Age Islam Edit Bureau
23 May 2017
Mullahs out Of Constitution’s Way
By A Surya Prakash
Talk About Women’s Rights
By Flavia Agnes
Army Will Never Allow Talks
By Harsha Kakar
By Amulya Ganguli
By Ramin Jahanbegloo
Votes For Reform
By Rakesh Sood
United States Of Myanmar?
By Nehginpao Kipgen
By New Age Islam Edit Bureau
Supreme Court’s verdict on triple Talaq can
be a turning point for both the minority community and the concept of gender parity.
Let’s keep our fingers crossed
Last week, a five-judge Constitution Bench
of the Supreme Court completed its hearing of a batch of petitions challenging
the constitutional validity of triple Talaq.
While India awaits the court’s judgement,
the circumstances surrounding this case itself offer hope that after a long,
long, time there is some movement towards ensuring that Muslim women, like all
other citizens, will get to experience in full measure, the safeguards provided
in the Constitution especially in regard to equity and equality.
The reasons for such hope are as follows:
Despite the oppressive social environment in which they live, thousands of
Muslim women are openly coming out against triple Talaq and are demanding a
formal end to this obnoxious, one-sided system of divorce. Second, unlike the
Congress Governments of the past which lacked the will to assert the supremacy
of the Constitution when it came to personal laws, the Narendra Modi Government
has taken a firm stand to uphold core constitutional values. It has said before
the court that “gender equality and the dignity of women are non-negotiable,
over-arching constitutional values”. It has asked whether in a secular
democracy, religion can be a reason to deny equal status and dignity, available
to women under the Constitution. And, while personal laws serve the purpose of
preserving diversity, can they undermine gender justice, which “is a
constitutional goal of overwhelming importance and magnitude”. This is in tune
with the statement which Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made more than once:
The Constitution is the country’s
Third, there is a growing national mood to
end anachronistic practices and celebrate the freedoms that are enshrined in
the Constitution. The mobile revolution (Indians own 1,200 million Cellphones);
the emergence of the social media and millions of close knit WhatsApp groups
which have triggered an information revolution that the patriarchs can never
block; and most importantly, the rising literacy levels among women including
Muslim women, have all contributed to a situation where in some correction may
be possible in respect of the terrible mistakes of the past.
Thanks to some concessions made at the time
when the Constitution was written and the exigencies of electoral politics over
the last 70 years, some of the most demeaning and unconstitutional provisions
in Muslim Personal Law, have been dignified as ‘law’ and allowed to override
key constitutional provisions that guarantee gender equality, equality before
law and equal application of laws and right to life and dignity.
Over the last seven decades, problems such
as these have festered for a long time because of the absence of clarity on
where and how to fit minority rights and religious rights into the overall
constitutional scheme. The problem dates back to 1946. Eight months prior to
the partition, the Constituent Assembly had begun work to draft a democratic
Constitution for undivided India. The Muslim League wanted elections be held on
the basis of separate electorates for the Hindus and the Muslims.
But, even before this exercise could get
anywhere, partition became a reality and most of the leaders of the Muslim
League moved over to the separate Muslim State they wanted —Pakistan. But, some
When India’s Constituent Assembly resumed
its work, the leaders of the Congress were hoping for some sanity within the
Assembly as they picked up the threads to write a democratic Constitution. But they got the shock of their lives when
Pocker Sahib, a member from Tamil Nadu, demanded that elections to the Central
and Provincial Legislatures should be held on the basis of separate
electorates. He argued that “non-Muslims would not be able to understand the
needs of the Muslim community and that; therefore, the Muslims should
constitute a separate electorate”. Leaders like Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and
Govind Ballabh could not believe their ears. A fresh demand for a separate
electorate was emerging a fortnight after the creation of Pakistan! Patel threw
his hands up and said, “In this unfortunate country, if separate electorate is
going to be persisted with even after the division of the country, woe betide
the country. It is not worth living in.”
The leaders stood firm and nipped this mischief
in the bud, but they did not remain firm on the issue of a common civil code.
Thanks to sustained resistance from Muslim members, the idea of a common civil
code was put in cold storage and moved to the Chapter on Directive Principles
of State Policy. Muslim members objected to this as well. But BR Ambedkar
refused to yield. He said the state had the right to legislate on issues like
marriage and succession. But, the fact was that despite creation of Pakistan,
leaders of the Congress buckled under the pressure of the so-called
representatives of the Muslims, who chose to stay back, and deprived India of a
common civil code that would have ensured that all personal laws were within
the ambit of the Constitution of India’s core ideals.
Thereafter, within decades of independence,
competitive electoral politics led to the appeasement of Muslims, which is
reality was reduced to appeasement of the mullahs.
