OVER A COFFEE : Behaving badly on all fronts — Dr Haider Shah
Certain behaviour patterns make our social norms iconic, which in turn define the state of affairs we are in today
Problems do not go away by sleeping over them. Especially when the problem is deep rooted militant extremism. Political restraint on dealing with it head on has resulted in its spread all over the country. But behaving badly and imposing our will on others is not exclusive to militant terrorists alone. To varying degrees, most of us use our powers in a very distasteful manner. Certain behaviour patterns make our social norms iconic, which in turn define the state of affairs we are in today.
A few days ago a news story was aired by the electronic media according to which a Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz MPA, Nighat Shiekh, travelling in an air-conditioned bus, felt so offended by a delay in getting a glass of water that she went berserk and physically assaulted one of the bus hostesses, Iqra Batool, for not taking good care of her royal majesty. Incidents like slapping a working class person in public by a displeased member of the ruling elite take us back to the times when society was neatly divided into masters and slaves. Waheeda Shah’s slap last year became an instant media hit and is still fresh in our memory. This kind of behaviour, therefore, must not be leniently viewed and the culprit must be duly reminded that we no longer live in old times. What the working class hapless girl making two ends meet for her family must have gone through after police arrested her instead of her tormentor, it is not too hard to imagine.
It is heartening to know that Mian Shahbaz Sharif took notice of the incident and as a result, the party membership of the concerned MPA has been suspended. But this is not merely a matter of party discipline. A citizen of Pakistan has been assaulted with the intention of humiliation in public. This is a criminal offence and a case should be registered against the suspended MPA under assault related provisions such as Sections 350, 351 and 355 of the Pakistan Penal Code. Past experience tells us that often in these media focused cases, action is taken to defuse the situation and when the case loses its headline value, the powerful become active to deal with the situation in their own way. It is important to ensure that Ms Batool remains safe and secure in her present job and no behind-the-scenes detrimental action is taken against her through her employers. It is the job of our media not to sleep over this story and ensure that those who stand up for their just cause should not suffer in any way in the long run. When the have-nots feel insulted and humiliated and the powerful rule with impunity, a social vacuum is created, which is then exploited by extremists of all sorts to legitimise their militant movement.
The Supreme Court has, appreciably, exercised its suo motu powers in some human rights violation cases such as the Shahzeb Khan murder case, and the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl whose body was found in Islamabad a few months ago. If the suo motu power of the higher judiciary needs to be exercised, it should be solely for these kinds of human rights related stories. However, the power has increasingly been exercised in matters that fall in the domain of executive authority. For instance, soon after the budgetary measures announcement by the new government, the registrar of the SC wrote a note about imposition of new taxes to the Chief Justice, and consequently, a suo motu notice was taken by the Supreme Court. Here I am not discussing the merits of the case, as it is for the honourable judiciary to decide on that. I am more concerned at the growing tendency of the judiciary to play to the gallery and keep prowling for any newsworthy item to take the credit for being very people-friendly. In executive matters, direct interference by the judiciary is not a healthy sign. The new government has just got the mandate of the electorate and should be allowed to exercise its authority without the long shadows of any other institution. The courts have the power of judicial review of any administrative decision. If a taxpayer had moved the court against the tax imposition then it could have looked into the vires of the executive decision. But this trend of the Supreme Court registrar becoming a complainant in suo motu cases must be discouraged as it does not augur well for institutional development based on the separation of powers doctrine. Besides restraining the temptation of direct interference in executive decision making, the judiciary also needs to check its growing interest in assuming a ‘defender of the faith’ role. Societies evolve and faith-related positions undergo transformations through discussions and other socio-economic changes that happen over a period of time. The judiciary should play the role of defending the rights of freedom of expression and equal protection of law rather than issuing orders that have the effect of imposing censorship and institutionalising discrimination in society.
In my previous writings I have been mentioning energy, the economy, Balochistan and extremism as four open wounds that require intensive care as a priority by the government. While the first three appear to be earnestly discussed, unfortunately, the issue of extremism has so far failed to gain urgency in the discourse of the architects of ‘Roshan’ (bright), as well as Naya (new) Pakistan. By burying its head in the sand, neither an ostrich deals successfully with a predator or an impending storm and nor do our policymakers make things better by leaving the source of the problem untreated for long.
The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of the Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org