Islamabad – A report on the participation and prospects for Pakistan’s religious minorities in the upcoming general elections this year makes an interesting observation.
“Many persons with whom we interacted during the course of this research did not like to be called ‘minority’ or ‘non-Muslim’,” says the report, entitled “Religious Minorities in Pakistan’s Election”, commissioned by the Christian World Service, an international non-governmental organisation implementing humanitarian and development activities across Pakistan and Afghanistan. The report aims to “assist non-Muslim communities to join as equals in the mainstream political and electoral discourse” of Pakistan.
According to Tahir Mehdi, the lead researcher and author of the report, those who were the focus of this study don’t like the label “non-Muslims”, manifesting a strong desire and will on the part of minorities to be part of the country as “Pakistanis” and not as “non-Muslims”.
The desire to be part of a Muslim-majority country on the basis of something other than religion goes back to the days when the country’s Constituent Assembly got down to the task of framing the constitution. On 7 March 1949 the then Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan presented a resolution called “Aims and Objectives of the Constitution”, which says sovereignty belongs to God. According to the report, it was considered the “first legal instrument in Pakistan’s history that brought religion into the sphere of governance and politics”.
The 21 Muslim members of the Constituent Assembly at the time voted in favour of the resolution while the ten “minority” members voted against it, fearing the country would become a theocratic state. The outcome signified a divide that was to become more and more difficult to heal.
Ironically, this happened within one year of the founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s first and oft quoted address to the Constituent Assembly on 11 August 1947 in which he envisioned a pluralistic state not interested in the caste, creed or religion of its people.
However, in the in early 1950s, there were riots in Pakistan over declaring one sect in particular – the Ahmadiyya, who consider themselves Muslim – non-Muslims. They were officially declared “non-Muslim” in September 1974. Moreover in 1985, the definition of who is a Muslim, and more importantly, a non-Muslim, was incorporated into the constitution. Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Parsis and the Ahmadiyya were defined as “non-Muslims”.
Those categorised as non-Muslims have faced varied degrees of stigmatization and in particular had little success in politics. Only one non-Muslim has won a general seat in the last two general elections in 2002 and 2008.
Tahir adds, however, that the study found that the electoral profile of minorities is not quite that bleak. “In almost a third of the National Assembly constituencies (98 of 272), the estimated number of non-Muslim voters is 10,000 or more.” He points to the fact that during the 2002 and 2008 elections, the margin of victory in 107 National Assembly constituencies was smaller than the number of non-Muslim voters residing there. This suggests that if the political parties do their math right, minorities can’t be taken for granted or ignored in the coming elections.
However, M. Prakash, chairman of the non-governmental organisation, Minority Rights Commission Pakistan, thinks there is need to go beyond the electoral significance of minorities in order to be recognised as Pakistani and to take part in the political process as equals.
“Political parties should field candidates from minorities for general seats”, Prakash says. Though the government has introduced a bill to increase the number of seats reserved for minorities in the national and provincial assemblies, Prakash also wants political parties to dismantle their “minority wings” – which work with Pakistani non-Muslim electorates separately and often create a sense of separateness in these communities – to give them a complete sense of participation in the political process.
“Why can’t we be equal members of a political party?” continues Prakash.
The report recommends that equal and joint voting by both Muslim and non-Muslim voters can only be effective if discriminatory laws and provisions in the constitution are removed, pointing especially to the fact that a non-Muslim cannot become president or prime minister of Pakistan.
According to the report, “‘equality of vote’ is good but the environment of fear, coercion and harassment must end as well; the state should declare itself non-partisan in matters pertaining to religion”.
As a way out of the identity question that does not alienate minorities, Prakash says it would be better if they are called “Christian Pakistanis or Hindu Pakistanis”. Perhaps only then can we stop talking in terms of majority-minority, and start talking about Pakistanis.