Minority report: Pak polls open the door a little for non-Sunnis
Pakistan's religious minorities have seen their electoral fortunes fluctuate in the past decade - from voting only under the separate electorate system, to voting both on separate electorates and on general seats to the more recent system of voting only on general seats. Imtiaz Ahmad reports.Religious demography of Pakindia Updated: May 16, 2013 01:55 IST
Pakistan's religious minorities have seen their electoral fortunes fluctuate in the past decade - from voting only under the separate electorate system, to voting both on separate electorates and on general seats to the more recent system of voting only on general seats.
Inayat Din, a Christian who recently retired as a teacher, says he much prefers the present system because "now we are part of the crowd." There is debate in different religious communities as to which system works better for them.
Things were much different in the past. In the 1986 general elections, the then president General Zia-ul-Haq had introduced the separate electorate system for the country's minorities. The rationale was that these communities would otherwise not get proper representation in Parliament.
However, this system had its flaws.
For one, candidates from these communities had to contest from seats on a national basis, forcing them to spend millions to address pockets of their voters all over the country. Worse was that they were removed from mainstream politics.
"We became pariahs. No party leader was anymore interested in us," recalls Julius Salik, who went on to represent the Christian community as an MP for three consecutive terms.
Salik says that he had to resort to antics so that his voters could remember his name.
"Once I hanged myself on a cross to protest inflation. Once I held a press conference in a cemetery," he recalls with a smile.
In 2002, General Parvez Musharraf, who understood this problem, gave both women and religious minorities better representation in Parliament.He allocated 33% reserved seats to women in Parliament and proposed that minorities had reserved seats in Parliament as well as vote in the joint electorate system.
This way, religious minorities would vote twice - once for their candidate on reserved seats and then on a general seat candidate of their constituency.
When implemented, this was changed somewhat. Now, as seen in the 2008 and 2013 elections, religious minorities vote only for general seats. Reserved seats for non-Muslims are given in proportionate number to parties as per their standing in Parliament.
"There were advantages to the previous system but I prefer this system," said Amarnath Motumal, a member of Sindh's Hindu community and a representative of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
Motumal says that the separate electorate system created a new breed of minority leaders "who were neither here nor there."
Despite Pakistan's poor human rights record especially with reference to its religious minorities, there is an attempt by politicians to work with their constituents.
This was witnessed in the recent Joseph Colony riots in Lahore where Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif ensured that the rioters were arrested and that those who suffered losses were compensated.
"More important, the residents were tipped off by the police in advance about the mob that was coming their way, which let them flee and save their lives," recalled one of the residents of that area.
During the 2013 elections, all parties ensured that they spent time with members of the minority communities.
Nawaz Sharif held such a meeting in Lahore earlier this month in which he told his audience how he still remembered his Sikh teacher who was like a father to him.
"He used to pull my ears when I did something wrong. So when I went to see him in India after my college, I asked him to do it again, but he said now puttar you are older and wiser." Sharif said that he had gone to India for the first time only to see his Sikh teacher.
It is only the Ahmadi community that had rejected both systems. Numbering over 4,00,000 all over Pakistan, the community refuses to accept its status as a religious minority. That is why members neither vote nor do they field any candidates.
"We are Muslims and we will never sign anything that makes us affirm anything else," says Chaudhry Muhammad Iqbal, an Ahmadi elder in Islamabad.
The community, which is the one of the most persecuted communities in the country, says that representation in Parliament will also not help them, given the legislation against them.
So complete is their boycott that seats reserved for their community usually end up being given to members of other religious communities as per parliamentary procedure.
However, the most positive thing that has happened, say members of different religious communities, is that some mainstream parties have started to field non-Muslim candidates on general seats.
The Pakistan Peoples Party has fielded such candidates in the Hindu-majority Tharparkar area and has managed to win, while the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf also fielded a Christian on a general seat despite the fact that this was on a seat in a constituency that is the stronghold of the Karachi-based Muttahida Qaumi Movement.
Inayat Din says that this is the most positive thing he has seen in decades.
While Pakistan's Constitution forbids non-Muslims from being the country's president or prime minister, all other slots are open to them. So far, there have been few who have risen to these positions.
"I hope all that changes in the coming years," says Din.
First Published: May 15, 2013 23:10 IST