August Issue 2010
Degrees of Democracy
When Jamshed Dasti appeared before the Supreme Court to prove his innocence over charges of cheating and lying his way into parliament, the nation witnessed two things: a functioning judicial system and a shameless politician. The PPP MNA from Muzaffargarh was accused of holding a fake master’s degree in Islamic Studies, and so he was being held accountable before the nation’s highest court. When the judges asked Dasti to name the first 15 chapters from the Holy Quran, the only response they received was silence. This silence endured even after a judge asked, “How about the first two?” Dasti voluntarily resigned in the days that followed. Nonetheless after his verdict was announced, Dasti openly called the court’s decision a joke and claimed that the court of public opinion in his district was the only one that mattered.
Jamshed Dasti is just one of the many politicians who were found guilty of acquiring fake degrees. By the end of July 2010, the degrees of 47 members of parliament and provincial assemblies had been verified as fake and many more were expected to be added to the list. The PML-N was leading the pack with the the PPP following closely behind.
The roots of the scandal grew from a 2002 law imposed by General Pervez Musharraf that stated that all candidates standing for parliamentary elections must have a bachelors degree or equivalent. Despite the former president defending his stance by saying that the move would improve the quality of lawmakers, critics believe that it was a tactic to sideline particular opponents from contesting elections. Others termed it undemocratic in a country of 180 million people where less than 50 per cent of adults are literate.
During the elections held in 2008, there were a few candidates who decided to sneak under the radar and take oath on the Quran, despite not having the required degrees. Now, a couple of accusations against a few lawmakers have ballooned into one of Pakistan’s biggest political scandals under the current administration. Degrees of at least eight federal and provincial ministers have so far been found to be forged or invalid by the Higher Education Commission (HEC). However, the numbers are expected to increase as the degrees of more than 800 parliamentarians are yet to be authenticated.
Investigations have been prolonged, intense and often dramatic. There have been alleged kidnappings, scandals of cheating politicians being exposed in front of the nation, and allegations that the government was trying to slow the verification process down. The federal government gave the Higher Education Commission the task of collecting and verifying the degrees of the 1,170 parliamentarians of the nation by July 27, 2010 (extended from July 8, 2010). However, the deadline had to be extended two weeks further when it was announced that only 270 degrees had been properly processed. Furthermore, by the date of submission, the HEC had not received proper credentials of 595 parliamentarians. Helping the Commission go about this task (in accordance with a standard procedure) were 36 universities, which included Punjab University, Karachi University, Allama Iqbal Open University, and Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai University. However, on July 20, 2010, 516 degrees out of 736 degrees were sent back by the HEC to the respective universities for not being assessed according to the pre-set guidelines. Out of the 63 degrees sent back to Punjab University, four degrees, one of a senator and three of MPAs of the Punjab Assembly, were found to be fake.
Some speculate government tampering. According to Ansar Abbasi of The News, Education Minister Sardar Aseff Ahmed Ali was approached by the presidency to stop the verification process of parliamentarians’ degrees “at all costs.” President Asif Ali Zardari is apparently quite distressed by the entire ordeal as it is alleged that he believes it is merely a conspiracy to oust his PPP government. His fears were mirrored by Information Secretary Fauzia Wahab. While talking to various media personnel outside Bilawal House recently, she said that the fake-degree scam was nothing more than an attempt to “derail” democracy. She never explained how having politicians lie their way into parliament was democratic.
The fight spread to the institutions in the middle of the crisis. A duel between the HEC and the Education Ministry of Pakistan broke out. The HEC began sending out degrees to various universities for inspection without consulting the education ministry, to the annoyance of the Federal Minister for Education, Sardar Aseff Ahmed Ali; he termed it unconstitutional. In a statement, he said that the HEC should have conferred with the ministry before initiating the assessment of the MPs’ degrees. In response, HEC Chairman Dr Javaid Leghari stood by his actions saying that the HEC was the only institution that had the right to recognise the validity of any degree issued in Pakistan or abroad and was doing nothing that was against the government’s policy.
A lot has been said about the overwhelming pressures that Dr Leghari has been facing from different political groups, parliamentarians and even the federal government. There were media reports about the HEC chairman being forced to resign from his post. In a meeting with Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani about the problems he was facing, Dr Leghari related accounts of maltreatment of his family members during raids at his family home in Goth Leghari. But then things escalated to a whole new level. On July 13, Leghari’s brother Farooq Leghari, a former District Coordination Officer (DCO), was reported missing by his family. It was later discovered that he had been arrested on charges of inappropriately obtaining four to five crore rupees worth of land and vehicles at the expense of the provincial exchequer. It was hardly surprising that all these accusations surfaced just days before the HEC chairman was to announce the names of the politicians whose degrees were forged.
Top politicians and MNAs such as senior minister of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Rahim Dad Khan, Syed Muhammad Salman Mohsin, Mazhar Hayat of the PML-N, and Hayatullah Khan Tareen, Nasir Ali Shah and Mir Hamayun Aziz of the PPP have been found guilty of possessing fake degrees, while other important figures such as President Asif Ali Zardari, his sister Faryal Talpur, Senator Ms Ratna Bhagwandas and MNAs Dewan Syed Ashiq Hussain Bukhari and Mir Amir Ali Khan Magsi are being considered as suspects.
The question of punishment and justice lingers awkwardly in the air. With the current numbers, approximately 47 MNAs could face disqualification from parliament or hefty prison sentences. Despite calls from politicians such as Tehreek-e-Istaqlal’s president, Rehmat Khan Wardag, for a lifetime ban on parliamentarians holding fake degrees, the Supreme Court has said that those found guilty may only face a maximum prison sentence of three years. The apex court’s decision reflects section 78 of the Representation of People Act, 1976. However, Section 100 of the same act states that a person guilty of a corrupt practice could be disqualified from being elected as a member of the Assembly. Secretary Election Commission of Pakistan, Ishtiaq Ahmed, announced that any parliamentarian found to be guilty will be given the chance to explain his case to the courts.
Despite the tumultuous ups and downs that the nation has witnessed throughout this scandal, there have been incidents that have been quite amusing, such as the time when Balochistan’s Chief Minister, Aslam Raisani, uttered the historic words, “A degree is a degree! Whether fake or genuine, it’s a degree! It makes no difference!” According to PPP leader, Sardar Aseff Ahmed, “The courts should focus on other issues of more significance rather than taking up the fake degrees cases.” It is not surprising that the PPP feels this way. The PPP government faces mid-term elections if more party members are found to be fake-degree holders — a thought that most probably thrills the opposition.
Luckily for Jamshed Dasti, on April 21, 2008, the Supreme Court removed the requirement of candidates possessing a degree to participate in the general elections on the pretext that the Musharraf-imposed law was in contradiction to Article 17 (freedom of association) and Article 25 (equality of citizens) of the Constitution. Even though he was previously found guilty of possessing a fake degree, Dasti was not only made the adviser on livestock to the Prime Minister but a fortnight later was also granted a ticket to contest by-elections from the same NA-178 Muzaffargarh-111 constituency by the PPP. Despite disqualification petitions launched by rivals such as Nawabzada Iftikhar Ahmad, Dasti later won the elections. His punishment and disgrace has seemed to come to naught. The more things change, the more they stay the same.