those who want to see a vibrant culture of political freedoms flourish. But these norms, traditions and laws have remained dormant and have not become part of our political culture.

Human history is witness to the fact that nation states do not concede civil rights and political freedoms that easily. They always come to the society after a long and audacious struggle.

This long and audacious struggle is what is missing from Pakistan’s political history. The country’s political history is replete with political agitations carried out in the streets of Pakistan as a reflection of some vicious power struggle in the corridors of power.

On the other hand, we never saw a group of people or a section of the society agitating for the political freedoms and civil liberties afforded to them in the constitution. The fundamental rights provided to the people of Pakistan are a complete package, which contains every conceivable political right. However, our civil society is not that well organized to could claim these rights in the day to day functioning of the society.

For instance, take freedom of expression. Pakistan’s constitution fully protects the right of freedom of expression. But only a handful of journalists came out to protest when this right was usurped during the black years of General Zia-ul-Haq.

Even now there are very few organized groups in the society who take the right of freedom of expression very seriously. Freedom of expression is the collective right of the whole society. But it is actively exercised by the media and journalists, on behalf of the society, to protect the public interest. So it is the duty of political parties, civil society and every citizen as a whole to protect this right as this belongs to society as a whole.

Similarly, consider the strong tradition of religious freedom that could be found in the foundational parliamentary documents of the country. True, that in Pakistan the situation relating to religious freedom is very precarious. But believe me, we have a very strong basis for initiating political tradition for religious freedom in the country.

Take the example of Quaid-e-Azam’s August 11, 1947, speech in the constituent assembly in which he asserts that state had nothing to do with religious beliefs of the citizens and that the state will treat every citizen on equal basis. How many times have Pakistani political parties made an attempt to make this speech and its message a part of our constitution?

This speech spells out clear and concrete steps for improving the social and political conditions of the society and provides strong foundations for a solid political tradition. However, it lays dormant in the parliamentary records. Instead we made a vague ‘Objectives Resolution’ the foundational documents of our constitution, which clearly lays down principles for discrimination between citizens on the basis of religion.

The Pakistani constitution clearly lays down rules for providing religious freedom to minorities to practice, profess and preach their religion in the society. But how many times has our civil society made a determined attempt to come forward and tell the state that it would not allow oppression of the minorities?

It can then be concluded that we clearly have a framework in place for political freedom and civil liberties. True, that there are some laws on the statute books, which clearly discriminate against the minorities and we have to improve the greater framework as well. But we should also struggle for acquiring those freedoms, which lay dormant in the statute books.


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