The curious case of Pakistan’s official secrets and Army Act Amendment Bills

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Bills become laws in pakistan without ascent
Pakistan president Arif Alvi (Photo: PTI)

It sounds like a typical Hollywood potboiler. Two contentious bills that strike at the very heart of the democratic rights of citizens that are introduced in the Pakistan’s National Assembly are hastily passed and sent to the President for his approval. Nothing is heard about these bills from the President’s office and after ten days it is announced that these bills have become laws, and this is where things take an unexpected twist.

This news seems to take Pakistani President Arif Alvi by complete surprise and he quickly takes to social media and with God as his witness, makes the startling revelation that he never signed these bills as he “disagreed with these laws”. He goes on to state that “I asked my staff to return the bills unsigned within stipulated time to make them ineffective. I confirmed from them many times that whether they have been returned & was assured that they were.”

Alvi’s claim that “I have found out today that my staff undermined my will and command” raises a very pertinent question- as he holds the highest position of authority in the country, how could someone dare defy orders issued by the President of Pakistan? While no definite answers can be given, the one logical deduction which can be made is that whosoever on President Alvi’s staff took this decision was either acting on orders or had the blessings of someone who was interested in seeing these bills become laws and whose power and authority exceeds that of the President of Pakistan.

It’s no secret that the latest amendments to the Official Secrets and Army Act have specifically been made to serve a stick to beat former Prime Minister Imran Khan and his PTI supporters with and keep them out of the forthcoming electoral race. So, Rawalpindi is most certainly interested in ensuring that these two bills become laws. And it’s also no secret that the Pakistan Army chief is the one who calls the shots in Pakistan.

Readers would recall that while nominating the then Pakistan Army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa as the 68th most powerful person in the world in its 2018 list, Forbes mentioned that “Although the president is his boss on paper, Pakistan’s chief of army staff is de facto the most powerful person in the nuclear armed state.” So, there can be no two views that if what President Alvi is saying is true, then Gen Syed Asim Munir is definitely the one on whose orders the bills weren’t returned by the President’s Office.

However, there’s also a flip side to this entire episode. After President Alvi went public claiming that he had not signed these bills and his orders to return the same were disregarded, int­erim Law Minister Ahmed Irfan Aslam and Infor­mation Minister Mur­taza Solangi held a joint press conference and gave their side of the story. It was clarified that any bills pending at the Presidency for more than 10 days automatically becomes a law.

Aslam further clarified that “Under Article 75 of the Constitution, the president only has two options: either to sign a bill or reject it; in case of rejection, he has to give reasons for returning the bills unsigned.” In an obvious reference to President Alvi’s claim that he had asked his staff to return the bills, the interim Law Minister clarified that “Returning the bills without any observations or assent is not provided for in the Constitution.”

Could this incident be a simple case of the president’s staff wilfully disobeying his orders as being claimed by President Alvi? Is his contention that “I confirmed from them many times whether they [the Official Secrets and Army Amendment Bills] have been returned and was assured that they were,” true; or, is the failure to return the bills within 10 days a classic case of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds on the president’s part to allow them to become laws through default?

And it’s here that the mystery deepens.

While President Alvi has complained that though he disagreed with the bills they still became laws as his staff “undermined” his “will and command,” he hasn’t spoken a word about taking those responsible for this unpardonable lapse to task. Given the seriousness of this blunder, isn’t it surprising that while the President is seeking “forgiveness from those who will be effected” by these draconian laws, he doesn’t consider it necessary to disciple his errant staff?

By saying that his orders were intentionally disregarded by his staff President Alvi has clearly admitted existence of vested interests within the President’s secretariat, and this certainly demeans the office of the President of Pakistan and merits legal action against him, even it is means impeachment.

Pakistan’s Ministry of Law and Justice has in a statement accused President Alvi of “purposely” delaying the approval of the bills, and said that “It is a matter of concern that the president has chosen to discredit his own officials. The president should take responsibility for his own actions.” However, it has not mentioned anything on the issue of initiating legal action against him for what it’s clearly suggesting is a pack of lies.

Similarly the interim Information Minister has also ruled out any action against the president saying “The sanctity and respect of the president’s office do not allow us to make any such move,” adding that “No action can be taken against him till he is in his office.”  So, at the end of the day, while President Alvi’s claim that he had not consented to the Official Secrets and Army Amendment Bills may have stirred a hornet’s nest, it has also strengthened his position as a die-hard PTI supporter.

The new caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar’s proximity to the military is well known. Hence, could the caretaker government’s decision not to proceed against the president actually be a Rawalpindi ‘approved’ quid pro quo for the intentional delay by President Alvi that facilitated seamless approval of the Official Secrets and Army Amendment Bills? Lastly, could this face-saving exercise to boost Alvi’s image actually be part of a bigger plot hatched by Rawalpindi to ‘cultivate’ him for serving as a nail in Imran Khan’s political coffin?

It may sound weird, but as they say-anything is possible in Pakistan!

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