South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

A SERIOUS issue raised in the media recently related to whether a parliamentary standing committee should have discussed a demonstration of push-ups by the national cricket team. But before we examine the place of push-ups in our life and culture it seems necessary to appraise the role of standing committees and their priorities.

The role of standing committees in the democratic system has been evolving as part of efforts to progress towards the finer forms of representative government. These committees were originally conceived as institutions that could examine the merits of legislative proposals, make improvements in them or recommend the rejection of bills for valid reasons. This system was adopted because a standing committee with fewer members than a house of parliament, and with possibly more time at its disposal, could better scrutinise a legislative proposal than the whole chamber.

The standing committees were also found useful in examining the performance of various government ministries and departments. Later on, the potential of standing committees as vehicles for promoting pluralist and participatory forms of democracy was realised.

In Pakistan, too, the inclusion of parliamentary groups other than the ruling party in standing committees and election of their members as heads of these committees constituted a healthy innovation. An important step towards participatory democracy was the highly laudable decision to offer the chairmanship of the powerful Public Accounts Committee to the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly.

Now that this system has been in practice for many years it may be time for parliament to review its working and find ways of increasing its part in deepening democracy.

The first issue is the manner of selecting members, especially presidents, of standing committees. If members are selected on the basis of their understanding of, or at least interest in, the thematic charge of a committee as well as some training in lawmaking they will make a greater contribution to an efficient performance than otherwise. Particularly necessary is to avoid using leadership of standing committees as prizes or rewards to junior partners in coalition governments because these offices do carry, besides prestige, attractive perks.

It should not be difficult to imagine the consequences of having as chairman of a standing committee on finance a person who has no idea of public finance or who is too rigidly committed to a particular economic theory to permit free debate. Or the consequences of allotting the chairmanship of a committee on human rights to a person who has no understanding of the rights of women, children, religious minorities, or who does not have a clean record as a law-abiding citizen.

Secondly, there should be some method of ensuring that a standing committee gets sufficient time to discuss a legislative proposal or the performance of a ministry/ department. In Pakistan, we have seen laws made without screening by standing committees, and also the phenomenon of bills pending with standing committees for inordinately long periods. Both instances call for corrective action.

Pakistan’s standing committees have won considerable credit by seeking public/ civil society views on matters before them. This is of course as it should be provided that the government, which has a tendency to claim a monopoly on wisdom and integrity both, is open to conversion and change of conviction. Two examples will make the problem clear.

Recently, a National Assembly standing committee held extended hearings with civil society on a highly controversial cybercrime bill but closed its mind to all suggestions for bringing the proposed law into harmony with basic rights and due process. (The Senate committee got very little time to remedy the situation). This was a case of a standing committee unduly resisting reform of a government draft.

The other example is that of a bill from the 1990s to amend Section 295-C of the Penal Code and make the death sentence for blasphemy mandatory. The standing committee observed that the PPC provision was quite vaguely worded and that it was advisable to see what the practice in other Muslim countries was. These views were ignored by the National Assembly because the session had to be adjourned immediately. Thus, a standing committee initiative to reform the law was killed by the larger house.

A proper assessment of the actual working of the standing committees could reveal some good practices besides identifying areas where reform of procedure or intent is needed. It may also show that there is no harm in discussing push-ups, or that there is no need or time for questioning citizens’ harmless diversions. For push-up is only a simpler and less exacting version of the traditional wrestler’s basic exercise called dand. It has recently been made fashionable by our cricketers, who used it to celebrate their victory in a match. Whether it is a measure to judge their accomplishment with the bat or the ball is not clear yet.

The use of this exercise as an indicator of a politician’s eligibility for high office has revealed immense possibilities of a spurt in push-ups’ rating. The superiority of push-up politicians over those who are incapable of doing this exercise, or are mere armchair practitioners of politics, may soon lead to promoting push-ups in election manifestos. Parliamentarians may well be recognised by the number of push-ups they can perform without pausing for breath.

A campaign to popularise push-ups could relieve schools and colleges of the need for spending money on gymnasia. The introduction of push-up discipline in law-enforcement agencies could help us get rid of officers who cannot see their boots while standing erect. Above all, push-ups could tell us about the tribe to which a champion belongs.

Therefore, all those who argued that the standing committee should not have discussed push-ups may need to shed their bias against this wonderful exercise. After all, parliamentarians may once in a while take a look at ordinary citizens’ preferences.

Published in Dawn November 10th, 2016