Hindu as top judge: Pakistan debates minorities' status

Islamabad, Pakistan - With the swearing in of Justice Rana Bhagwandas, a Hindu, as acting chief justice scheduled for Saturday, clergy, constitutional experts and politicians in Pakistan are divided on whether a non-Muslim can hold a constitutional office.

Bhagwandas, who was holidaying in India, was Thursday appointed the country's acting chief justice by President Pervez Musharraf who earlier suspended Supreme Court chief justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry.

As in 1960 when Justice A.R. Cornelius, a Christian, was appointed chief justice, Pakistan is in the throes of a national debate about its identity as a Muslim nation and the role of its minorities.

A similar debate had ensued about the role of women when Benazir Bhutto became prime minister twice amid protests from sections of the Muslim clergy.

An apparently new theme in the debate this time is the invoking of founding father Mohammed Ali Jinnah's historical speech of Aug 11, 1947 wherein he had emphasised that Pakistanis were free to practise their respective faiths.

He had said that Pakistan would not be a theocratic state and religion had nothing to do with the business of the state.

With Cornelius as a precedent, experts say the constitution does not restrict any such appointment.

Unfazed, Qari Hanif Jalandhry, central leader of Ittehad Tanzimat-e-Madrassa-e-Dinya (ITMD), has said that Pakistan is an Islamic country. Hence a non-Muslim cannot hold the office of chief justice.

'There is no such example in Muslim history or in any Muslim country,' he was quoted as saying by the Daily Times Friday.

Asked to comment on Article 180(b) of the constitution, which says that 'the president shall appoint the most senior of the other judges of the Supreme Court to act as chief justice of Pakistan', Jalandhry said parliament should amend the constitution.

However, senior constitutional expert Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan rejected Jalandhry's view and said there was no constitutional provision barring a non-Muslim from becoming the chief justice of the country.

'The Supreme Court is not the Federal Shariat Court, though there is a Shariat Appellate Bench of the Supreme Court comprising Muslim judges,' he pointed out.