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Pakistan's non-Muslim voters - Area 14/8

Pakistan’s non-Muslim voters

Residents of Bahar Colony get smelly, dark brown water in their taps. Each family living here spends many hours every day carrying water from other areas for drinking, cooking and washing.

The neighbourhood and its adjoining Christian settlements – all part of a Punjab Assembly constituency, PP-153 – have about 20,500 Christian votes. It used to be one of the most developed Christian localities in Lahore when it was set up in the early 1970s. Now it is in shambles. Its streets are dilapidated and sewage drains, which overflow when it rains, run right through them.

Bahar Colony is located less than a kilometre south of what used to be the family residence of Punjab Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. The residence now serves as the Lahore secretariat of their party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN).

About 10 kilometres north-west from Bahar Colony lies another Christian neighbourhood, part of Lahore’s NA-120, a National Assembly constituency won multiple times by Nawaz Sharif, even in the last general election. Around 15,000 Christian voters and their families live here.

The streets with Christian homes in this part of Punjab’s otherwise fast gentrifying capital look like they have not been swept for years. “The Christian [parts of the constituency] are nothing more than dust and dirt,” says Faisal Mir. He was the candidate of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in a September 2017 by-election in NA-120 that Nawaz Sharif’s wife Kulsoom Nawaz won. “No basic amenities are available to [local residents],” he says. They have to buy water to drink and use in their food, he adds.

Most Christian men living here work as sanitary workers — a job that the younger and educated among them do not want to do. Unemployment is very high here, Mir alleges.

Youhanabad, another Christian locality in Lahore, is similarly rundown and neglected. It has been receiving no supply of natural gas since July 2017 despite being a part of PP-159, which sent Shehbaz Sharif to the Punjab Assembly in the 2013 general election. He has not visited the neighbourhood since then, not even when two suicide bombers attacked two local churches on March 15, 2015 resulting in the death of at least 17 people.

“The government is not interested in improving living conditions in Youhanabad because it is getting a steady supply of janitors from here,” says Napoleon Qayyum, a PPP supporter who works as a human rights activist in the area.

Lahore’s 13 National Assembly constituencies have around 275,000 Christian voters but the state of Christian neighbourhoods in the city has not changed much, even when it has been receiving more development funds than any other metropolis in the country. This is also in spite the fact that six Christian members of the Punjab Assembly come from Lahore — two of them, Shazia Tariq and Shakeel Ivan, come from Youhanabad alone. The city is also home to federal statistics minister Kamran Michael, the lone Christian member of the federal cabinet.

The social and economic conditions of religious minorities are hardly different in any part of Pakistan, even in constituencies where non-Muslim votes can potentially determine the difference between an electoral defeat and victory.

In 82 National Assembly constituencies in the 2002 election, for instance, the number of non-Muslim voters was greater than the difference of votes between winners and runners-up, says Religious Minorities in Pakistan’s Elections, a study published by the Community World Service Asia in August 2012. In the 2008 election, according to the same study, the number of non-Muslim voters was greater than the difference of votes between winners and runners-up in 59 constituencies.

For non-Muslim voters to have a veto over victory or defeat, however, there has to be 100 per cent voting by them. This is something impossible to achieve, given that mobilisation among them could easily be lower than among Muslim voters because they do not get as much attention from the candidates as Muslims do.

Another reason for a negligible impact of non-Muslim voters on election results is that they are scattered very widely, though their votes number 10,000 or more in 98 National Assembly constituencies. According to estimates in Religious Minorities in Pakistan’s Elections, the Christian population is more than 50,000 in 14 districts. All of them except one – Karachi – are in Punjab. Hindus have a population of 50,000 or more in 11 districts. Out of these, 10 districts are in Sindh and just one – Rahim Yar Khan – is in Punjab. No district with a large Hindu population also has a sizeable Christian population — and vice versa.

The net result of these demographics is that non-Muslim candidates seldom have the chance to win a seat contested in a general election. The only non-Muslim to have won in direct popular ballot in the last general election is Mahesh Kumar Malani. He got elected for the Sindh Assembly from a Tharparkar district constituency that has 68,000 non-Muslim voters — slightly more than half of the 133,254 total registered votes there. Perhaps no other constituency has a vote ratio that similarly favours a non-Muslim candidate.

