‘Federal schemes on islands under provincial jurisdiction’ ’By Nusrat Javed

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By delivering a passionate but argument-based speech, Raza Rabbani, a veteran parliamentarian and former Chairman Senate surely conveyed a frightening message Monday afternoon.

Recalling a series of demonstrable events, he almost sounded convincing while building the case that since taking over in August 2018, the Imran government had increasingly been trying to enforce a stifling brand of ‘hybrid democracy.’

The critical voices are firmly denied the constitutional rights of expression and the space for academic and media freedom has visibly shrunk. As if those were not enough to ensure the top-down governance of command and control, the government eventually began tweaking with yet-not-enough “autonomy” as well, which the 18th Amendment of the Constitution had furnished for the provinces.

Being a consistent admirer of Raza Rabbani’s enviable command over the art of rhetoric in addition to his integrity, one, however, is forced to evaluate his speech in the context of agenda that the opposition had collectively set for the Monday sitting.

Taking advantage of their numerical edge, the opposition parties compelled the government to summon the ongoing session of the upper house of parliament. They even dictated the agenda for it. But they failed miserably, if the intent was to push the government to a tight corner by framing solid and sensational charges against it.

For the past many months, the grand alliance of ten opposition parties, Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), has been holding rallies in all our major towns. Almost at each of these rallies, speaker after speaker tried hard to whip up public sentiments by drumming accusations that the federal government was covertly executing an insidious scheme. It seemed adamant to take over some islands, constitutionally declared as the property of provincial governments. Cunningly ‘snatched’ islands would then be handed over to real estate developers of global reach. Two particular islands, currently under the control of Sindh government were specifically named in the said context.

The passionately drummed allegations triggered a huge backlash, not only in Sindh but also in Balochistan. Thousands of fishermen seriously fear for their only source of livelihood. The Island-snatching story alarmed the environment-friendly activists of the civil society as well.

You cannot accuse the opposition for inventing a fake story. The Imran government had indeed provided them with solid content by sneakily issuing an Ordinance, clearly expressing the intent of taking over some islands. But the said ordinance had expired on December 28, 2020 after not being adopted by parliament.

This certainly facilitated the foxy but polite law minister, Faroogh Nasim, to employ all possible tricks, fair or foul, to promote the story that the opposition was crying over a “non-issue,” merely to score political points.

His otherwise very intelligent speech, however, clearly conveyed that the federal government was still adamant to eventually take control of the discussed islands. Probably to reach there, it has to wait until the end of March this year. By then, fresh elections for 48 seats of the Senate would be completed. Through the expected elections, the Imran government seems confident to manage thin but workable majority for it in the upper house of parliament as well. That will surely furnish enabling space for the federal government to take over control of the discussed islands, through “appropriate legislation.”

If the issue of the real or alleged intent for taking over was really “dead and buried,” the law minister should not have consumed the brilliance of a crafty lawyer for building the case that our constitution ‘clearly’ empowered the federal government to initiate “development schemes,” on islands falling under “provincial jurisdiction.”

Quoting multiple articles of constitution, back-to-back, and referring to a Supreme Court ruling, he kept asserting ‘federal’ entitlement over ‘national’ resources. Highlighting the rights and authority of the federal government was not his sole intent. Visibly vicious and sadistic, he also sounded while gleefully recalling that way back in 1974, the founder of Pakistan Peoples’ Party, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who had also introduced the Constitution of Pakistan in 1973, had put the discussed island under the control of Port Qasim Authority, a ‘federal’ outfit indeed.

He sounded doubly wicked by flaunting a document, which to him clearly showed that the PPP-led Sindh government had initially showed no reluctance to surrender the discussed islands. The Sindh cabinet exhaustively considered the federal government’s request in the said context and eventually conveyed “no objection” through an “official communication.” Perhaps the backlash from the fishing community and civil society activists forced second thoughts. They also motivated the Sindh government to announce, “taking back” of the “no objection.” Strong legal precedents don’t entertain “second thoughts,” however.

If you go by words, words and words, the law minister did appear to have completely demolished the case the opposition had been building against the possible grabbing of some islands, currently falling under provincial jurisdiction of Sindh and Balochistan.

Only an equally intelligent and forceful lawyer from the opposition benches could puncture his case by pointing out holes. But Sassi Palejo of the PPP took the floor after Faroogh Nasim. She, for sure, is an ardent promoter and defender of provincial rights. Hailing from Thatta, a coastal town, she also has the inborn and deep affinity with concerns of the fishing community. But her passionate speech failed to spin a counter story, demolishing the case Faroogh Nasim had tried to build by cleverly employing all possible tools of a skilled but heartless lawyer.

I seriously believe that after the speeches of Faroogh Nasim and Raza Rabbani the Senate Chairman should have disposed off the matter under discussion. The government preferred to continue with it, however, primarily to rub in its pet theme, of projecting our opposition parties as reckless representatives of “looters and plunderers,” recently “ganged up” in the PDM to malign the “good governance” of Imran Khan and selfishly sabotage his mission to turn Pakistan into a stable and prosperous country.

A ruling party backbencher, Aurangzeb, took the floor to promote the same this Monday afternoon. For another day, Wasim Shahzad, the leader of the house also strained his lungs to educate us regarding a highly complex issue of ‘identity’ with feigned compassion and inanities. So ended yet another day in our Upper House.