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ISLAMABAD: A last-minute decision by the government to once again delay the presentation of the Fata reforms bill on Monday led to uproar in the National Assembly, and opposition members announced a boycott of house proceedings until the much-delayed legislation was introduced.
Soon after the Question Hour, a number of opposition members stood up and lodged a strong protest over the government’s move to withdraw the bill from the agenda at the eleventh hour. The issue was first highlighted by Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) allied Fata MNA Shahabuddin Khan, and later by Fata parliamentary leader Shah Jee Gul Afridi.
The intensity of the protest increased when two federal ministers — Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Sheikh Aftab Ahmed and Minister for States and Frontier Regions (Safron) retired Lt Gen Abdul Qadir Baloch — failed to give a satisfactory reason for the government’s decision to put off the introduction of a bill seeking to extend the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and the Peshawar High Court to the tribal areas.
Lawmakers, mostly from Fata and the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), chanted anti-government slogans, tore up the copies of the agenda and gathered in front of the speaker’s dais before staging a walkout, led by Leader of the Opposition Syed Khursheed Shah.
It should be remembered that on Friday, the government had announced on its own that the Fata reforms bill would be tabled in the National Assembly on Monday.
Agenda changed at the eleventh hour; opposition announces boycott until draft is tabled
Speaking at a hurriedly-called news conference at the Press Information Department, Mr Baloch and Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Sartaj Aziz had declared that the legislation process for mainstreaming Fata would be completed on a fast-track basis.
On Sunday evening, the National Assembly Secretariat issued a 22-point agenda for Monday’s sitting, which contained the ‘Supreme Court and High Court (Extension of Jurisdiction to Fata) Bill 2017’ for presentation and passage.
The secretariat posted the agenda on the official website, but when journalists and parliamentarians arrived at the assembly on Monday, they were surprised to see a new agenda in front of them, which contained no mention of the bill. Interestingly, the old agenda is still accessible on the official website of the National Assembly and had yet to be updated until the filing of this report.
Responding to the opposition protest, Sheikh Aftab said the government had “withdrawn” the bill as it required some more work. He declared that the bill would be laid before the house within the next three to four days.
Taking the floor, Opposition Leader Syed Khursheed Shah disclosed that the Safron minister had telephoned him earlier to seek his support for the bill, and said he was surprised to see that the bill was missing from the agenda.
“What happened all of a sudden? Why has [the bill] been excluded [from the agenda]? ” he asked.
Terming it a “new joke”, he said the PML-N government had never taken parliament seriously, adding: “The government is making parliament redundant.”
The PPP leader said that not only the opposition, but a majority of ruling party members were also in favour of the bill. He asked the Safron minister to brief the house on the reasons that had forced the government to change its mind.
“If you have some compulsions and are powerless, then please tell us,” he said.
Although the parliamentary affairs minister had not cited any specific reason for the move, Deputy Speaker Murtaza Javed Abbasi said the minister had stated that the bill had been withdrawn due to “technical reasons”.
Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) parliamentary leader Shah Mehmood Qureshi demanded that the parliamentary affairs minister should be asked to satisfy them and explain the “technical reasons”.
The PTI leader said the government ministers made the announcement themselves at a news conference that they would table the bill, but had now backtracked from their commitment.
“Do you realise that you are creating a political crisis for no reason?”. Without naming anyone, he alleged that the government was spoiling the atmosphere throughout the country only because of two individuals who did not want to see Fata become a part of the country.
The government had delayed the Fata reforms process when its allies Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman and Pakhtunkhwa Mili Awami Party (PkMAP) president Mehmood Khan Achakzai opposed the Fata package, which also calls for the merger of Fata with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
Mr Qureshi warned that the people would come out on to the streets and that a caravan led by the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) from the tribal areas was already on its way to Islamabad.
“You ask us to come to the parliament instead of going to the streets, and when we do come, you drop the bill,” he said, adding: “You want to get matters resolved through dharnas (sit-ins)!”
Later, opposition members staged a walkout, leaving behind PTI’s Amjad Ali Khan to point out a lack of quorum. The deputy speaker then adjourned proceedings until Tuesday (today) without taking up any other item on the agenda, due to a lack of quorum.