This situation has led many non-Muslim politicians to find byways to enter the legislature. Some prominent non-Muslim families, for instance, have members in all major political parties. Dr Sham Sunder Advani, president of PMLN’s minority wing in Sindh, has close relatives in both PPP and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). President of the Sindh minority wing of PTI, Jai Parkash Ukrani, former Sindh minister for excise and taxation, Giyan Chand Israni, and PPP’s Sindh minority wing president Lal Chand Ukrani are all related to Advani as well as to each other.

The current system skews the development process against non-Muslim Pakistanis.

They also come from the same town — Thano Bula Khan in district Jamshoro, one of the few Hindu-majority areas in Sindh. The place is also known for its high levels of poverty and low levels of development. Its residents face a shortage of drinking water almost throughout the year.

This lack of development, according to many community activists, is partially owed to the electoral system that allows non-Muslim politicians to reach the legislature by indirect means. Anjum Riaz, a resident of Youhanabad and a community activist, calls it a “sham” democracy. “Non-Muslim legislators do not have to worry about being accountable to the public,” he says.

Pervez Musharraf introduced the current proportional representation system for religious minorities in 2002. Under this system, except for Ahmadis, non-Muslims can vote and contest elections on general seats but they also have seats reserved for them in the Senate, the National Assembly and the four provincial assemblies. These seats are not filled through direct vote but from lists submitted to the Election Commission of Pakistan by political parties that get these seats in proportion to the number of directly contested general seats they have in a legislative house. To qualify for a reserved seat, a party must have at least five per cent of the general seats.

The National Assembly has 10 reserved seats for non-Muslims. Six of them are occupied by Hindus, three by Christians and one by a Parsee. Three more members of the house – Phyllis Azeem and Romina Khurshid Alam from Punjab and Reeta Ishwar Lal from Sindh – are non-Muslims but they have been elected to seats reserved for women.

The Senate has four seats reserved for non-Muslims — two each going to Hindus and Christians. Another Hindu senator, Gianchand, is elected on a general seat.

The Punjab Assembly has eight reserved seats for non-Muslims. Christians have six of those and Sikhs and scheduled caste Hindus have one each. Three other Christians – Joyce Rufian Julius, Mary Gill and Shazia Tariq – have entered the assembly through seats reserved for women.

The Sindh Assembly has nine non-Muslim members on reserved seats — all except one of them are Hindus. In Balochistan, the provincial assembly has three seats reserved for minorities. Two of them have gone to Christians and one to a Hindu. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly has two non-Muslim members — both on reserved seats and both Christians.

These numbers hide some small but important details. Among all the legislators on seats reserved for non-Muslims, only two are women — Asiya Nasir in the National Assembly and Shunila Ruth in the Punjab Assembly. The total number of Hindu legislators is 21 but only three of them come from the scheduled castes. This is in spite of anecdotal evidence that suggests a vast majority of Hindus in Pakistan belong to the scheduled castes.

Census data, however, shows something entirely different: upper-caste Hindus were 1.6 per cent of Pakistan’s total population according to the 1998 census and those from the scheduled castes were only 0.25 per cent. Latest demographic data gathered in the 2017 census has not yet been divided into religious categories but community activists complain there was a massive confusion on how it differentiated between upper-caste and scheduled-caste Hindus at the data collection stage. Many census workers did not know the distinction between the two communities though there were separate columns for them in the census forms. In many places, they were lumped together since their religion is the same, activists allege. The same thing could have happened in previous censuses.

Rundown buildings in Karachi’s mainly non-Muslim Narayanpura neighbourhood | Tahir Jamal, White Star
Rundown buildings in Karachi’s mainly non-Muslim Narayanpura neighbourhood | Tahir Jamal, White Star

The electoral system for non-Muslim Pakistanis suffers from some other problems as well. Upper-caste Hindus, for example, have more influence and money to be able to gain nominations from political parties than those from the scheduled castes who are mostly uneducated and poor, says high court lawyer Arjun Das, who is also general secretary of the Scheduled Castes Federation of Pakistan.

