What Does Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Ousting Mean for Pakistan’s Democracy?

nawaz sharif

by Sravya Tadepalli Instagram

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif resigned on Friday, July 28, 2017, after Pakistan’s Supreme Court found him guilty of corruption, and his removal has brought forth major questions regarding Pakistan’s future as a democracy.

Sharif, a member of the conservative Pakistani Muslim League, was elected Prime Minister three times, from 1990 to 1993, 1997 to 1999, and from 2013 to 2017. Sharif was forced to resign during his first term due to military pressure and was forced out of office in 1999 by a coup d’etat. Pakistan, while officially a parliamentary democracy, has had a history of political instability with periods of democracy often interrupted by military coups. In fact, no Pakistani government has been able to finish a full term since independence.

[Read More: “For the Love of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar: How Violence Threatens Pakistan’s Traditions of Loving Expression“]

Some, including representatives from the Pakistan People’s Party, Pakistan’s center-left opposition party, and the party of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, believe that Sharif’s ousting bears no harm to Pakistan’s democracy, and the Supreme Court carried out its duty as a check on the Prime Minister’s power. And by every measure, the Supreme Court certainly had overwhelming evidence to support its decision. The 2016 Panama Papers showed that Sharif’s children had undisclosed assets abroad through offshore companies.

However, many are concerned that the Supreme Court decision was not an unbiased decision stamped solely by the rule of law. While the Supreme Court went after Sharif, it ignored many of the other government officials implicated in the Panama Papers. The Supreme Court also did not grant Sharif a legal trial. Rather, the Court’s verdict was based on the findings of a six-member investigative team, two from the military establishment that has had tensions with Sharif’s administration, particularly with regard to his policy toward India. The verdict also did not find Sharif guilty particularly because of the actions of his children, but because he violated sections of the Constitution that required politicians to be “honest and trustworthy.” Vague criteria such as this allow opposition groups (primarily the military) to depose of leaders it opposes.

[Read More: “#BrownGirlsTalkSex: Committing the Mother of All Sins as a Pakistani-Muslim Woman“]

Strong checks and balances and government accountability are critical to a healthy democracy. But when the courts are abused by a powerful and trusted opposition, justice may be sacrificed for politics. For democratic institutions to last, the public must have confidence in the policy makers they elect and the electoral system itself. The continuous patterns in Pakistan of corrupt officials and slimy court systems are only going to erode Pakistani trust in democratic ideals. While Sharif’s ousting may have been justified, the latest in a series of mid-government interventions and interruptions has likely weakened the strength of Pakistan’s democratic institutions for the long term.

sravya tadepalliSravya Tadepalli is a student at the University of Oregon studying political science and journalism. She is a proud Indian-American-Oregonian and grew up in a small town in the southern Willamette Valley. Sravya is passionate about theater, racial issues, and politics. She is also particularly interested in figuring out policy solutions to problems of social justice and political partisanship.

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Oak Creek: A Story of Hate, Hope and Healing

Every year on August 5th, the Sikh American community remembers one of our community’s most devastating tragedies in recent memory — the Oak Creek massacre. On this day in 2012, a white supremacist gunman entered the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, a gurdwara (Sikh house of worship) in Oak Creek, Wisconsin where he shot and killed six worshippers and severely injured others. This violent attack was the deadliest mass shooting targeting Sikh Americans in U.S. history, and at the time, was one of the worst attacks on a U.S. house of worship in decades. Six worshippers — Paramjit Kaur Saini, Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, Prakash Singh, Suveg Singh Khattra, and Satwant Singh Kaleka — were killed on that horrific day. An additional community member, Baba Punjab Singh, was severely paralyzed and ultimately passed away from complications related to his injuries in 2020. Others, including Bhai Santokh Singh and responding police officer and hero, Lt. Brian Murphy, were seriously wounded during the shooting. 

[Read Related: Oak Creek Gurdwara Massacre’s 4th Anniversary: Young Sikhs Express Optimism for the Continued Struggle Against Hate and Ignorance]

In 2022, the community came together to demonstrate that we are undaunted. My organization, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) joined in supporting the anniversary observance at Oak Creek: a remembrance event centered around the theme of “Heal, Unite, Act.” The Oak Creek Sikh community hosted a series of in-person events, including the 10th Annual Oak Creek Sikh Memorial Anniversary Candlelight Remembrance Vigil on Friday, August 5, 2022. The program included a representative from the White House, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers, Oak Creek Mayor Dan Bukiewicz, and representatives of the families who lost loved ones. Being there in Oak Creek 10 years after the tragedy was deeply meaningful — both to see the inspiring resilience of this community and to remember how much remains to be done.

In D.C., SALDEF continues to fight for policies that improve the lives of Sikh Americans. I had the honor of chairing the most recent iteration of the Faith-Based Security Advisory Council at the Department of Homeland Security, providing recommendations at the request of Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas. Consequently, the three subcommittees published a report that emphasized the importance of greater accessibility, greater equity, and greater transparency in counterterrorism efforts that for too long revolved around surveilling populations like the one that was senselessly attacked at the Oak Creek gurdwara in 2012. Leading the FBSAC as a Sikh woman, and representing a community that was highly targeted alongside Muslims by both white supremacists and in post-9/11 counterterrorism profiling, was an opportunity to push the Council to advocate more fiercely for further information-sharing between communities and law enforcement, extending grant opportunities for security for Gurdwaras and other houses of worship, and building trust between the government and Sikh communities. In addition, I advocated for accountability for the damage needlessly caused to Muslim, Arab, South Asian, and Hindu (MASSAH) communities by federal agencies historically pursuing “counterterrorism” objectives which has resulted in eroded trust rather than the development of strong partnerships. 

Although we have made great strides in this country, there is still more to do. Through our work we have partnered with many across the nation to come together and find solutions through tenets central to Sikhism and America — unity, love, and equality. SALDEF continues to strongly endorse the policy framework articulated across the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act (H.R. 350 / S. 963); Justice for Victims of Hate Crimes Act; and the Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP) Improvement Act (H.R. 6825). We believe strongly in mandating federal agencies to create dedicated offices to investigate domestic terrorism; allowing prosecutors to feasibly indict perpetrators of hate crimes; and allowing religious nonprofits to access federal funding to enhance their own security.

[Read Related: Anti-Sikh Hate is on the Rise: Here’s What we can Do]

While 11 years have passed, the effects of the Oak Creek shooting are never far from the minds of Sikh American advocates and the community we serve. SALDEF will not stop taking a stand against senseless violence and hate crimes. We continue to work in unity with our community and movement partners, and fight for better policies that will actively keep all of our communities safe. Through tragedy, we find hope. We know there can be a world where people from all backgrounds and cultures can practice their faith freely and, even though it has eluded the Sikh American community in the past, we still believe this world is possible.

Photo Courtesy of Amrita Kular

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