Being reserved

  • Proportional representation of minorities taking its toll

While occasional incidents of blasphemy charges, vandalism, forced conversions and even life threatening situations for non-Muslims in Pakistan continue to be heard, the minorities of the country now fear that in the wake of upcoming elections, a discriminatory attitude is being practiced against them.
There are 10 reserved seats for minorities in the National Assembly. These seats are filled on the basis of proportional representation of the seats attained by a political party in the National Assembly and provincial assemblies and therefore, no independent candidate can contest them. Each party prepares a priority list for reserved minority seats. These lists have been drawing criticism mostly from own party activists who believe that they have not been prepared on merit, but on the basis of members wielding more influence through contacts and financial strength.
Christian leaders have deplored that not a single member of their community has been nominated for general elections on any national or provincial assembly seats in Sindh, which means that there is no likelihood of election of a Christian member on any of the reserved seats for non- Muslims in the province.
Similarly, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Christian members of the Pakistan Tehreek i Insaf (PTI) protested against their party’s decision to nominate a Hindu on the top priority on a reserved seat. The Pakistan People’s Party’s (PPP) selection for Punjab is also a Hindu. Concern has also been expressed by Scheduled Caste Hindus for being ‘ignored’ by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in Sindh.
According to figures compiled last year by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, Christians make 1.59 percent of the country’s population, while Upper Caste Hindus comprise 1.60 percent and ‘Dalit’ or Scheduled Caste Hindus 0.25 percent of the population. However, all mainstream political parties have put members of the Hindu community on top priority of their lists for reserved minority seats in the national and provincial legislatures for the coming elections. Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) received as many as 51 names of candidates from priority lists of political parties for the 10 reserved seats for non-Muslims in National Assembly last month.
After Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s inclusive policy at the independence of Pakistan, which allowed a Scheduled Caste Hindu to become the country’s first law minister and Christians to be the first two deputy speakers of the Punjab Assembly and one for the National Assembly, conflicting opinions on the issue by the Christians, Hindus and even the Muslims paved way for separate electorates in the country.
With the Fourth Constitutional Amendment in 1975, reserved seats were created for non Muslims in Pakistan, making the National Assembly their electoral college. It was Pervez Musharraf, however, who introduced the current proportional representation system for religious minorities in 2002. Under this system, non-Muslims can vote and contest for general seats but also have seats reserved for them in the Senate, the National and the provincial assemblies.

The rights of non-Muslims in Pakistan are not limited to them declaring their faith and practicing their religion in their places of worship. They extend to non-Muslims being able to voice their opinion at higher levels, on issues of national and strategic importance

Tracing the history of separate electorates, Asif Aqeel, a journalist, writes in his article ‘Minor Details’ for The Herald, that particularly the Hindu community opposed the concept, even before the creation of Pakistan. They believed that separate electorates will divide Hindus into upper castes and scheduled castes – which they did. Even the Christian community, which back in 1947, 1956 and even in 2002 at the time of Musharraf, had opposed joint electorates since ‘It is a question of life and death for them’, seems to hold a weak argument when it comes to ground reality. In a study titled Separate vs Joint Electorates System, a Pakistani Christian study centre pointed out that ‘separate electorates sharpened the minority-majority divide, decreased interest for electoral politics among the minorities and those elected through this system would always go along with the ruling party or coalition unquestionably and unimaginatively…..thus, the very purpose of minority representation was undone’.
If we look at the appalling living conditions in most of the neighbourhoods of minority citizens, it becomes evident that those elected through the current system, did go along with the political party to which they belonged and mostly, did not endeavour to improve basic living conditions of the very residential areas where they hailed from.
Thano Bula Khan in district Jamshoro, one of the few Hindu majority areas in Sindh, is known for its high levels of poverty and low levels of development. Hindus have a population of 50,000 or more in 10 districts of Sindh. Non Muslim neighbourhoods in metropolitan Karachi show a sorry state of run down buildings and garbage dumps.
Most Christian settlements in Lahore’s 13 National Assembly constituencies with nearly 300,000 Christian voters have dilapidated streets, overflowing sewage drains, tap water highly unsuitable for human consumption, limited or no supply of natural gas and high unemployment rates. This was the case even when 6 Christian members of the now dissolved Punjab assembly came from Lahore, while a federal minister and the only Christian member of the federal cabinet also belonged to the same provincial capital.
So in the upcoming elections, if not a single Christian member is nominated for a reserved seat in the priority lists of the movers and shakers in politics, it means that there will hardly be any representation from the community in provincial and national assemblies, except if one is selected from the list of a smaller political party. This would mean that without a sizeable representation, the Christian community may suffer from lack of development and addressing of other issues, which it did even with some representation in the past. The same fate is feared for the Scheduled Caste of Hindus, especially in Sindh.
The pinch of the flaw of current proportional system of reserved seats cannot be felt more. These seats, although created to ensure representation of minorities at the upper echelons, are dependent on the will of mainstream political parties, which are dominated by Muslims. The rights of non-Muslims in Pakistan are thus, relying on the extent to which Muslims are unprejudiced, which itself is a dubious issue.
It seems that abolition of separate electorates is the only solution. But contemplating on the idea would open a Pandora’s Box of hot debates in the country, as it has in the past. Amendments, annulments are not the answer to every problem. Almost each government in Pakistan, whether democratic or military, has been meddling with the Constitution of Pakistan in one way or the other. The existing constitution itself underwent a series of experiments until its adoption after three decades of independence. Erroneous decisions, however, need to be addressed and there can be ways out in the practical implementation of laws.
Some suggest a double vote – that non-Muslims cast one for a general seat candidate and the other for a non-Muslim candidate. Others put forth the idea that political parties should hold internal elections to decide their nominees for reserved seats, instead of getting hand-picked by the party heads.
The rights of non-Muslims in Pakistan are not limited to them declaring their faith and practicing their religion in their places of worship. They extend to non-Muslims being able to voice their opinion at higher levels, on issues of national and strategic importance. It means that non-Muslims should be guaranteed their share of unbiased development and provision of basic rights just like any other Pakistani, regardless of the faith to which they belong.
This assurance can only be given with adequate representation of the non-Muslims in law making institutions and then allowing them the will to independently pursue interests of their community, irrespective of their political allegiance. Staying reserved with quotas and seats may set limits, but to begin with, their presence should be pronounced at least with in that boundary. After all, the white in Pakistan’s flag is smaller, but more than just visible – without it, the nation’s identity is incomplete.