The federal cabinet of Pakistan has approved on Sept. 5 a constitutional amendment to increase the number of minorities’ seats in the predominated Muslim parliament, in proportion to their population. Religious minorities are just 4 per cent of the total population of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. If the parliament passed 23rd Constitutional Amendment, minorities’ seats would increase from 33 to around 44 in the National and provincial assemblies. The Pakistan People’s Party lead government has planned to introduce the bill soon.
Minority leaders called it a very positive development toward minorities’ political participation in the country. In another development, in March this year, the first time in the history of Pakistan, minorities got four representatives in the Senate, upper house of the parliament.
In July this year, on the request of Minister for Interfaith Harmony Dr Paul Bhatti, Pakistan’s federal cabinet approved an increase in the representation of minority communities in the parliament and provincial assemblies in proportion to their current population, though minorities claim that their population is more than what government’s figures show.
Bhatti is the brother of late Shahbaz Bhatti; who was the only Christian minister in the cabinet, was killed on March 2 last year by religious extremists because he proposed amendments in the blasphemy laws, which have been widely misused against minorities and in many cases against Muslims as well.
It is also important to note that when the numbers of National Assembly, lower house of the parliament, were increased from 207 to 342, minority seats were remained the same, Minorities declare this against the norms of the democratic practices.
At present, minorities have reserved seats in the parliament which have been filed on the basis of proportional representation. Therefore, rather than being directly elected, minority legislatures were nominated by political parties. As a result, many say, they often sought to please their party leaders rather than serving their communities. Thus, minorities demand that the current electoral system should be replaced with the one where candidates could be directly elected by minority voters. Minority MNA Kishan Chand Parvani, a Hindu from Sindh province, said that either the system of reserved seats should be abolished, or the minorities should be given dual voting rights hence they could directly choose their legislatures.
Although the constitution provides all citizens the assurance of equality in all spheres of life, the contradictions can be found in this regards. A prime example is the Ahmadi community which has not been able to benefit from the present system and discriminated because their voters’ lists are still separate, which is a direct violation of their fundamental rights granted by the constitution under the Article 25-A which says, “All citizens are equal before law …….”
Ironically, it is the same constitution has many discriminatory clauses against minorities. For instance, no non-Muslim can contest for the president and the prime minister positions. On April 19, 2010, President Asif Ali Zardari signed the 18th Constitutional Amendment Bill, under the new added Article 91(3) of the constitutional amendment; no non-Muslim can become prime minister of the country. The article states: "After the election of the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker, the National Assembly shall, to the exclusion of any other business, proceed to elect without debate one of its Muslim members to be the Prime Minister."
A Parliamentary Constitutional Reforms Committee (PCRC) was set up in June 2009, composed of 27 cross-party parliamentarians, to review the constitution. Paradoxically, the committee did not have a single non-Muslim member. None of the parliamentarians from minority communities were involved in the deliberations for drafting the amendment; therefore, minorities’ concerns were not addressed regarding their social, cultural, economic and political rights.
Right after the introduction of the 18th Constitutional Amendment Bill, Asma Jahangir, a prominent
human rights lawyer and former president of the Supreme Court Bar Association said, “In reality, Pakistan’s disempowered religious minorities can never even dream of reaching such pinnacles of power, but for the constitution to be brazenly discriminate against them is indefensible. Non-Muslims may contest elections to the National Assembly and command a majority of votes, but cannot be elected as prime minister. Consequently, only Muslims will be able to become parliamentary leaders. Our political leadership must make up its mind: either it commits itself to non-discriminatory policies on minorities or confesses to bigotry.”
Rufin Wilson, a Christian political leader from Hyderabad, stated all discriminatory laws, which do not allow non-Muslims to become heads of the state and the government, should be changed. Senator Haji Adeel of the Awami National Party (ANP) supported this demand and asserted that this prohibition is discriminatory, and it is against the basic political rights and must be abolished.