The Congress, since the days of Jawaharlal
Nehru, mastered this art and treated the Muslims as a vote-bank. It constantly
appeased the mullah by signalling to him that his personal laws would never be
touched and that the common civil code was just a chimera. Later, other
political parties got into the act and vigorously pursued the politics of
mullah appeasement. As a result, in 1963, when the Union Government wanted to
set up a committee to examine the changes in the Muslim Personal Law in Islamic
countries, there were vehement protests from the clerics and the idea was
abandoned. In the later decades the mullahs forced Indira Gandhi to abandon a
move to bring in a common adaption law. They forced Rajiv Gandhi to bring in
legislation in Parliament to undo the Supreme Court’s historic verdict in the
Shah Bano case, which gave relief to a divorced Muslim woman in distress.
As stated earlier, the circumstances are
now fortuitous. This case, therefore, can be the turning point. Let us keep our
May 23, 2017
The concept of a dissoluble contractual
marriage is the contribution of Islamic law to the world.
Now that the dust has settled on the
marathon hearing of the triple Talaq case, it is time to examine the various
strands of arguments advanced before the Supreme Court and ponder upon the core
The first argument, as we all know was put
forward by attorney-general Mukul Rohatgi. He advocated a ban on all Talaq, not
just instant triple Talaq. When asked how Muslim husbands will divorce their
wives, the AG said: “You ban it today, and we will bring in a new law
Mr Rohatgi argued that it was not a
majority-minority issue but of intra-community gender equality which will bring
Muslim women on par with the women of other communities. There was not a word
about gender discrimination under the Hindu law!
The lone supporter of this position was
Bebaak, a recently-formed, loosely-affiliated collective of a particular brand
of feminist groups, represented by the well-known proponent of gender equality,
senior counsel Indira Jaising, who pleaded that all personal laws must be
tested against the touchstone of fundamental rights and that it is not a Muslim
issue but the concern of 50 per cent of the Indian population.
The second position advanced by various
Muslim women’s groups was to declare triple Talaq as one pronouncement, as held
by the Delhi high court in 2008 in the Masroor Ahmed case. They also pleaded
the point, which I have advanced since Shayara Bano filed her petition about a
year ago, that the Supreme Court ruling of 2002 in Shamim Ara had already laid
down the procedure for pronouncement of Talaq and the same must be affirmed.
Several lawyers, including Arif Mohammed
Khan and Salman Khurshid, experts on the pristine Muslim law as well as those
representing Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), which had spearheaded the
campaign for a ban on triple Talaq, put forward their views. What is bad in
theology can never be a good law and cannot be considered as an essential
practice of Muslims in India, they argued. However, they advanced a cautious
approach of minimalist intervention and argued that as several courts in the
country had already laid down the law, the test of constitutionality was unwarranted.
The third was the elaborate argument
advanced by Kapil Sibal for the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB),
who pleaded that matters of faith and belief cannot be tested against Articles
14 and 15 (equality and non-discrimination) of the Constitution as they are
protected under Articles 25 and 26, which are also fundamental rights. Mr Sibal
argued that when instances of arbitrary utterances of triple Talaq are rare,
what was the need for a suo moto reference and pointed out that the AIMPLB had
already come out with an eight- point procedure for Talaq.
What was most intriguing was that the core
concern of the entire litigation — protection of economic rights of women — did
not get fore-grounded in the marathon discourse. Women’s rights of residence,
maintenance, custody of children and a lumpsum provision for the future did not
find a place in the entire debate. There was a presumption even among those
espousing the feminist cause that the fundamental rights of women under Article
21, the right to a life with dignity, will be protected if the violent and
abusive marriage lingers on until a civil divorce on fault grounds is secured.
Only those not familiar with the ground
realities of litigation in trial courts would have been naïve enough to advance
the argument that all Muslim divorces must occur only under judicial scrutiny
and that alone will ensure gender justice, a situation nonexistent even under
the codified Hindu law which permits customary divorces.
It is indeed ironic that every single
petitioner who approached the Supreme Court with a complaint against
instantaneous talaq pleaded a long history of domestic violence. In all
judgments that were relied upon, including Shamim Ara, the core concern for the
women was maintenance. During these proceedings, the husband’s lawyer had
produced a Talaqnama drawn by him under the erroneous presumption that this
would absolve his client from the obligation of paying maintenance under the
Muslim Women’s Act (MWA) of 1986 (following the controversial Shah Bano ruling
In each case, the courts had upheld the
woman’s right to maintenance and invalidated the sham divorce through
The point that after the MWA, a divorced
woman is entitled to a fair and reasonable maintenance for her future was
completely missed out.
