May Issue 2013
“Who was the first man to step on the moon?”
“Where and when was Iqbal born?”
“Do you pray five times a day?”
“Which of your four wives do you prefer spending time with?”
These are just a handful of the questions posed by returning officers to candidates hoping to contest in the 2013 elections. With cameramen from various news channels taping the applicants as they stumbled over reciting the Urdu alphabet or Quranic verses, the electoral scrutiny process soon turned into a media spectacle.
The returning officers justified their questions by citing Articles 62 and 63 of the constitution, which requires that members of the parliament have “adequate knowledge of Islamic teachings” and must never have “opposed the ideology of Pakistan.” But the returning officers (ROs) may have a tough time explaining what ‘adequate’ Islamic knowledge or ideological leanings they were trying to glean from a woman candidate when they asked her if she bathes nude or semi-nude. Or when they told a woman she doesn’t look her age and instructed her to show her face to the crowd, which had gathered to watch the application process. Or when they asked another candidate, again a woman, who would take care of her children if she were to join the assembly.
The ROs would never have the gall to ask such absurd questions of influential political leaders, but they did reject the papers of renowned columnist Ayaz Amir on the basis of two of his columns, which they claimed went against the ideology of Pakistan. In one he praised the late Ardeshir Cowasjee’s well-stocked bar, and that was evidently enough to prove to the ROs that Amir is unfit to join parliament. His rejection galvanised the existent debate about the absurd scrutiny process, with some even calling the ROs’ behaviour ‘Orwellian.’
The ROs had the support of the people when they rejected those applicants who presented fake documents or those who were tax-defaulters. But it was when they took it upon themselves to be the arbiters of morality and piety that the criticism began. The Elections Commission Pakistan (ECP) immediately distanced itself from the ROs and, a little too late in the game, instructed them to avoid asking irrelevant questions.
Many of the rejected candidates appealed to the election tribunal and in many cases, including Ayaz Amir’s, the rejections were overturned. But the incident raises questions about articles 62 and 63 of the constitution, which were implemented during Zia-ul-Haq’s rule. What is ‘adequate’ knowledge of Islam? Is it praying five times a day? Or is it having four wives? One RO certainly believes so. Is there a definitive ideology of Pakistan, and if yes, where is it written?
And while the general consensus seemed to be that the ROs were completely out of line, they had their share of supporters too, with one self-righteous conservative journalist speaking on their behalf in various talk shows, emphasising that drinking is haram and reading the Quran is obligatory for all Muslims.
The root of the problem is that these returning officers, and their supporters, are not acting in isolation. Pakistani school textbooks have been criticised for including religious references even for non-Islamic subjects and for propagating suspicion and intolerance of non-Muslims. And the civil services exam requires candidates to answer questions about Islam. The interrogatory tactics of the ROs are simply a reflection of society in which conservatism and religiosity is on the rise.
The ROs would never have the gall to ask such absurd questions of influential political leaders, but they did reject the papers of renowned columnist Ayaz Amir on the basis of two of his columns, which they claimed went against the ideology of Pakistan. In one he praised the late Ardeshir Cowasjee’s well-stocked bar and that was enough to prove to the ROs that Amir is unfit to join parliament. His rejection galvanised the existent debate about the scrutiny process, with some even calling the ROs’ behaviour ‘Orwellian.’
In fact, perhaps we should be heaving a sigh of relief that the public was, for the most part, outraged by the questions and that political bigwigs such as Altaf Hussain spoke up against them. The election tribunal has also ruled that the ROs — who were so bent on finding violators of articles 62 and 63 — were themselves violating Article 25 of the constitution when they discriminated against candidates on the basis of religion and gender. The tribunal has also ruled that in the future the ECP will have to draw up a list of 20-40 questions on religion, devised in collaboration with the Council of Islamic Ideology, and from these they can ask candidates a maximum of five questions. The candidate would only need to get three of these five questions correct to prove that he/she has ‘adequate’ knowledge of Islam. Although this system is certainly more sensible than asking candidates how many wives they have and which one they prefer spending time with, one still wonders if such questions are necessary for those who are seeking to join parliament — not a madrassah.
Zehra Nabi is a graduate student in The Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University. She previously worked at Newsline and The Express Tribune.