NationalVOLUME 18 ISSUE # 24

Equal rights, really?

Ali Zafar Panwaar says an experience at a police station in Lahore last week made him walk down his memory lane almost 35 years ago. On that particular day, he had boarded a Multan-bound train at the Karachi cantonment station and was waiting for its departure when an aged Sindhi man entered that second-class compartment. Contrary to the routine heavy load of passengers, most seats were vacant in the bogie that day. The old man kept looking around for some time, and then settled down on the floor.

Mr. Panwaar says it was something strange for him. “Saaen, sit on a seat. Many are empty; why are you sitting on the floor,” he asked the old man. “I am fine here dear. Any time somebody would come and get that seat vacated” was a frank and spontaneous reply from the old man. And he kept sitting on the floor till his destination, Hyderabad, for fear of being evicted from his seat, though he was in possession of a ticket and he had every right to sit on any seat.

“What made that old Sindhi man sit on the floor, instead of a seat?” Not extensive soul searching was needed to reach a conclusion. Of course, the oppression of centuries at the hands of waderas and jagirdars had snatched his self-respect, and his sense of equal rights as a human being. Even 40 years after the creation of Pakistan at that time had failed to liberate that Sindhi old man, and crores of Pakistanis like him, and restore their self-respect. Their masters, their landlords, jagirdars, maliks, chaudhrys and khans had always made them sit on the ground before them. And they had become mentally slaves to the extent that they could not think of anything except believing that their place to sit was only the ground, and nothing else.

And after the passage of almost 35 years more, Ali Zafar Panwaar realised once again that still nothing had changed in Pakistan as far as the question of rights of the common man was concerned. He was at a police station in Lahore to ask about any development on an investigation into the snatching of his cell-phone and wallet at gunpoint. He had lodged an FIR [first information report] in this regard almost two weeks ago, but the investigation officer was still interrogating him only.

When Mr. Panwaar, a schoolteacher by profession, was sitting before the investigation officer, an influential person of the area, also a former naib nazim, came there along with his companions. The investigation officer stood up to welcome the Chaudhry Sahib and ordered Mr. Panwaar vacated the chair for his “respectable guests”. Seeing Mr. Panwaar’s reluctance to leave the seat, the assistant sub-inspector called a havildar to take him out of the room ‘respectfully’.

What has changed for the oppressed people even after the creation of Pakistan almost 75 years back, and the passage of the Constitution 50 years ago. The Constitution ‘guarantees’ equal rights to all Pakistanis irrespective of their social status, religion, cast and creed. Article 25 says all citizens are equal before the law and are entitled to equal protection by the law.

Besides it, fundamental rights are enshrined in the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Chapter 1 of the Constitution contains articles about fundamental rights. Articles 8 to 28 of the Constitution deal with all fundamental rights provided to the citizens of Pakistan. The crux of these articles is as under:

  1. No person shall be deprived of life or liberty, save in accordance with law (article 9)
  2. Slavery, forced labour is prohibited and no child under the age of 14 year be employed in factories and mines.
  3. Freedom of movement to everyone
  4. Freedom of assembly for all citizens
  5. Freedom of association for all citizens
  6. There shall be freedom of trade, business and profession for all citizens.
  7. Freedom of speech for all citizens
  8. All citizens shall have the right to have access to information in all matters of public importance under article 19A.
  9. Freedom to profess religion and to manage religious institution in country
  10. All citizens have the right to acquire, hold and dispose of property in any part of Pakistan.
  11. All citizens are equal and there shall be no discrimination on the basis of sex etc.
  12. Free and compulsory education to all children of age 5 to 16 by government

There are many more articles and clauses included in the Constitution of Pakistan which guarantee rights to all citizens. But, the ground situation has not changed much. Still the common man fears sitting on a seat for fear of eviction, and even if one dares so, he’s thrown out forcibly.

The writer is a physician by profession. She has worked as an intern at the Capital Health (New Jersey) & the Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Hospital (New York). Rights and gender issues are the areas of special interest to her. She can be reached at: [email protected]