None of the women who had come before the
court on the plea of instant divorce had availed of this remedy, nor were they
even aware of it. When this point was raised earlier with representatives of
the BMMA, which was spearheading the campaign, the response was that Muslim
women are too poor to go to court to claim this remedy.
Yet before the Constitution Bench, it was
pleaded by Bebaak that the courts alone can protect women’s rights since all
community practices are unjust to women, a position similar to the one advanced
by the AG on behalf of the government.
Even more shocking, the secular-feminist
arguments rested on the premise that marriage is a status and a right against
the world at large (right in rem), and not just contractual obligations between
the concerned parties.
The concept of a dissoluble contractual
marriage is the contribution of Islamic law to the world. From its inception in
the seventh century, a Muslim marriage was based on the theory of consent and
contract, concepts that were alien to other matrimonial jurisdictions.
Any move to change the essential character
of the Muslim law from its conceptual contractual moorings will be a retrograde
While the world is moving from a
status-based sacramental and indissoluble marriage to a contractual marriage,
which can be dissolved not just by mutual consent but also on the grounds of
irretrievable breakdown, it was strange to hear the arguments advanced on
behalf of those who claim to be non-conformist, endorse open marriages and
live-in relationships to make Muslim marriages more difficult to dissolve,
under the guise of protecting women’s rights.
Even if triple Talaq is stuck down, will it
be possible to enforce conjugality upon an unwilling husband? Such a move will
only result in an increase in the number of Muslim women being deserted. As per
the 2011 census, the number of deserted Hindu women was 19 Lakh as against six
Lakh divorcees. These deserted women live in limbo, not married not divorced
and lack the resources to approach the courts for even the minimum of
maintenance. By making divorce difficult, we should not force a similar fate
upon Muslim women.
If the marriage has broken down
irretrievably, it is not in the interest of the wife to continue in such a
marriage as it violates her dignity.
Even if the court strikes down instant and
arbitrary Talaq, and lays down a mandatory three months of Iddat period to
explore reconciliation, if the husband is adamant that the marriage had broken
down irretrievably, it might not bring about a great change in the ground
reality of Muslim women.
What needs protection is the woman’s right
to live in safety and dignity, her rights over her children and her right to a
provision of a lumpsum settlement for her future, remedies which already have
The Pakistan envoy to the US, Aizaz Ahmad
Chaudhry, recently blamed India for stalling the peace process. He stated that
Pakistan was always ready and willing to start the dialogue process but India
He went on to add that bilateral ties were
affected due to delay in the negotiation process. In the same breath, he
stated, “India is using force and committing horrendous human rights violations
Similar suggestions for talks have been
made by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his foreign affairs advisor, Sartaj
Every international leader visiting
Pakistan is requested to be an intermediary and the joint statement at the end
of the visit states his willingness to help.
The Turkish President prior to his visit to
India echoed the same words, which found no takers in Delhi. The desire for
talks by representatives of the Pakistan government could be due to a variety
First is the shakiness of the present
regime. Nawaz came to power with the promise of improving relations with India.
He has been unable to even commence dialogue; hence his main promise remains
unfulfilled. Asif Ali Zardari, leader of the main opposition Pakistan People’s
Party (PPP) has repeatedly raised this subject. Nawaz’s involvement in the
Panama papers, now under investigation, might lead to his indictment, reducing
his present tenure.
Elections are due next year and even if
Nawaz survives the Panama crisis, he would have little to show, hence may face
Secondly, there is the increasing rift
between the powerful deep state and the government. With open support to terrorism
in both India and Afghanistan, it has ensured that Pakistan faces antagonists
on both fronts. The civil government has desperately attempted to improve
relations on both sides, but to no avail. India cancelled talks post Pathankot.
Pakistani officials did comment that terror strikes should not derail talks.
They have commented that the only way forward is to continue talks irrespective
of terror strikes, but it cut no ice in Delhi. The Afghan president turned down
an invitation to visit Islamabad.
Thirdly, Pakistan needs to project itself
as a nation seeking peace, while India turns its back on it. It repeatedly
suggests multiple options for talks, even attempts to send personal messages
through couriers, Sajjan Jindal being an example, however receives no answer.
Its sincerity has always remained in doubt, solely because the core issue of
terrorism has been unaddressed. Pakistan’s active interference in Kashmir has
reduced chances of talks.
Fourthly, Pakistan is being clearly viewed
as a terror producing factory. Its products have been exported to Afghanistan
and India and may soon enter China.
It is also losing trust of Iran. To
safeguard its image, it plays its own terror card, blaming India and
Afghanistan as sponsors of terror on its soil. Its announcements of talks to
resolve issues are also aimed at projecting itself as a victim, rather than the
However, none of its actions have won it
any sympathy. The latest battle ground emerging is Kulbhushan Jadhav.
