Famous Chicago mobster Al Capone was nabbed not for his greatest sins but for tax evasion. U.S. President Richard Nixon was eventually removed from office because a minor political burglary at a Democratic Party office at the Watergate building led to a national conversation that unearthed far more disturbing trends in Nixon’s attitude towards governance, and his own respect for the law.
The issue of ‘fake degrees’ may be on its way to become Pakistan’s equivalent of a similar tendency: an offense than many Pakistanis would consider relatively “small” in light of larger abuses of the law that they see everyday, is being used by society – and now by the Supreme Court – as a means to expose and punish a deep-rooted tendency amongst those who seek and claim power to lie to and cheat those who they are meant to serve.
If it is indeed so – and one hopes it is – then that is a good thing. We at ATP have been clear and consistent in our stand on abuse of education – whether it is via plagiarism, via abuse of rules, or via fake degrees. There are those who argue that these are minor offenses in comparison to many others. They may be so. But they are also symptomatic of a larger rot – lying, and lying unashamedly, often to the very people one is supposed to serve. If this is a way that some examples can be set and that a larger message can be sent that such lying will not be tolerated, then we say it is a good thing. In its decision today, the Supreme Court of Pakistan and Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry seems to think the same.
As a public issue this issue has the virtue of being something that most people can instinctively understand and relate to. If I had to study and work for my degree, why should some slick politician not have to? It also has the virtue of being a matter of principle rather than of politics. Politicians in all parties seem to be lying about their education. Hence, accusations of political scapegoating are less likely to stick.
One hopes, of course, that the larger message about lying is one that is also being conveyed and received here. Indeed, as the Chief Justice was particularly incensed – as he should have been – because the politician in question wasÂ making “a false statement on oath and by using bogus, fake and forged documents polluting the piety of [the parliament].” The Chief Justice called this a “callous contempt for the basic norms of honesty, integrity and even for his own oath.”
The Supreme Court ordered the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) on Thursday to initiate action against legislators accused of having used fake degrees to contest the election. Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry issued the order after writing a detailed judgment to justify rejection of an appeal of Rizwan Gill, PML-Nâ€™s former member of the Punjab Assembly from PP-34 (Sargodha VII), for possessing fake bachelorâ€™s degree.
The commission is required to depute an officer to supervise the entire exercise, while sessions judges who will conduct these trials will conclude the probe in three months in consonance with the spirit of elections laws. The ECP has taken the position that it cannot act against lawmakers unless the Senate chairman or speakers of the National Assembly or provincial assemblies send references against them. It has pointed out that under an amendment to Article 62 of the Constitution, a person cannot be disqualified for being corrupt unless a court declares him to be so.
â€œNo criminal could ever be heard, in any civilised society, to avoid punishment on the ground that some others, similarly placed had, on some earlier occasions escaped punishment,â€ the verdict said. â€œLikewise, no individual, except the ones constitutionally and legally authorised for the purpose, could be allowed in a civilised society to declare which law of the land was good and which one was bad and then feel authorised to defeat the same through unlawful and even criminal acts,â€ the judgment said, adding that such attempts, if not nipped in the bud, could lead a society to the dark depths of destruction.
The judgment said: â€œEvery law of the land, so long as it exists on the statute books, has to be respected and must be followed. The same should also serve as an answer to some reservations expressed about disqualification of a person from becoming a member of a legislative institution if he did not practice the obligatory duties. â€œSuffice it, however, to add that identifying persons who could or could not become members of legislative institutions was a policy matter, but so long as such-like disqualifications were not omitted from the Constitution or the law, the courts were bound to honour and enforce the same and not so doing could amount to a grave dereliction of duty.â€
In his verdict, the chief justice also mentioned what he called a revealing incident when Rizwan Gill, who had secured 72 per cent marks in a subject called IPS, was asked to define what it stood for. A long silence was the answer offered by Mr Gill who himself had come to the podium to address the court. On courtâ€™s insistence and after a deep thought, his reply was â€œHealth and Physical Educationâ€. The detailed marks certificate produced on record by Mr Gill himself mentioned the IPS as â€œIslamic Studies/Ethics and Pakistan Studiesâ€.
â€œThis answer of the appellant, said it all,â€ the verdict said. The judgment said: â€œThe parliament of any country is one of its noblest, honourable and important institutions making not only policies and laws for the nation, but in fact shaping and carving its very destiny. â€œAnd here is a man who being constitutionally and legally debarred from being its member, managed to sneak into it by making a false statement on oath and by using bogus, fake and forged documents polluting the piety of this pious body. His said conduct demonstrates not only his callous contempt for the basic norms of honesty, integrity and even for his own oath but also undermines the sanctity, the dignity and the majesty of the said august house. Shouldnâ€™t it then be incumbent upon the ECP in discharge of its constitutional obligations to guard against corrupt practices, to launch prosecution of persons who stood accused of the commission of the same. The punishment and consequent disqualification of such-like persons would not be an act undermining the dignity and the majesty of the houses of legislature, but an act in aid of enhancing the same.â€