LAHORE: Senior Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leader Ahsan Iqbal and other eminent experts on Sunday argued that the supremacy of constitution, independent media and rule of law were imperative for a strong and democratic federation.
These remarks were during a session, ‘State Discourse and Nation Building’, at Asma Jahangir Conference, which was held at Avari Hotel in Lahore.
The session that covered issues of national security and civil liberties in the age of growing censorship was moderated by senior journalist Arif Nizami and included eminent lawyer Ali Ahmed Kurd, former foreign minister Khursheed Mahmood Kasuri, PPP leader Chaudhry Manzoor, and Barrister Ali Zafar as panelists.
Nizami, who moderated the session, spoke about the prevailing crisis of identity in Pakistan. “Is Pakistan a secular state or an Islamic one or is it one based on the rule of law where all citizens, including minorities, have an equal right to live,” he raised a question.
He also spoke about the crackdown on media freedom in Pakistan, saying, “Who has the right to decide the narrative in Pakistan? Is it the people through their vote or a class associated with religion or the army? At present we are being told about the ‘officially certified truth’. Should anyone have the right to dictate to the media in a democratic country?”
In response to these questions raised by Arif Nizami, the PML-N senior leader Ahsan Iqbal started a discussion and said, “In 1991 Pakistan was the economically number one state of South Asia and today we are far behind everyone.
He said in order for the country to progress there was a need to “bring all the ethnic, racial, religious groups together according to the constitution”.
“If the citizens get equal rights, the country will surely excel. Judiciary needs to independent for controlling and condemning the constitutional abuse,” he added.
Barrister Ali Zafar talked about the 18th Amendment, saying it was a demand of the provinces which accorded more powers to provinces due to which federation felt “weak”.
“Democracy is important to us but it is equally important that majority rule should be made subject to the rule of law,” Zafar added.
Senior lawyer and activist Ali Ahmed Kurd, while speaking to Nizami about the lawyers’ movement of 2007, said, “The movement was a historic one and allowed us to assert our rights.” He also pointed out the state’s discriminatory policies towards Balochistan.
Replying to Arif Nizami’s question about the role of the opposition in nation-building, Chaudhry Manzoor said that people were being denied rights in the name of national security.
“There is a special group who decided about who would be in politics and who will be out and also decided about who is to be brought on media and who is to be kept away. There will be no national security unless the people’s rights and security are not ensured.”
Speaking about the civil liberties, Kasuri said, “Any national narrative supporting a certain group would never be successful, as rights of all needed to be acknowledged for a stronger Pakistan.”
Speaking on the issue of national security, Lt. Gen. (r) Talat Masood said, “The role of the armed forces has been crucial since the early years of independence and cannot be undermined even in the present situation.”
“There are two reasons for weak democracy in Pakistan; one reason is the dominance of the army while the other is the weakness and timidity of all other state institutions,” said the ex-general.
On concluding the session, Arif Nizami said that national security could only be strengthened when democratic institutions and the media are allowed to function without interference.
“All institutions are under threat at present. The dream of civilian control over the armed forces will be realized when all institutions, including media, become independent.”
Former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gillani, while addressing the closing ceremony said, “I am deeply concerned over what I see as the present government’s drift towards instability. The supremacy of parliament is under threat while the government has abandoned the principles of parliamentary democracy in preference of dangerous populism which will only weaken the federation.”
Marriyum Aurangzeb, Qamaruz Zaman Qaira, Irfan Qadir, Salima Hashmi, Mian Iftikhar Hussain, Sardar Akhtar Mengal, Mohsin Dawar were some of the prominent names who participated in the the conference.