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Equal or privileged?

Huzaima Bukhari

All citizens are equal before law and are entitled to equal protection of law―Article 25(1) of 1973 Constitution of Islamic Republic of Pakistan

We claim to be a democratic state that boasts of democratic principles yet we have failed to attain the desired level of prosperity and stability, essential elements needed to build successful and strong-charactered nations that Aristotle has summed up in a one-liner. He said: “The only stable state is the one in which all men are equal before the law.”

Does this mean that somewhere along the way, we have messed up the concept of equality that is supposed to exist in our society and administrative institutions? If so, where did we falter and how have we ended up in creating disparities that have resulted in shaking the foundations of democracy in our country, although we would never want to admit it but bask in the sunshine of the last three and the present fourth uninterrupted democratic regimes.

Atifete Jahjaga, third and first female president of Kosovo from 2011 to 2016, despite being quite young compared to the many aging statespersons, averred: “Democracy must be built through open societies that share information. When there is information, there is enlightenment. When there is debate, there are solutions. When there is no sharing of power, no rule of law, no accountability, there is abuse, corruption, subjugation and indignation.” One cannot help but acknowledge the wisdom of this statement that aptly winds up hundreds of pages of books and research pertaining to golden rules regarding democracy.

For an efficient government, exchange of basic information, regarding every member of the state is a prime necessity. This implies that data of the entire population must be readily available for effective planning and distribution of resources. If this is not done, then there are great chances of imbalances wherein some regions progress while others remain embedded in the prehistoric era, particular classes of society make accelerated progress while others remain backward and illiterate, wealth becomes concentrated in a few hands rendering the majority to live from hand to mouth and most importantly, the stamp of ‘sham democracy’ can become its dreaded reputation. If such an environment persists, expecting overnight miracles to occur in transforming a nation is nothing more than an illusion.

Having stressed upon the significance of gathering and sharing basic information, the government has the prerogative to withhold certain data as confidential that may jeopardize the security of the country and its citizens. This can be related to personal information of income, wealth, medical ailments etc. of the denizens, defence services, international relations, treaties, legislations etc. These are considered sensitive therefore not subjected to disclosure but where it becomes incumbent, then only on certain conditions as laid down in the law.

In a recent Supreme Court judgement in CRP 296/2020 etc., public officials were justly reprimanded for “having breached the confidentiality” of a taxpayer. JusticeYahya Afridi while writing the additional note (not binding as not part of order) observed “…..in violation of the Constitution and law, particularly the provisions of section 216 of the Ordinance (Income Tax Ordinance, 2001) entailing penal consequences, belies the most elementary principles of “good governance”, and expose the worthy Prime Minister’s complicity in the commission of the said violations.”

Following this observation and so as to avoid being penalised, the said section was amended with retrospective effect vide Finance (Supplementary) Act, 2022 by inserting clause (t) in section 216(3) that empowers Inland Revenue (IRS) officials to divulge information about “any high level public officials and public servants in BPS-17 and above, their spouses, children or…..provided that nothing in clause (t) shall apply to those who are expressly excepted under clause (iv) of sub-section (m) of section 5 of the National Accountability Ordinance, 1999…” that defines “public office holder” in detail but specifically excludes “a person who is a member of any of the armed forces of Pakistan…”

The question is, what kind of information would be available with the IRS that can be disclosed. The answer is quite straight and simple: Details of income returned, expenditure incurred, assets and liabilities. Now considering that members of the armed forces are salaried individuals, having publically declared pay scales, what have they to hide? If details of assets of other salaried public office holders can be shared on demand from investigative agencies, then why not in the case of Generals, Admirals, Air Vice-Marshalls? Here is where inequality presents itself on the canvas of governance. If each arm of the forces claims being covered by its respective laws of justice over which, the civilian courts, including the Supreme Court have no jurisdiction, then so does the Judiciary (Supreme Judicial Council). If this is so, then how come families of judges can be exposed whereas those of the armed forces cannot be touched, particularly when they may be connected to tax evasion and illegal enrichment?

Personal acts, especially related to financial dishonesty by citizens of Pakistan, should be subject to strict accountability as they derive their strength from the taxes paid by the public. Salaries of all civil and military employees come from the public exchequer funded by the people who have the right to know how their money is being used and they also have a right to see the deceivers, whosoever they may be, being punished after due process of law. Why are some segments of the society given such a privileged position that they become untouchables and the very essence of Article 25 stands defeated? Had we really understood the true spirit behind the Constitution, our country would have claimed a much respected position in the political comity of the world.

It is about time that some taboos need to be discarded, one of them is the idea of sacred cows about whom Oliver Markus Malloy says: “A sacred cow, unexamined, feeds itself and produces a whole lot of bull****. And nobody wants that, except the people who profit by selling bull**** Those are the people who profit by selling you bull****. Those are the people who try to tell you that examining or criticizing the sacred cow is taboo.”


The writer, lawyer and author, is an Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), member Advisory Board and Senior Visiting Fellow of Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE)

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