The visit of industrialist Jindal to
Pakistan and his personal interaction with Nawaz only increased the distance
between the army and the government.
Nawaz did make a statement that the visit
was his initiative, thus indicating another attempt to resume dialogue.
The Pakistan army reacted immediately.
The beheading incident and the announcement
of death sentence to Kulbhushan, both under its tutelage, ensured an end to
resumption of talks.
Everything is now back in cold storage,
despite temporary relief being granted by the ICJ. For the civilian government,
relations with India are essential for growth and development.
Whether India has a hand or not in the
insurgency on Pakistan’s western borders is not the question, the fact is that
India has a greater hold on Afghanistan than Pakistan, hence the ability to
influence the Afghan government. Islamabad is aware and desires peace, but the
army is unwilling.
The CPEC is strictly dependent on the
security of routes and of Chinese citizens employed for its monitoring and
development. Attacks on them and projects under construction can offset it,
leaving Pakistan in financial doldrums. Attacks are already increasing in tempo
in Baluchistan and could soon spread, after all CPEC also transits through the
area dominated by the Pakistan Taliban and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.
It could offset the delicate economic
balance which would enable Pakistan to repay its loans. In such a scenario, it
is the civilian government which would lose face, not the army.
Pakistan’s army remains unconcerned, after
all its generals have limited exposure to economics and diplomacy, though they
believe they cannot submit the power they possess. Further the careful
nurturing of the Pakistani mind into believing that India seeks its downfall
and is suppressing human rights in Kashmir would be shattered if talks commence
As has been aptly said, while nations have
an army, the Pakistan army has a nation. For the civilian government, peaceful
resolution of issues with all its neighbours is the answer. Antagonism on two
borders, with an increased threat from the third, only weakens the polity.
While it faces internal brickbats, the
military gains credit despite its failures since it projects itself as the
saviour of the nation. Pakistan’s Federal Investigative Agency (FIA) cracks
down on anyone who criticises the army on social media; but not the government.
Thus, the perpetual battle between the
polity and the army would continue. The polity would continue to strive for
talks in every forum, while the military would obstruct. Never once has the
all-powerful army chief even mentioned talks as an answer to resolve issues.
For India, the choices are limited. Every
time it has taken a step forward, it has been stabbed in the back.
Hence irrespective of offers, unless the
Pakistan civilian establishment gains control over the army, ignoring talks is
the only solution.
From the time of Pakistan’s independence to
the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1989, Pakistan was known for
its close ties with the US, which made analysts jokingly refer to the three
“As” which dominated Pakistan ~ Allah, Army and America.
The main reason for Pakistan’s proximity to
the US was its fear and dislike of India ~ a much larger neighbour which was
presumed to have refused to accept the sub-continent’s Partition in 1947 and,
therefore, was unwilling to accept Pakistan as a legitimate country.
Hence, Pakistan’s arms agreements with the
US in order to boost its defence’s vis-à-vis India.
The end of the war in Afghanistan and the
rise of terrorism in Pakistan led to a rupture with the US.
Earlier, too, the strain in ties between
the two countries because of Pakistan’s clandestine nuclear programme had
brought China closer to Pakistan, so much so that theirs was described as an
However, there may well be a twist in the
tale of this camaraderie because, as the respected Pakistani newspaper, Dawn,
has said, the Belt-Road Initiative (BRI) “envisages a deep and broad-based
penetration of most sectors of Pakistan’s economy as well as its society by
Chinese enterprises and culture. Its scope has no precedent in Pakistan’s
Nor is there any precedent in the history
of colonialism where a country has spent billions of dollars on building roads,
ports, dams and special economic zones, as China is doing, in another country
ostensibly for economic development but paving the way for establishing its own
hegemony by pouring in capital, labour and technology.
As the Dawn has noted, thousands of acres
of agricultural land will be leased to Chinese enterprises for projects
relating to seeds, irrigation, fertilizer, processing units for fruits,
vegetables, meat and grain along with storage and transport systems.
There will also be a construction of “safe
city” surveillance facilities from Peshawar to Karachi with 24- hour recording
of roads and markets.
In addition, fibre-optic cables will be put
in place not only for the Internet, but also for television programmes which
will be engaged in “disseminating Chinese culture”. Two dams will be built in
the Gilgit-Baltistan region (which India claims as its own), displacing an
estimated 28,000 people and submerging important archaeological sites.