It was for these and some other reasons that veteran Christian politician Julius Salik went to the Supreme Court in 2010 against the proportional electoral system. He stated in his petition that the current system “can be used by the political parties to introduce such people in the National Assembly who will work under the command of the political parties and will have no concern with the betterment of the minorities”.

In its verdict, issued in August 2015, the Supreme Court did not overturn the electoral system but it did say that proportional representation for non-Muslims was against three principles laid down in the Objectives Resolution, which comprises the preamble of the Constitution. The first of these principles promises that “adequate provisions shall be made to safeguard the legitimate interests of minorities”; the second guarantees that “the State shall exercise its powers and authority through the chosen representatives of the people”; the third states “that the principles of democracy … shall be fully observed”.

Adelegation of Indian Muslims met British viceroy Lord Minto in 1906. They drew his attention to the fact that Muslims were 14 per cent of the population in the United Provinces but could not secure a single seat in its legislative assembly under a joint electorate system. They then demanded that Muslims be given the status of an electorate separate from other Indians so that they could elect their own representatives. The viceroy agreed. The British Parliament then passed the Indian Councils Act 1909 that gave Muslims the separate electorate they had been asking for.

The Indian National Congress did not accept the change. Pandit Motilal Nehru, a prominent Congress leader, prepared what is known as the Nehru Report on constitutional and electoral reforms on the behalf of an all-parties conference held in August 1928. He suggested going back to a joint electorate.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah issued a rejoinder to Nehru Report in March 1929 — known as his famous ‘Fourteen Points’. He said the “representation of communal groups should continue to be by means of separate electorates”.

Christian Study Centre pointed out that separate electorates sharpened the minority-majority divide.

The disagreement between Congress and the Muslim leaders was a recipe for discord, if not conflict — as shown by three aborted round-table conferences between Indian politicians and their British interlocutors between 1930 and 1932. To break the impasse, British prime minister Ramsay MacDonald issued in August 1932 what is known as the “Communal Award”. It provided separate electorate status not just for Muslims but also for the Sikhs, Indian Christians, Anglo-Indians, “depressed classes”, earlier known as “untouchables”, and Europeans living in India.

Congress saw this as a ploy to divide Indians into various communal groups in general and Hindus into upper castes and depressed classes in particular. Its opposition led to an amendment that assigned some seats to the depressed classes without giving them the right to have an electorate separate from other Hindus. In the 1946 election, members of the central and provincial assemblies were chosen under the same electoral system.

The question of non-Muslims living in newly created Pakistan became moot immediately after independence. For Jinnah, it “was a legally surmountable problem”, wrote Dr Martin Lau, a dean at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, in his 2012 paper, Islam and the Constitutional Foundations of Pakistan. Lau quotes Jinnah as saying three months before the independence: “The minorities of Pakistan will … enjoy all the rights, privileges and obligations of citizenship without distinction of caste, creed or sect.”

Jinnah’s inclusive policy allowed Jogendra Nath Mandal, a scheduled-caste Hindu from East Pakistan, to become the country’s first law minister. The deputy speaker of the Punjab Assembly at the time was a Christian, Fazal Ilahi. His successor, Chaudhry Chandu Lal, was also a Christian. The deputy speaker of the second National Assembly, Cecil Edward Gibbon, too was a Christian. (Today, we cannot imagine any non-Muslim getting such prestigious and powerful positions.)

After Jinnah’s demise, his ideas started facing challenges from within the ruling Muslim League. As Brookings Institution’s Dr Matthew J Nelson wrote in his 2015 paper Islamic Law in an Islamic Republic: What Role for Parliament?: “Building on the work of a group known as the Pakistan Educational Conference … which, in late 1947, endorsed an ‘Ideology of Pakistan’ devoted to the inculcation of Islamic values in a push to counter fears of encroaching ‘provincialism’ … the Constituent Assembly began its work with a landmark resolution known as the Objectives Resolution [in March 1949].”

Those who supported the Objectives Resolution, next demanded separate electorates. The implicit logic behind the demand was political.

