Sunday, October 21, 2012

Let Overseas Pakistanis Vote

In a grand gesture, the Election Commission of Pakistan granted 3.7 million foreign-dwelling Pakistani nationals permission to vote in elections. Huh. I had never realized that this was a privilege, rather than a right. As with all shows of benevolence, however, there is always a catch. Excluded from this group are just as many Pakistanis who hold dual nationalities; in order to be eligible to stand for office or to be allowed to vote in Pakistan, they must surrender their non-Pakistani citizenship. Being in this particular boat, I’m inclined to ask: what, exactly, gives you the right to take away my rights?

By definition, a dual national is a person who is a citizen of more than one country. With that comes the rights -- all the rights -- of citizenship, including the right to vote and the right to compete for office in the elections. Nowhere does it imply that being a national of more than one country reduces one's citizenship to a fraction or, as the Chief Election Commissioner Mr. Fakhruddin G. Ibrahim so succinctly put it, makes you a “Half-Pakistani,” a term which, in my mind, borders on a slur.

Rights granted to the citizens of any country through constitutions are not changeable on whims or fancies. The politicians of Pakistan have always regarded the the Constitution as a list of suggestions rather than a document of concrete ordinances.  Mr. Obaid-ur-Rehman, a Supreme Court advocate with more than 55 years of experience in Pakistan and an expert in constitutional law, says that these amendments are creating a subsect of Pakistanis that are somehow considered less than their counterparts living in Pakistan. He and his colleagues were part of the movement for independence and among the lawyers who laid the foundations for the legal system of the country. Now retired and living with his children in the USA, he feels that his rights are being sidelined on a drummed-up technicality.

I would like to ask the Election Commission about the thought process that led to their decision. Did it conduct a fact-finding mission and gather evidence that proves that citizens are more loyal and invested in the future well-being of Pakistan that those with two passports? Were there accusations of disloyalty, of treason against them?  Are Moin Qureshi, Rehman Malik and Shaukat Aziz more or less loyal than Shahbaz Sharif or Yousaf Raza Gilani?

And what about  those of us who just want to be  part of electing a government?  The audacity of the Pakistani Election Commission to dismiss almost 3 million Pakistanis as unfit to have a voice in an historic election boggles my mind. And then, in adding insult to this injury by calling us “Half-Pakistanis,” this organization shows how disconnected it is with the realities of the world.

Pakistanis living abroad infuse millions of dollars into the economy each year.They send money to their families, they build and support schools, they donate to hospitals and welfare organizations, and they invest in business. Why is their “halfness” not considered when they are propping up the economy? According to Mr. Obaid-ur-Rehman, alienating these generators of foreign exchange can be compared to throttling the goose that lays the golden egg.

Overseas Pakistanis are the ones on the frontlines of the international arena. We are the true ambassadors, the representatives of Pakistan in the world. We are the ones who beam with pride as Sharmeen Chinoy accepts the Academy Award. We gather the tattered integrity of the country when fielding indignant questions about 14 year-olds shot in cold blood for going to school. We have set up Overseas Pakistanis Associations to propagate our culture and values. We register all Pakistani political parties abroad so that we can stay informed. So to me, questioning our loyalty and love for Pakistan is tantamount to the most egregious assault on Pakistani pride. To dismiss, whom I believe to be “more-than-whole” Pakistanis, as half as much is beyond my comprehension.

Our lofty decision-makers were so gung-ho in their wide, sweeping gesture that they also failed to consider the fact that many of those who have lived in the country all their lives hold dual citizenship. Some have been born to foreign nationals, and others have acquired it during the years they spent abroad for education. These people have never considered any nation other than Pakistan as their own. They have been working in and for the country all their lives, and now they are being excluded from participating in its future, both as voters and as potential elected officials -- all because a few entitled individuals deem them not to be “pure Pakistani.”

A more feasible solution would be to take the factor of dual citizenship out of the equation. Pass a law requiring the surrender of Pakistani national status if applying for any other passport. This action would be a much more logical and practical approach to the issue of citizenship. In creating a binary, “either/or” decision for each individual to make, there will be no more room for ambiguity or anger. We need to know where we stand as far as our options as “citizens” are concerned, so that we can be sure that the rights we go to sleep at night with are the same rights we wake up with the next morning.

In a country with such monumental troubles, the way forward should be through policies of inclusion rather than exclusion. Pakistan has always been blessed with the fierce loyalty of its citizens. We do not shrug off these strong emotions just by stepping over a border. The assumption that Pakistanis abroad are suddenly no longer concerned with the welfare of the country, and consequently are unable to make unbiased choices come election time is preposterous. And if that is the opinion of the Election Commission, this offended “half-Pakistani” vehemently begs to differ.

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