Evidently, there is much more to BRI than
the building of a road from Kashgar in Xinjiang in China to the Gwadar port in
Balochistan in Pakistan, especially because China has taken note of the risk
posed by the security situation which has been described as the “worst in
It is worth asking in this context whether
India has been right ~ or wrong ~ in keeping away from the BRI jamboree in
Those who want India to be a part of BRI
believe that it will gain from the surge in business deals along the
China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which the Chinese ambassador in India
wanted to rename to please India before his bosses in Beijing shot down the
But an acceptance of CPEC will mean an
acceptance of the fact that the “corridor” passes through territories which
India says is under Pakistan’s and China’s illegal occupation.
Can India afford to legitimize such a land
grab for the sake of dollars ? What is more, these are areas where there
already have been protests against Chinese “imperialism”, as has been reported
from Gilgit, Hunza, Skardu and Ghizer, and also from Hambantota port in Sri
Lanka which has virtually been taken over by the Chinese because Colombo could
not repay the $1.2 billion loan given by Beijing.
Not surprisingly, BRI has been called
Chinese debt-trap diplomacy, which is intended to increase Chinese leverage
over the debtor nations. India may well prefer, therefore, to wait and watch
since the BRI is riddled with unanswered questions.
In all probability, India’s main interest
will lie not so much in trade and investment opportunities as in seeing what
impact the increasingly large Chinese presence in Pakistan ~ there are already
8,000 Chinese personnel working in the 210 ongoing projects in the country ~
will have on the security situation, especially on the various terrorist
networks such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Mohammed ( JeM),
Tehreek-e-Taliban ( TeT), the Haqqani group, the Al Qaida and others. Some of
these outfits, such as the LeT, are nurtured by the Pakistan army and the ISI
for targeting India while the JeM will have a soft corner for China because it
refuses to allow the UN to brand its leader, Masood Azhar, as a terrorist.
But there are others like the TeT which
specifically targets Pakistan for not being Islamic enough. There is little
doubt that these will not like the influx of Chinese troops, ostensibly for the
sake of protecting the CPEC, but, in effect, strengthening Pakistan’s security apparatus,
thereby hampering the terrorist operations. For these terrorist groups, there
is also the question of “culture” via the television programmes controlled by
For the Jihadis, the dominance of their
country by the atheist Chinese will be detrimental to their ideal of imposing
the Shariat or the Islamic religious, social and behavioural doctrine on
Pakistan. The BRI, therefore, can open a Pandora’s box.
Iran is a key player at the heart of the
Middle East and West Asia. Apart from its obvious strategic importance, Iran is
also a self-declared defender of the Shia cause around the Islamic world. This
being said, Iranian politics is difficult to manage, with a complex structure
and a complicated reality on the ground. And Iranian decision-makers are well
aware of this.
The recent presidential election and the
second landslide victory of Hassan Rouhani is more than ever a true
exemplification of such a complexity, which is often missed by foreign analysts
of Iran. As such, the Iranian population always surprises world public opinion
by the level of its complexity and pragmatism. Despite a highly flawed
electoral system, where the elections are neither fair nor free, Iranian
eligible voters participated massively in the presidential elections with a 75
per cent turnout. More than 40 million votes were cast on Friday, May 19,
reported by the Iranian Interior ministry, a number higher than the 56 per cent
turnout in the 2016 US elections and the 65 per cent turnout in the recent
The reason is simple: Supporters of
incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, who was running for a second term, came out
in force to vote and to stop the election of his ultra-conservative opponent,
Ebrahim Raisi, the custodian of the holy shrine of Imam Reza in the city of
Mashhad and a member of the Supreme Leader’s trusted circle. As such, once
again, Iranians voted against a candidate who was considered to be favoured by
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. This has now become a well-known pattern among the
Iranian population since the presidential election of 2009 and the tragic
events that followed it.
However, this year’s presidential election
in Iran has been politically and economically more significant and meaningful
than the previous landslide victory of Rouhani in 2013. First of all, in the
eyes of many Iranians, this election was a way to re-affirm and consolidate the
2015 nuclear deal between Iran, the United States and five other world powers.
Secondly, the landslide re-election of Rouhani is presented to the Europeans,
and especially to the Trump administration, as an expression of the moderation
and peaceful will of the Iranian people.
Despite Trump’s undermining of the nuclear
deal with Iran, and his recent visit to Saudi Arabia, Iran’s arch enemy in the
Persian Gulf, the Iranian people who re-elected Rouhani expect him to do more
in his second term to bring about peaceful measures through diplomatic
management and the pursuit of improved relations with the world. Interestingly,
while the Trump administration and its Middle Eastern allies put pressure on
the Islamic regime in Iran to return to a policy of isolation, Rouhani and his
future cabinet will have a hard time ensuring the survival of the Iran deal as
well as engaging in more proactive action against the Islamic State, within a
security framework for the Middle East.
