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The ECP under fire

The ECP is under fire from all sides. Parliamentarians are angry because their matriculation and graduation degrees are being challenged by the ECP with a view to disqualifying them from the forthcoming elections. Sections of the media are angry for the opposite reason – they accuse the ECP of not moving summarily enough in this direction. And then there are some ‘educationalists’ of the Musharraf era who now insist on ruthlessly cleansing the system even though they didn’t apply stringent standards of scrutiny to candidates in their own time. I’m afraid I don’t agree with them.

For starters, it is quite absurd to argue that the ECP is tilted in favour of the government and opposition parties, hence the four provincial commissioners should be sacked and new ones nominated by the SC. One, there is no evidence that any or all of the commissioners are guilty as charged. Two, they were all appointed via a constitutional consensus between the Leader of the House and Leader of the Opposition. Third, there is no constitutional way the SC can sack or appoint them, short of declaring their appointment illegal on some technical grounds (which the SC hasn’t done) and then weighing in after the government and opposition leaders and parliamentary committee are all deadlocked (the chances of that happening are akin to those of a snowball in hell). So what’s the hullabaloo about?

The constitutional route has been followed. Those who don’t like it should have agitated before the laws were amended. Now, on the eve of the elections, if they don’t want to be accused of wanting to delay the general elections by hook or by crook, they should lump it.

Then there is the argument that the ECP should ask the HEC to ascertain and knock out all fake degree holders in the current parliament after verification from the VCs of the recognised universities on its roster. On the face of it, I don’t have any issues with it. But there are two problems that should be dealt with properly in the interest of fair play.

One, what if degree verification from some VCs is not forthcoming at all or is inordinately delayed? In this case, should the HEC take a unilateral and arbitrary decision against the candidate in question? Or should the HEC clear the case in the candidate’s favour, subject to any evidence to the contrary in time to come? Two, what if some VCs are suspected of colluding with some parliamentarians to furnish false evidence? Should the HEC then demand matriculation and intermediate exam certification also to verify the degree? I don’t think this is a satisfactory way out because if any parliamentarian can successfully collude with a top official like a VC he is even more likely to collude with officials lower down to obtain the other required certificates at marginal cost.

Here is an email message that I received from one anguished soul laid low by the bureaucratic regiment at the HEC. It sheds light on the misplaced emphasis laid by the moral brigade on the HEC to help in cleansing the dirty stables of parliament.

“I’m an army officer and doing M.Phil in IR at NUML. I saw your last week’s programme on Geo in which you discussed the issue of degree verification by HEC and remarked that if you were compelled to provide all your degrees today it would be difficult for you since most have been misplaced over the last four decades and it is not easy to get replacement authenticated copies. I sympathise with you. Here is the problem I am facing at the HEC: In order to obtain admission for my M.Phil programme, I had to supply and verify all my degrees, Matric from Balochistan Board Quetta in 1985, FA and BA from PMA and MA from Balochistan University.

It took me a long time to complete verifying these degrees. Some were lost during so many postings and transfers. But after a lot of running to and fro, spending a fair amount of money, I accomplished the task and took the documents to HEC. I got there at 08.09 am, stood in a line that stretched to the road outside and at 10.04 am I entered the building and was handed over receipt #64. The HEC official observed that the name of my father was listed as Khudai Nazar in my Matric certificate and objected because it was listed as Khuda Nazar on the other documents.

I explained that any Pakhtun would understand that Khuda Nazar is spelt as Khudai Nazar, which is what had happened in Quetta many years ago. Nothing doing, said the official. So I had to send the certificate back to Quetta for correction. But, given the 27-year gap, the official in Quetta replied that the record didn’t exist any more. So now I have to go to court, deposit Rs 500/- pa. (27 years makes Rs 13,500) and hope I will get justice. I pity anyone who has to go through such an agonising process to get his degree verified.”

I have a simple and elegant solution. The ECP should include a section in the candidate’s application form that asks whether or not he/she has been a member of the last parliament. If the answer is no, then the ECP should not require him/her to furnish any proof of graduation since none is so required under the current law. If the answer is yes, then the candidate may furnish proof of his BA or Equivalent or Higher Degree only.

This should be sent to the HEC for verification within a week. If the HEC receives a response from the concerned university in time, it should intimate the ECP accordingly, regardless of any suspicions relating to the integrity of the institution in question. If it doesn’t for one reason or another, it should provisionally give the green light pending verification, which provisional acceptance record should remain on the books of the ECP until the matter is resolved one way or the other, even after the candidate has been elected to parliament. All parties should have the right to approach the courts to compel the universities to furnish such authenticated certificates and degrees on demand within seven days directly to the ECP/HEC/Federal Ombudsman.

I am concerned that bonafide graduates should be dealt with fairly and non-bureaucratically even if it means that some bad fish may escape the net. As William Blackstone, the famous English Jurist of the 1760s remarked (Blackstone’s Principle or Ratio), “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer”.

Under no circumstances should the ECP deliver ill-considered, hasty or prejudiced decisions in this matter. It should close its eyes and ears to the undue pressure tactics of the moral brigade that wants it to bring about unmanageable and controversial changes in the rules and regulations of the electoral process at this late stage. The spirit of the current law that doesn’t require the graduation condition rather than the one that expired a year ago should enlighten all ECP decisions. Concerns about the future rather than problems of the past should guide its actions.

Najam Sethi, "The ECP under fire," The News. 2013-03-03.