August Issue 2005
Here Come the Vigilantes
Regardless of the outcome of the present duel between Islamabad and Peshawar in the Supreme Court, the adoption of the Hasba Bill by the NWFP Assembly indicates a critical stage in Pakistan’s history. On the one hand the bill offers a preview of the theocratic dispensation the tradionalist clerics wish to impose on the people of this country. And, on the other hand, the proposed enactment marks a watershed in the religio-political lobby’s drive to capture the state and refashion it to suit its narrow interest.
The Hasba Bill, which its supporters are already treating as a settled law, offers a fairly adequate idea of what Pakistan will become if the pro-theocracy lobby succeeds in its designs. The bill envisages an alternative structure of power and dispensation of justice raised on populist props. The preamble says that an Hasba institution is necessary, not in fulfilment of any religious injunction but for protecting the rights of different sections of society including women, minorities and small children. The formulation is a classic example of planning to deprive the under-privileged of their rights under the slogan of protecting them.
The desire to replace the existing state structure is evident from the organisation of the Mohtasib’s hierarchy as well as the vast area of Hasba authority. The bill provides for a provincial Mohtasib and identical officers at district and tehsil levels. This structure guarantees the Hasba institution’s autonomous character, and its independence of the existing administration.
The area of operation for the Mohtasib is virtually without any limits. The Mohtasib is expected to do what the entire anti-corruption department and the accountability bureau are supposed to do, and that too summarily. He will supervise respect for Islamic morality and behaviour and ensure that the media serves Islamic values. He will not only prevent departments and officials from indulging in activities that are contrary to the Shariah but will also issue guidelines for making functionaries more efficient. Except for matters pending in courts, agreements with foreign governments or matters relating to different services and the laws relating to them, the Mohtasib will assist the provincial administration in making its task easier and more effective, which means the entire administration will be subject to Mohtasib’s diktat. The role of the Mohtasib is not confined to offering advice, he will have the power to have his orders implemented by relevant authorities, and if the latter do not carry out his bidding he could move the government for action against the offender. The provincial Mohtasib will also have the power to punish for his contempt. The underlying philosophy of the Hasba Bill is transfer of authority that can be exercised by a collective, through a process of consultation and consensus-building to a single individual as the decision-maker. True, the Mohtasib will have an Advisory Council but he will head the outfit and personally nominate its members. The bill makes sure that the members of the Advisory Council, namely two ulema, two lawyers and two grade 20 officials, are the Mohtasib’s yes men. Of course the advice of the council will not be binding on the Mohtasib.
The catalogue of the Mohtasib’s powers is truly mind-boggling. He will have both executive and judicial powers and the bill pays full respect to the theocratic dispensation’s reliance on vague formulations and concepts that can be subjectively interpreted. For instance, the bill says the Mohtasib will supervise Islamic morality and norms. What these norms are, have not been defined and the possibilities of the Mohtasib interpreting the Islamic values in his discretion are obvious.
The provision that says that the Mohtasib will ensure observance of Islamic moral values at public places is pregnant with possibilities of imposing on citizens a rule by vigilantes. Every space outside the four walls of the house is public place and that includes parliament house, court, educational premises, market, entertainment places, parks and roadside. Thus, everywhere, there will be baton-wielding policemen (it is doubtful if the Hasba authority will countenance policewomen) to impose on the people a code that will largely be based on the authorities’ interpretation of religion.
The bill also tries to undermine a regime based on law by suggesting extra-legal concepts. The bill uses the expression ‘discouragement’ while referring to extravagance, beggary, employment of small children and un-Islamic social customs. How will the Hasba force discourage practices for which the law does not provide specific remedies or punishments? Obviously the Hasba police will be required to make people behave in accordance with the whims of the baton-wearer whether, he has the law on his side or whether he is acting outside the law.
References to the Mohtasib’s power to prevent adulteration, artificial increase in prices and cost of living and bribery in government departments opens a wide field for the Mohtasib to rule by his whim and caprice.
What the bill contains is, however, less sinister than what it portends. The state establishment, especially the military elite, cannot ignore the fact that it is confronted with a conservative challenge, which is far more serious than anything the country has ever faced from this quarter. Between 1948 and 2002, the state was challenged by conservative clerics who had no share in the power structure (except for 1977-86 when they colluded with General Zia) and commanded the allegiance of a tiny part of the population, though their capacity to mobilise their following and use its street power gave them strength in excess of their numbers. Even then, the state never chose to meet the threat from them in a headlong clash. Instead, it yielded to them significant concessions every few years or so.
The situation now is different. If the religio-political forces had been helped to proliferate and acquire money and guns by General Zia, his successor in power facilitated their entry into the halls of power. The Afghan war, the military regime’s short-sighted policy of pushing mainstream political parties out of contention and the rise of madrassah power have greatly strengthened the organisations engaged in the power game under the banner of religion. Thus the military-dominated government at the centre has to reckon not only with an MMA government in Peshawar but also a considerably reinforced pro-theocracy opinion across the country.
The situation in the NWFP in particular does not favour Islamabad. The MMA’s accession to strength in that province may have been due to the military establishment’s choice of its partners but once installed in power they have created important parallel interests and acquired the support of the establishment’s permanent hangers-on. Some of the factors that contributed to the triumph of mullahs in the election 2002 are still operating in their favour. Afghanistan has not been stabilised and what is more important the Taliban are not totally out of the reckoning. The military operations in the tribal areas have given the population of NWFP and FATA an indigenous cause of alienation from Islamabad. A substantial part of the MMA following comprises elements whose choices are determined more by their dislike of Islamabad’s policies than by their trust in the new breed of faith-healers.
Besides, it is not very clear that the military has finally decided to ditch the mullah who is still its strategic ally. General Musharraf’s rhetoric about moderate or liberal Islam has little organised social backing. The conservative religious mass is bound and held together largely by belief. The people belonging to this large group are in close contact and interact regularly. They have the essential attributes of a united group. They are prepared to die for their belief. On the other hand, those sporting the badge of liberal Islam have neither a common platform nor a unity of purpose. Their actions are not motivated by belief A sizeable section of the liberals is wary of the government’s rhetoric because it rejects the idea of controlled democracy or is reluctant to allow the centre the right to interfere with a province’s rights.
In these circumstances, Islamabad’s capacity to deal with the MMA challenge is manifestly limited. The options supposed to be available to the federal government, such as killing the Hasba Bill under judicial verdict, dismissal of the provincial government or dissolution of the NWFP Assembly cannot be easily defended and will only aggravate the situation. Perhaps the only viable option is to call a general election within the next few months, but, before that, the ruling group will have to find ways of making peace with the major political parties (and that means, with Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif), without which it will win neither the contest of the ballot nor the battle in the street.
Mr. I.A. Rehman is a writer and activist living in Pakistan. He is the secretary general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan Secretariat.