Last but not least, the re-elected
president needs to go back and retackle immediately Iran’s social and economic
problems such as unemployment and growing inequality, which affect millions of
young Iranians. Everyone, including Rouhani, knows that the economy is the
Iranian government’s Achilles’ heel. Rouhani’s main opponents have taken
advantage of this weakness during the past four years of his presidency and
even in the three television debates before the election.
Rouhani was even criticised very recently
by the Supreme Leader Khamenei who implicitly stated that he understood the
“pain of the poor and lower class people with his soul, especially because of
high prices, unemployment and inequalities”. Even during the election campaign,
Rouhani’s main opponent, the ultra-conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi vowed
that, if elected, he would fight poverty, corruption and unemployment.
Moreover, Rouhani will continue to face
pressures from the Iranian hawks to adopt tougher stances on foreign policy
issues, including the conflict in Syria. Surprisingly, despite the signature of
a nuclear agreement with world powers, Rouhani’s influence on Iran’s foreign
policy remains very limited. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the Quds
Force continue to support Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the
Houthis in Yemen. It goes without saying that this new victory strengthens
Rouhani’s political mandate to integrate Iran with the global economy. But the
extent of his success will depend on the cooperation of Iran’s conservative
establishment, led by Supreme Leader Khamenei.
It will also depend on the future actions
taken by US President Donald Trump, whose recent talks in Saudi Arabia have
focused on ways to contain the Islamic Republic’s regional influence. Speaking
alongside his Saudi counterpart in Riyadh on Saturday, Secretary of State Rex
Tillerson said he hoped that Rouhani would use his mandate to enforce broad
According to Tillerson, the US wants
Rouhani to “begin the process of dismantling Iran’s network of terrorism” and
put an end to ballistic missile testing. The international community needs to
wait and see up to what point Rouhani can loosen restrictions on cultural and
social activities and push civic boundaries zealously guarded by hardline
Last Friday, the Iranians decided to stand
on the side of popular sovereignty rather than divine sovereignty in yet
another election that had all the frustrating signs of making the fate of a
nation. The majority of Iranians chose a way out of the crisis, rather than
just a president. As a result, in the next four years, President Rouhani will
continue to swim with Iranian and American sharks in the troubled waters of the
Middle East and the world. His success or failure in addressing Iran’s
deep-seated domestic and international problems will understandably be a major
issue in the consolidation of his power, but also that of Iranian civil society
which struggles to protect human rights and civil liberties in Iran.
However, one thing is clear: The message
sent by the Iranian voters who voted for Rouhani against the hardliners in Iran
will increasingly segue into the question of who will decide the future of
Iran. After all, this is what this presidential election was really about. It
was about Iran’s choice between change and continuity.
Votes for Reform
But President Rouhani’s challenges,
domestically and with the U.S. and Arab neighbours, are just beginning
After a difficult campaign, President
Hassan Rouhani won a crucial second term in Iran’s presidential elections held
on May 19. A high turnout of 73% helped him score a convincing victory over his
principal challenger Ebrahim Raisi, a conservative cleric, in the first round
itself, winning 57% of the votes compared to Mr. Raisi’s 38.5%. More than
two-thirds of Iran’s voters are in urban areas and most of them are Rouhani
supporters; therefore as voting hours got extended to midnight indicating a high
turnout, the mood in the Rouhani camp turned jubilant.
In 2013, Mr. Rouhani had campaigned and won
on a platform that focussed on bringing sanctions to an end, which he was able
to achieve in July 2015 with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a
nuclear agreement concluded with the P-5 + 1. The sanctions relief has had a
positive impact on the economy with oil exports up and GDP growth hitting 6%
last year though expectations were higher. In a TV debate in the run-up to the
election, Mr. Raisi described the JCPOA as ‘a cheque that Rouhani had failed to
Opinion polls had favoured Mr. Rouhani,
because Mr. Raisi, though close to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,
was considered a relative newcomer to politics. However, concern grew when
Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, a former Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)
pilot and the Mayor of Tehran since 2005, withdrew from the race in support of
Mr. Raisi, who had spent most of his life in the judiciary before being
appointed custodian of the shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad last year. He also
controls Astan-e-Quds Razavi, one of the wealthiest foundations, and is seen a
possible successor to the present Supreme Leader who is 77 and in poor health.
Therefore Mr. Rouhani’s decisive victory is
a shot in the arm for the moderates coming after the elections in February last
year for the Parliament and the Assembly of Experts where the moderates and the
reformists had registered significant gains.