Although minorities face many hindrances for their political representation, there are some slight developments can be noticed. Interestingly, in 2008 elections, while non-Muslims have 10 reserved seats in the National Assembly, they got 12 seats in the assembly; four (4) Christians and eight (8) Hindus - ten (10) members were elected on reserved seats, while one Christian woman, Asiya Nasir from Balochistan, was elected on women reserved seats of Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) and a Hindu woman, Rena Kumari, was elected on women reserved seats of PML-F.
There are total 36 non-Muslims in the pre-dominating Muslim assemblies. In 2008, Thirty-two (32) members were elected on reserved seats in the national and provincial assemblies; one on general seat (as an independent candidate), two (2) on women reserved seats in the National Assembly and another Christian woman, Najmi Saleem, on women reserved seat in Punjab Assembly on PPPP ticket. This development shows that minorities are getting some sort of recognition by the political parties.
However, minority candidates are not awarded tickets for general seats by any political party. “It is because of their less importance roles in social, economic, and political life of the country. And also there are fewer chances that they will secure the seats though Muslim majority votes,” one minority leader believed. Therefore, minorities have been demanding for a dual vote right. On Sept. 2, 2,000 representatives of 40 Hindu Panchayats from Sindh attended a convention in Umerkot. The convention demand for dual voting rights for minorities.
Along with some other concerns, minorities are apprehensive about the oath of the assemblies. On March 17, 2008, when as many as 326 members of the newly elected the National Assembly in the House of 342 members took an oath as prescribed in the Third Schedule of the Constitution, the members say that they will solemnly work to preserve Islamic Ideology, which is the basis of creation of Pakistan. Amin Fahim, a Muslim member of the National Assembly and a leader of PPPP, demanded that the oath text should be altered to accommodate the religious minorities.
Apart from all the concerns, there are some positive developments on the horizon. Recently, four (4) non-Muslim members were elected on reserved seats in the Senate. As the PPPP’s lead coalition government has inducted two Christian ministers in the federal cabinet, the Punjab government of PML-N has also something on its credit. A Christian member of Punjab assembly Kamran Michael was allotted the portfolio of a finance minister. When Mr. Michael supposed to present provincial budget last year, some Muslim members of PML-N objected to this move. Their objection was based on the religious bias. For them, it was not acceptable that a non-Muslim member would present the budget. However, Mian Nawaz Sharif, head of the PML-N, straight forwardly rejected the objection and fully supported Mr. Michael; therefore, he presented to budget and set another positive example. Interestingly, when JUI-F’s Christian woman member of the National Assembly Asia Nasir from Quetta made a very emotional speech in the lower house of the parliament after the murder of Christian federal minister Shahbaz Bhatti, she did not get any negative reaction from her party member, who have certainly a conservative approach.
As the federal cabinet decided to raise minorities’ seats to proportionate to their population, minorities dispute the figures of their population reflected by the ministry of minorities’ affairs. They also raise questions about the reliability of the census records. According to 1998 censuses, minorities’ population is around 3 per cent of the total population of the country. Although there are no reliable data available, minorities say their population is much higher than that. According to a report prepared by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), minorities’ population presented by the ministry of minorities’ affair is less than what was projected by the census 1998 figures. If two government’s figures are different from each other, it certainly supports the claim of minorities about their numbers.
Though, the enhancement of the number of minority representatives may not increase their social status, it will create more space for them to have more voices in the law-makers corridors, which would boost their confidence.
Minority leaders are of the view that the ultimate goal for minorities is that minorities should get their place in the mainstream politics. When Minister for Interfaith Harmony Dr Paul Bhatti spoken at the state TV channel he maintains, in principle, there should not be reserved seats, rather minorities urge to get party tickets and contest on general seats. However, it is a fact that at present it is not plausible. So until the nation comes to that point of tolerance and accepts minorities as equal citizens of the state “we need reserved seats.”
Spero News contributor Aftab Alexander Mughal is the editor of e-magazine Minorities Concern of Pakistan