August 9, 2020

By Asra Haque


After an onslaught of criticism, the Punjab Assembly on Saturday, August 8, stalled the draconian Punjab Tahaffuz-e-Bunyad-e-Islam Bill 2020, which had previously been unanimously passed on July 22. Following outcry from civil society organizations, minority groups and religious schools of thought over the ambiguous wording of the bill, and the granting of sweeping powers to an official without the legal or political authority to investigate the concerns laid down in the bill, Punjab Assembly Speaker Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi assured that further consultation will be sought on the bill.

On August 8, the same law makers that had lauded and unanimously passed the bill without opposition voiced their reservations, admitting that they had not read the draft in its entirety, but had simply approved of it as it extended protection to the “foundation and tenants” of Islam.

The Provincial Assembly unanimously called for the formation of a committee comprising of the House and prominent religious clerics to review the bill before it is passed into an Act. Law Minister for Punjab, Raja Basharat, asserted that without consensus, the Punjab Assembly would not move on the bill. Several parliamentarians of the PTI, the PML-N and the PPP advocated for completely withdrawing the bill and adding new amendments, or creating a fresh, more inclusive and sensitive legislature in place. They stated that they could not possibly push for a bill that empowered a government officer to dictate one’s creed and school of thought.

The bill, lauded by Speaker Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, gives the provincial government extraordinary powers to monitor and censor publications deemed contrary to the interests of the state, culture, religion and sectarian harmony. The bill also vests the Directorate General of Public Relations (DGPR) with the authority to survey printing presses, publishers and book retailers, as well as bar printing, importing or publishing any book, in print or soft form, found to contain written or photographic “objectionable material”. The interpretation of what is objectionable has been left to the discretion of the DGPR.

Peter Jacob, Executive Director of the Center for Social Justice, stated that the Punjab Tahaffuz-e-Bunyad-e-Islam Bill lacked justification and rationale – what possible threat could the foundations of a religion whose followers constitute 97% of the population in Punjab could possibly face from the other 3%? “We have seen religion-specific and discriminatory laws being instrumentalized to persecute religious minorities such as censorship, blasphemy and matrimonial laws.

Religious minorities are genuinely apprehensive about the intentions behind and the outcome of this bill,” he explained. “In fact the sectarian motif of the bill is all too well-established. If this piece ever becomes a statute, the outfits spreading hatred and persecution of minorities will be armed with a weapon for witch hunting and preying upon the poor religious minorities.”

He urged the PTI l leadership, as well as the Governor of Punjab Chaudhry Muhammad Sarwar to decline his assent on the bill. “I also request the honourable members of the Punjab Assembly to reconsider this bill in order to allay the concerns of religious and sectarian minorities.”

Of the various restrictions on publications, Section 3(d) objects to any material that is likely to jeopardize or is prejudicial to the ideology of Pakistan or the sovereignty, integrity or security of Pakistan. Section 3(e) places restrictions on material that is in conflict with the commonly accepted standards of morality and decency, and which promotes vulgarity, obscenity, and pornography.

“It is a dangerous, unprecedented bill, because the kind of censorship it aims to impose was never even the case under the military dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s,” Dr. Yaqoob Khan Bangash, an educationist, historian and Assistant Professor at the Information Technology University in Lahore, observed of the Punjab Tahaffuz-e-Bunyad-e-Islam Bill. “It is poised to not only wreck the publishing industry but also to put an end to free thinking, let along any kind of thinking in Punjab.”

On July 29, rights activists expressed their reservations over the passage of the bill, calling into question the bill’s legitimacy in the face of it violating a number of fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution of Pakistan of 1973. Concerned groups called attention to vesting immense arbitrary, unfettered and unilateral power in the DGPR in breach of reasonable restrictions that can be imposed on the right to freedom of speech (Article 19) under the Constitution.

The function of the DGPR is relegated to the publicity of and public relations for the Punjab Government, and as such there was no legal rationale for the DGPR to be granted official competence to make determinations on the concerns laid out in the bill. Moreover, arbitrary confiscation of books (as the ambiguous wording of the bill makes it difficult to ascertain the criteria under which publications may be seized by the DGPR), and the DGPR’s role in meting out judgments as per their discretion on the matter, is violative of Article 10A (right to fair trial).

The ambiguous wording of the bill, in which “objectionable material” is referenced but not defined in precise terms, may empower discrimination against minority groups, as the lack of a mechanism of checks and balances against discrimination and prejudice will abet the abuse and misapplication of the powers of the bill, resulting in grave violations of Article 25 (equality of citizens).To impede printing, importing, publishing and distributing books that are considered prejudicial to state interests, religion or sectarian harmony, or found to contain objectionable content, is also contrary to Articles 19 (freedom of speech), 19A (right to information) and 25A (right to education).

Dr. Yaqoob Khan Bangash noted that the inclusion of restricting imports of books is a particularly bizarre clause of the bill, as no foreign publisher would print a version of an already existing book specific to Pakistan’s demands. The end result may be a literal embargo of information that allows the world to make strides in progress, but leaves Pakistan, especially Punjab, stuck in the past.

“If this bill becomes a law, it will most certainly halt critical thinking, it will create very narrowly constructed, prejudiced minds,” he lamented. “The controls it is trying to usher in will close the minds of people in this province, and even perhaps the rest of Pakistan. People will only read, view and write what is acceptable to the government – it would kill all critical and free thinking in Punjab. And when it does, it will create large swathes of useless human beings. If one does not indulge in critical thinking, in debate, controversy, and thinking outside the box, how will we bring up our coming generations?

The bill is couched in religious language in a misguided attempt to protect religious sentiments as well as the sentiments of the establishment, however the sustained outcry from the Shia community is proof that minority communities are threatened by the legislature. Rather than safeguard sectarian harmony, the bill may instead promote sectarian tensions and violence, especially against marginalized and minority communities which the bill does not extend its protections to.

Civil society organisations and rights activists have demanded that in lieu of the various tenants of the Constitution that the Punjab Tahaffuz-i-Bunyad-i-Islam Bill 2020 denigrates, the Punjab Assembly should submit its justification for drawing up and passing the bill. Seeing as there is no viable rationale for the existence of this bill, they have called upon the Punjab Assembly to rescind the legislature.