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EDITORIAL: The government’s decision to introduce a bill in the National Assembly seeking to regulate the system of moon-sighting and empowering the Ruet-e-Hilal Committee is surprising, to say the least, because it runs counter to recent efforts of the ministry of science and technology to adopt modern ways of reading the lunar calendar.

The proposed law suggests the formation of a Federal Ruet-e-Hilal Committee which alone will have the power to announce anything related to sighting of the moon. It also proposes a fine of up to Rs 500,000 for anyone found violating the law. What is more, it also empowers Pemra (Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority) to cancel the licence of, or slap a fine of up to Rs 1 million on, any television channel that makes any announcement about moon-sighting before the Committee. Even courts will have to decide such cases within 60 days. The list of fines and penalties goes on, suggesting that this matter has suddenly been taken up very seriously by the government.

Surely, all this is very odd. Not too long ago when the current information minister, Fawad Chaudhary, was at the helm of the science and technology ministry, he took a number of steps to modernise the official moon-sighting mechanism; effectively trying to bring it into the 21st century.

And since the decisions of all ministries are in fact decisions of the government itself, it was believed that the PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) government was taking the initiative of introducing scientific and technological methods to the important practice of moon-sighting. Now, though, it appears that the government and the science ministry were not on the same page at all. And since Fawad’s steps were also seen as encroaching upon the traditional domain of the clergy, they naturally angered the religious lobby.

For the government to suddenly change its stance so strongly, and propose such heavy fines, will of course invite the charge that it is once again pandering to the religious right; as it has often done in the last couple of years.

But if the aim is to end all the confusion and controversy that often accompanies moon-sighting on occasions like Eid, then surely it’s far more logical, and also feasible, to lean towards science, especially since the practice is being adopted by a growing number of Muslim countries, including trend setters in the Gulf. To take the first baby steps in what would have been a substantial paradigm shift, that too at the risk of courting controversy, and then backtracking like this also gives the impression that the government is deeply confused about the direction it really wants to take.

At stake is not just the sighting of the moon on occasions like Eid, etc., but also very important things like what place should be given to technological advances and also just how much say the religious lobby should have in affairs of the state.

When the government first talked about school and madrassa reforms it was hoped that scientific and technological education would be central to both, which would ultimately develop a crop of not just talented workers, but also technologically empowered religious scholars who would appreciate the importance of science in processes like moon-sighting. Indeed, that is pretty much what most of the rest of the world is already doing. Yet we choose to move in the opposite direction, with considerable force, at the same time.

It doesn’t behove a sitting government to be so confused this late in the electoral cycle. This is, of course, hardly the first time that PTI has taken one step forward and two steps back. It seems the party still hasn’t worked out just what posture it wants to adopt. And it hasn’t got much time left to make up its mind.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2022

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