However, given Iran’s complex governance
structures, President Rouhani will have to tread carefully as his powers and
those of the directly elected 290-member Parliament are constrained by the
non-elected authorities. The key power centre is the Supreme Leader who is
appointed by the Assembly of Experts and in turn appoints the heads of radio
and TV, the armed forces and the IRGC, the Supreme National Security Council,
the 51-member Expediency Council and the higher judiciary. He also chooses six
members of the powerful Guardian Council, with the other six nominated by the
judiciary. The Guardian Council in turn vets candidates for all elections,
presidential, parliamentary and the 88-member Assembly of Experts. It cleared
only six candidates out of the more than 1,600 who filed nominations for the
presidential contest; rejections included former President Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad’s nomination. In addition, it approves all legislation passed by
Parliament to ensure its consistency with Islamic jurisprudence. A dispute
between Parliament and the Council is resolved by the Expediency Council. The
Assembly of Experts is directly elected and its primary role is to appoint the
Supreme Leader, critical during Mr. Rouhani’s second term.
Mr. Rouhani’s principal challenge will be
to sustain economic growth and nudge the reform process forward in order to
tackle unemployment, currently running at over 12%, and higher among the youth.
He has promised to expand individual and political rights, enlarge women’s role
and ensure greater accountability. Some of these will be challenged. While his
victory margin is a clear endorsement for reform, the Supreme Leader will play
a critical balancing role. It is interesting that, in his immediate remarks, he
praised the Iranian people for the impressive turnout, but did not congratulate
In foreign policy, Mr. Rouhani will present
the image of a moderate and more outward-oriented Iran. He is no stranger to
Iran’s complex politics. From 1989 to 2005, he was Secretary of the Supreme
National Security Council, reporting to the Supreme Leader, and handled the
nuclear negotiations during 2003-05. During this period, he also served a term
each as Deputy Speaker of Parliament and as member of the Expediency Council.
Following Mr. Ahmadinejad’s election in 2005, he quit. After being elected in
2013, he persuaded the Supreme Leader to shift responsibility for the nuclear
negotiations to the Foreign Ministry and let Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad
Zarif take the lead.
In addition to managing his home front, the
other challenge for Mr. Rouhani will be keep the JCPOA going in the face of the
U.S. Congress’s and now President Donald Trump’s declared hostility.
During the election campaign, Mr. Trump had
called it the ‘worst deal ever’ and threatened to tear it up as soon as he was
elected! Subsequently, he seems to have modified his position, realising
perhaps that it is not just a bilateral agreement with Iran but also includes
Russia, China, the U.K., France, Germany and the European Union. In April, the
Trump administration certified that Iran was abiding by its obligations but
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson added that a 90-day policy review would be
undertaken in view of ‘Iran’s alarming ongoing provocations’.
More recently, on May 17, the Trump
administration continued the sanctions waiver (under Section 1245 of the
National Defence Authorization Act 2012), needed every 120 days even while
imposing sanctions on seven Iranian and Chinese individuals and entities on
account of missile proliferation activities. In April, a slew of human rights
related sanctions were imposed. In mid-June another waiver, this time under the
Iran Freedom and Counter-Proliferation Act, will need to be renewed if the
JCPOA is to be sustained. These are necessary because in 2015, the
Republican-dominated Congress rejected the JCPOA and U.S. President Barack
Obama used executive authority to waive U.S. sanctions but these waivers need
to be renewed periodically.
The JCPOA was the outcome of protracted
negotiations over more than a decade, during which Iran had steadily built up
its nuclear capabilities, especially in the enrichment domain, and in 2015 was
estimated to be only months away from acquiring enough Highly Enriched Uranium
to produce one device (approximately 25 kg) though Iran consistently maintained
that its programme was exclusively for peaceful purposes. Given deep suspicions
however, the JCPOA with its extensive inspection and reporting obligations was
the best way to prevent Iran from developing a military nuclear capability for
the next 10-15 years. Opponents say that while cheating is unlikely, they fear
that Iran will retain its nuclear appetite after abstaining during the 10-15
year period and resume its activity once the inspection obligations expire.
Perhaps the most troubling problem is the
new embrace of Saudi Arabia that was in evidence during Mr. Trump’s visit. It
raises the prospects of greater U.S. involvement in the war in Yemen and can
push relations with Iran into a confrontation. In 2016, there were 19
‘incidents at sea’ between U.S. and Iranian vessels in the Persian Gulf. The
most serious was in January 2016 when the IRGC held two U.S. vessels and 10
servicemen, accused of trespassing in Iranian waters. The crisis was resolved
within hours, thanks to some quick phone conversations between U.S. Secretary
of State John Kerry and Mr. Zarif. That link is missing today.