Pakistan’s total population, according to the 1951 census, was 75.64 million. Out of this, 64.96 million were Muslims — 32.73 million of them in West Pakistan and 32.23 million in East Pakistan. The vast majority of the remaining population, about 10.68 million, was of Hindus living mostly in East Pakistan. “If those Hindus could be sidelined in electoral process through separate electorates, then the western and the eastern wings could be on equal footing as far as Muslim electorates were concerned,” says Tahir Mehdi, a political researcher and analyst.

The Constituent Assembly, which had 18 non-Muslims among its 69 members, also set up a 24-member Basic Principles Committee in 1949 to make suggestions for a basic structure of Pakistan’s constitution. In January 1953, Abu A’la Maududi, the founder of Jamaat-e-Islami, and 32 other ulema gathered in Karachi to consider the committee’s report. According to Nelson, Maududi argued at the meeting “that a religious group known as the Ahmediyya … should be relegated to a separate list of ‘non-Muslim’ legislative seats”. (Shortly afterwards, anti-Ahmadi riots erupted throughout Punjab.)

Different religious minorities responded differently to the demand for separate electorates. Christians in West Pakistan supported the idea. Hindus in East Pakistan opposed it.

Christian leaders in Punjab had been supporting separate electorates even before independence. S P Singha, a prominent Lahore-based Christian and the then speaker of the Punjab Assembly, told the Punjab Boundary Commission in July 1947 that joint electorates meant Hindu domination. “Nobody outside the [Christian] community can understand the obsession that the community has on this point … They want separate electorates. It is a question of life and death for them …” he said.

East Pakistani Hindus, on the other hand, were quite vocal against separate electorates. Their logic was the same as advanced by Congress in pre-independence India — that separate electorates will divide Hindus into upper castes and scheduled castes. Their fears were strengthened when some prominent Muslim legislators argued that scheduled castes were not part of the Hindu community. Sir Zafarullah Khan, the then foreign minister, quoted Hindu scriptures, especially Manusmriti, to state that upper-caste “Hindus and scheduled-caste, depressed classes were religiously separate entities …” (He would have not known that his talk of intra-religion divisions will come to haunt his own Ahmadi community two decades later.)

Hindu legislators responded by saying that ‘untouchables’ or ‘scheduled castes’ were “an integral part of the great Hindu community”. Prem Hari Barma from East Pakistan, one of the four scheduled-caste parliamentarians, said on October 14, 1953 on the floor of the Constituent Assembly that scheduled castes “want joint electorate” though “with reservation of seats for them on population basis”.

The other objection that Hindus raised against separate electorates was that these negated equality among citizens. Sris Chandra Chattopadhyaya, a Hindu member of the Constituent Assembly said that accepting separate electorates was like accepting the status of “zimmi”, “pariah” and “outlaw”.

The issue remained unresolved. The 1956 Constitution left it to the incoming Parliament to decide after ascertaining “the views of the Provincial Assemblies”. In its October 1956 session, held in Dhaka, the National Assembly approved joint electorate for East Pakistan and separate electorate for West Pakistan.

Rubbish overflows in front of a dilapidated building in Narayanpura, Karachi | Tahir Jamal, White Star
Rubbish overflows in front of a dilapidated building in Narayanpura, Karachi | Tahir Jamal, White Star

Christian leaders from Punjab – Cecil Edward Gibbon, S P Singha, Chaudhry Chandu Lal, Sunder Daas and Joshua Fazlud Din – filed a constitutional petition before the (West Pakistan) High Court stating that the Constituent Assembly could not approve two electorate systems for two parts of the country. The judges dismissed the petition, declaring that Parliament was sovereign in forming and modifying the constitution.

Fazlud Din wrote a book, Separate Electorates: The Life-Blood of Pakistan, around the same time. The preface of the book, published in 1956, was written by none other than Maududi. Fazlud Din argued: “The very fact that the non-Muslim minorities are to enjoy full religious freedom and the right to develop their culture should leave us in no manner of doubt that these rights can be enjoyed in the real sense only when the minorities are also given full freedom to elect their representatives …”

The author also did not agree with the suggestion that reserving representation for minorities should be used only as an act of positive discrimination that would be abolished once social and economic equality was achieved. The reserved seats, according to him, were always needed to maintain segregation between Muslims and non-Muslims in keeping with the Two Nation Theory that had resulted in the separation of Muslim Pakistan from the rest of India.

