On March 27, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government removed Dr Tariq Banuri, Chairman Higher Education Commission (HEC), through an ordinance signed by President Arif Alvi. The ordinance was specifically tailored to remove Dr. Banuri by reducing his tenured position from four years to two years. Until the promulgation of the ordinance, Dr Banuri’s statutorily guaranteed tenure was to end in May 2022.
This unfortunate episode needs to be analysed at three levels: the use and abuse of ordinances by successive governments; the concept of security of tenure and independence of regulatory bodies; the HEC and the state of education (at all levels) in Pakistan.
Let’s begin with the constitutional provision for ordinances which allow the executive to (temporarily) legislate through a decree. Article 89 of the Constitution of Pakistan thus states that “the President may, except when the Senate or National Assembly is in session, if satisfied that circumstances exist which render it necessary to take immediate action, make and promulgate an ordinance as the circumstances may require”.
Most parliamentary democracies (notably excluding India) have no provision for such temporary legislation via executive fiat. Even so, given that legislation is the express function of the legislature, it would be rational to argue that this provision is only meant for extraordinary circumstances. Thus, the primary requirement for an ordinance is not that the Senate and/or National Assembly are out of session but that a situation has arisen that necessitates immediate action.
And yet, successive governments have on many occasions chosen to bypass the legislative process and found it convenient to press Article 89 into service. A provision that was meant only for extraordinary circumstances has become the executive’s handmaiden.
The government’s action has also made a mockery of the concept of security of tenure. In today’s world there is an increasing requirement for technical knowhow and expertise in various areas. While people send their representatives to parliament to legislate, there are many other functions that require specialised knowledge. Security of tenure for senior officials (such as the heads of regulatory bodies) is meant to assure independent decision-making and avoid political interference. The compact is simple: parliament creates such key positions through its acts and then allows the appointees freedom to function efficiently.
That principle has now been severely undermined with the Higher Education Commission (Amendment) Ordinance of 2021. The removal of the head of a regulatory body by no stretch of the imagination falls into the category of circumstances requiring immediate action (as is required by Article 89). More broadly, the unamended law regarding the HEC contains express provisions dealing with the removal of the Chairman HEC. No such grounds existed under those provisions for the removal of Dr. Banuri.
Debate is continuing over Dr Banuri’s performance. A former HEC chairman,
Dr Atta ur Rehman, who was instrumental in
Dr Banuri’s removal, has also penned an article… the tone and thrust of this article leaves one in no doubt that he is again pining for the job while also securing his other funding interests
As Salman Akram Raja wrote in his column, Fraud as legality, “This ordinance has plumbed new depths in using the illusion of legality to deprive governance of legitimacy. In the process, the very idea of security of tenure has been laid waste. Independence of all regulatory authorities stands mauled.” (The News; April 4)
Prime Minister Imran Khan, his lieutenants and PTI supporters never tire of presenting their government as qualitatively, even morally, superior to those that preceded them. In reality, the picture in the cellar is getting uglier by the day.
Let me now come to HEC itself. Debate is continuing over Dr Banuri’s performance. A former HEC chairman, Dr Atta ur Rehman, who was instrumental in Dr Banuri’s removal, has also penned an article in The News. The tone and thrust of Dr Rehman’s article leave one in no doubt that he is again pining for the job while also securing his other funding interests. He has, since his days as the first HEC chairman, created a patronage system and built alliances within a corrupt and rotten system. Dr Banuri has had to pay the cost of trying to “drain the swamp”.
Dr Rehman’s argues in his article that we need PhDs in higher numbers. This is what he says: “I have been criticised for sending too many students for PhD studies abroad when I was chairman HEC. That is nonsense. Numbers do matter if you really want good quality education across all our universities.” (italics added)
The argument I have italicised is what can be safely described as nonsense masquerading as eminent sense. How can numbers in and of themselves ensure quality? Dr Rehman then goes on to talk about scholarships and funding et cetera and blames Dr Banuri for axing much of the good work. In reality, Dr Banuri, after taking over, evaluated the various programmes run by HEC and found that this benighted republic was not getting any value for the money that was being spent and had been wasted since HEC’s inception.
Since it’s in the public domain, Dr Ilhan Niaz, an eminent historian, tweeted on April 4: “the 3 centers of which Atta ur Rehman is the patron have consumed Rs40 billion since their inception, got 40 patents, and earned Rs10 million in intellectual property returns. = Rs1 billion/patent & about 2 patents/year figures for research output were quoted by Atta ur Rehman.”
If what these figures indicate is Dr Rehman’s idea of money spent versus output, one doesn’t need any further argument. This is not called work or research. The English language has a term for this: gravy train.
This gravy train is exactly what Dr Banuri wanted to put the brakes on. Nothing makes people more vicious than when their gravy train is threatened. Dr Rehman has not responded to why he got the Prime Minister’s Office to tell Dr Banuri that his centres should be left out of any accountability. Are those centres sacred? Why did the PMO consistently intercede for Dr Rehman’s centres? Surely, Dr Rehman should have had nothing to fear if those centres were producing excellent work.
Looking at how this situation has and is unfolding, I am reminded of Sayre’s Law, named after political scientist Wallace Sayre. The Law states: “In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.” Sayre was quoted as saying that “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.” In this case the stakes might be low when it comes to the position to which Dr Rehman is aspiring again, but the money is both pleasant and in abundance.
Dr Banuri has presented his view, both in interviews and in an op-ed in The News whose first part appeared on the day this article was being written. He can defend himself well and adequately. The government’s action and Dr Rehman’s machinations have already been amplified by Syed Babar Ali’s letter to Shafqat Mehmood, Minister for Education, though in fairness to Mehmood, this is above his pay-grade.
But there are bigger questions that inform this sordid affair. Should governments be abusing Article 89; shouldn’t a government that claims to be pure as driven snow reverse its action that undermines security of tenure and with it, the independent functioning of regulatory bodies; shouldn’t the government explain why the PMO was shielding Dr Rehman’s centres from accountability and evaluation and warning Dr Banuri against acting without fear or favour; has HEC performed efficiently since its inception; if not, as Dr Banuri found to his dismay, is there any need to continue with HEC?
The writer is a former News Editor of The Friday Times and tweets @ejazhaider