It is all the more ironic because Iran is
the one country that is opposed to the Islamic State. Yet the U.S. is keener to
bless the Saudi-created Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism, a
grouping of 41 Sunni nations, under the command of former Pakistani Army Chief,
General Raheel Sharif. It remains unclear what the role of this coalition is,
to fight the IS or Iran or in Yemen, or to secure the Gulf monarchies!
For the last quarter century, the U.S.
practised dual containment of Iran and Iraq, a policy that suited both Israel
and Saudi Arabia. Mr. Obama’s push for the JCPOA was driven by a desire to
extricate U.S. policy from this stranglehold and expand options. If a return to
the Saudi embrace creates additional tensions and a collapse of the JCPOA, it
could push Iran to cross the nuclear threshold with much wider regional
implications. Mr. Rouhani’s challenges are just beginning.
Various models of federalism are on the
table at the Panglong conference
Myanmar is to hold the second round of the
21st Panglong Union Peace Conference in its administrative capital, Nay Pyi
Taw, from May 24 to 28. A major issue at the meet will be the question of
During the government-led Union Peace
Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC) meeting in Nay Pyi Taw on May 12, the
committee agreed in principle to grant the seven states and seven regions
permission to draft their own constitution on the condition that they would not
break away from the country.
The UPDJC, headed by State Counsellor Aung
San Suu Kyi, includes representatives from the ethnic armed groups, political
parties and the government. The Panglong conference is likely to discuss the
question of self-determination and the drafting of the Constitution by states
The question of federalism or autonomy in
Myanmar goes back to the pre-Independence era. It is an important historical
issue which unified and divided the country. The idea of forming a union
government that would give equal status to all citizens brought together
different ethnic groups at the Panglong conference of 1947. It has also divided
the country psychologically and emotionally when the Anti-Fascist People’s
Freedom League, the first elected government after Independence, failed to
fulfil the political aspirations of the ethnic non-Burmans.
When the non-Burman ethnic groups pushed
for autonomy or federalism, alongside having a weak civilian government at the
centre, the military leadership staged a coup d’état in 1962. Though
incorporated in the 1947 Constitution, successive military governments
construed the use of the term ‘federalism’ as being anti-national, anti-unity
Until as recently as 2011, when the State
Peace and Development Council military government allowed the Union Solidarity
and Development Party led by President Thein Sein — himself a former military
general — to form a quasi-civilian government, one could land in jail for
With gradual democratisation, the Thein
Sein government accepted the concept of federalism, one of the core principles
of the ongoing peace process with the country’s ethnic armed groups.
As a pro-democratic party, the National
League for Democracy has been supportive of a federal government. But nobody
really knows what type of federalism Myanmar will eventually have.
Opinions on different federal systems such
as symmetric federalism, asymmetric federalism, dual federalism, cooperative
federalism and creative federalism have been discussed by policy makers and
Symmetric federalism could be a major
problem since the Bama or Burman majority dominates the seven regions plus the
union territory of Nay Pyi Taw. Even if the majority Burmans propose such
arrangement, the minorities may oppose it on the ground of being politically
Asymmetric federalism may be opposed by
some minorities who feel that they would be outnumbered. Many within the ethnic
minorities feel that the majority Bama/Burman/Myanma group should be given only
one state in line with other ethnic groups to establish genuine federalism.
Dual federalism may be acceptable to the
federal government, but the states may find it too invasive or intrusive.
Cooperative federalism, though an ideal
solution for some, is an unlikely arrangement as it could lead to a power
stalemate between the state and federal governments, making it difficult or
even impossible to reach a compromise over important pieces of legislation.
Creative federalism could be a problem to implement
if the two governments are unable to reach a consensus.
Due to the scattered population of several
ethnic groups, the other concept widely discussed is a non-territorial
federalism. In other words, self-determination should not be confined to a well-defined
The non-territorial federal structure could
be a possible solution, well suited to the demands of some ethnic groups. On
the other hand, it could also be a source of conflict between different ethnic
groups and even constrain relations between the state and regional governments
which have a mixed population.
Given the hybrid nature of the political
structure, there is also a danger that the government or the military
leadership would push for a ‘Myanmar Way to Federalism’ similar to the idea of
‘Burmese Way to Socialism’ during the days of the Burma Socialist Programme
Party government led by General Ne Win, or something along the lines of a
“flourishing and disciplined democracy”, as enshrined in the 2008 Constitution.
The ethnic minorities envision a federalism
which is based on an equality of rights for all ethnic groups and a guarantee
of a certain degree of autonomy over their people, territories and resources.
It is a positive development that the
government has allowed not only the use and discussion of federalism but also
the drafting of a Constitution by individual states and regions. Such a
development may be construed as a case of Myanmar moving forward in its pursuit
of a federal government.