On February 17, 1960, Ayub Khan appointed an 11-member commission, headed by a former chief justice of Pakistan, Sir Shahabuddin, to probe, among other things, whether a joint or separate electorate suited the country. Its members claimed the demand for a joint electorate was a manifestation of the desire among upper-caste Hindus to merge with the majority and influence the ideology of Pakistan. “Their demand for a joint electorate seems clearly to be for some ulterior purpose other than the welfare of Pakistan,” they noted.

But Ayub Khan dismissed the commission’s recommendation for separate electorates. When he introduced basic democracies for local government, elections for them were held on the basis of a joint electorate. The same system was used for the 1970 general election.

The 1973 Constitution, too, originally envisaged a joint electorate but anti-Ahmadi riots, which happened all over Punjab from May to October in 1974, occasioned the Second Constitutional Amendment that declared Ahmadis as non-Muslims, thus necessitating changes for their political representation separate from Muslims. Six reserved seats were subsequently created for non-Muslims through the Fourth Constitutional Amendment in November 1975, making the National Assembly their electoral college.

After General Ziaul Haq took over power in 1977, he made the next move. In September 1978, he amended election laws to create separate electoral rolls for Muslims and non-Muslims. “The separate electorates made it necessary to include a declaration of faith in the application for voter registration,” noted The Pakistan Election Compendium compiled by Tahir Mehdi.

On March 2, 1985, Zia increased the National Assembly seats reserved for non-Muslims from 6 to 10: four seats for Hindus, four for Christians, one for Ahmadis and one for other non-Muslim communities. He also reserved seats for them in the provincial assemblies: Punjab was to have five seats for Christians, one for Hindus, one for Ahmadis and one for other non-Muslim communities; Balochistan was to have one reserved seat each for Christians, Hindus and other minorities; the North-West Frontier Province (now Khyber Pakhtunkhawa) was also to have one seat each for Christians, Ahmadis and other minorities and Sindh was to have two seats reserved for Christians, five for upper-caste Hindus, one for Ahmadis and one for other minorities. (When another general, Pervez Musharraf, abolished separate electorates in 2002, he maintained the same number of reserved seats for the minorities though their allocation was changed a little.)

The election to these reserved seats was to take place at polling booths. The whole of Pakistan served as a single constituency for the National Assembly seats reserved for each community. Each province was a single constituency for reserved seats in the respective provincial assembly.

The general elections of 1985, 1988, 1990, 1993 and 1997 were all held under this system that gave the church and the clergy an undue advantage. Non-clergy candidates had no mechanism to reach out to their voters spread all over Pakistan. Priests, on the other hand, could mobilise support through church networks and religious associations. This explains why Ruffian Julius, a Catholic priest from Gujranwala, secured the highest number of votes among all non-Muslim candidates for a National Assembly seat in 1988.

But what worked for the clergy does not seem to have worked for the minorities in general. In a damning study, Separate vs Joint Electorates System in Pakistan, Rawalpindi-based Christian Study Centre pointed out that separate electorates sharpened the minority-majority divide, decreased interest for electoral politics among the minorities, allowed hatred against non-Muslims to spread and led to the misuse of discriminatory laws against them. Those elected through this system, the report said, would always “go along with the ruling party or coalition unquestionably and unimaginatively … thus, the very purpose of minority representation was undone”.

West Pakistan’s total population in 1951 was 33.70 million of which Muslims were 32.73 million (97.1 per cent). Upper-caste Hindus were 162,000 (0.4 per cent); scheduled-caste Hindus were 369,000 (1.09 per cent); Christians were 434,000 (1.2 per cent) and members of other religious communities numbered 7,000. The 1998 census showed that the share of non-Muslims in the total population had, indeed, increased to 3.72 per cent over the five previous decades, showing a gain of 1.82 per cent. The population of Christians alone had increased from 1.2 per cent to 1.59 per cent. There had been an even bigger jump in the upper-caste Hindu population — from 0.4 per cent in 1951 to 1.6 per cent in 1998.

