IN an ominous development, the interior minister told the National Assem-bly on Wednesday that students wishing to proceed abroad on scholarships — as well as artists — would have to obtain a no-objection certificate from his ministry before they can leave Pakistan. Mr Rehman Malik did not give a reason for this bizarre decision, yet it was supposedly taken after the embarrassing episode in which singer Rahat Fateh Ali Khan was detained by Indian authorities at Delhi`s airport as he attempted to board a flight with a hefty amount of undeclared cash. The problems faced by Pakistani medical students in Cuba are also another possible reason for the move. Reports say intelligence agencies “would see which country was providing scholarships [to students] and for what purpose”.

Why are such steps — more suited to police states — being taken during the tenure of a democratic government? If such a move had been made during a military dictatorship perhaps it would have been unsurprising. But how can it be justified by a dispensation which claims to respect fundamental rights? Why does the government seem intent on limiting Pakistanis` contacts with the world? Already numerous foreign scholarships are wasted as the relevant ministries fail to advertise and inform students about them. For those students who manage to secure scholarships on their own this step will only add a bureaucratic hurdle in their way. NOCs can be difficult to obtain even for government employees, so one can imagine the hassle a student will have to put up with in order to get the document. As for artists, performers already have to go through a complex procedure to secure foreign visas. Why make things more complicated?

More importantly, legal experts believe that the NOC idea may clash with the spirit of the constitution. It militates against the right to travel which, according to judicial precedence, is part of a citizen`s fundamental rights. In essence, the NOC will serve as a permit to leave the country with the interior ministry having the final say about who can and cannot travel abroad. What safeguards will be in place to prevent abuse and ensure that granting the permit will not be an arbitrary process? How will it be ensured that the government of the day will not use this NOC to prevent certain students and artists and other people it doesn`t like from leaving Pakistan? These are very serious questions the rulers need to consider before implementing this bad idea. It should be nipped in the bud before it is allowed to impinge on people`s rights and restrict free travel. Such questionable measures have no place in a democratic society.

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