Going by these figures, non-Muslim Pakistanis still have about half a per cent less representation in all the legislative houses combined than their population share demands. That, however, is a minor issue.

For one, the current system skews the development process against non-Muslim Pakistanis, as has been shown at the beginning of this article. Their legislative representatives have also failed to make a concerted effort to get a formal status for katchi abadis or irregular settlements where a large number of non-Muslims live. A few of these settlements were formalised and their residents were given land rights in 1988 when Benazir Bhutto first became prime minister. Since then, only once has this issue been raised again – this time by PMLN – for the formalisation of a katchi abadi next to the Forman Christian College, Lahore. A final decision about it, however, is still pending.

A community hall in Youhanabad, Lahore | M Arif, White Star
A community hall in Youhanabad, Lahore | M Arif, White Star

Implementation of the five per cent minority quota in government jobs is a similarly neglected area. The annual statistical bulletin of federal government employees for 2010-11 states that only 2.6 per cent or 11,521 federal jobs – out of a total of 449,964 – were held by non-Muslims. About 70 per cent of these jobs fell in the two lowest grades. No non-Muslims held a job in the highest grade.

The contribution of non-Muslim legislators in reforming their respective communities’ personal laws is also negative, if any at all.

Rana Chandar Singh, an upper-caste Hindu who had been a member of the National Assembly multiple times before his death in 2009, fiercely resisted any move to provide a legal mechanism for the dissolution of a Hindu marriage. Now there are two laws governing Hindu marriages — one enacted by the federal government on February 8, 2016 and the other by the Sindh government, promulgated a week later. They, however, seem to be working on cross-purposes. “The entire purpose of Sindh’s law is to fail the federal law that contains a divorce clause which is not acceptable to most Hindu legislators,” says Shahid Jatoi, a researcher on governance and the rule of law.

Most Christian legislators, similarly, oppose changes in the Christian Divorce Act 1869. Zia struck down Section 7 of this law in 1981, making dissolution of a Christian marriage next to impossible. The result is that many Christian couples convert to Islam to dissolve their marriages. In countless other cases, women have been forced to stay in abusive marriages that sometimes cost them their lives.

When the Lahore High Court called Punjab’s Minister for Human Rights and Minority Affairs, Tahir Khalil Sindhu, in January 2017 to explain his stance on the divorce act, he argued that a marriage was a sacred tie that could only be dissolved on the grounds of adultery. In the same hearing, the then federal human rights minister Kamran Michael told the court that “religious injunctions could not be changed to serve fundamental human rights”.

The critics say these legislators are so dependent on priests for political support that they can never oppose the religious establishment. “They have no roots within their communities,” says Riaz Anjum. “When they are required to show public support to their party leadership, they show religious gatherings, not political ones.”

Mainstream political parties and policymakers, too, do not seem to take non-Muslim legislators seriously. They were not made part of parliamentary negotiations that led to the passage of the 18th Constitutional Amendment back in 2009-10. They were also not invited to high level meetings in early 2015 when the National Action Plan against extremism and terrorism was firmed up. The recently passed electoral reform laws have no input from them. Two Christian members of the National Assembly – Asiya Nasir and Tariq C Qaiser – were invited only as observers in 2015 to the consultations for electoral reforms. Their recommendations, however, were brushed aside.

When Musharraf decided to hold general elections in 2002, his law minister Dr Khalid Ranjha advocated a joint electorate. His suggestion was accepted.

Many Christian community leaders did not like it. “The religious leadership of Christians became very active in lobbying at various platforms, arguing that they could not come to Parliament through a joint electorate system because no one would want to vote for a Christian,” says Ranjha. So the system was changed again — retaining joint electorate but giving non-Muslims reserved seats in all houses of the legislature.

This dual system, however, has not ended the differences over political representation of non-Muslim Pakistanis. Some favour the current system. “Now the problems of our minority communities are resolved within their own constituencies and then they also have minority parliamentarians as a backup,” is how Mukesh Kumar Chawla, an upper-caste Hindu and a provincial minister in Sindh, views it.

His PTI counterparts also want no change except that political parties nominate better candidates who, says Ramesh Singh Arora, a Sikh member of the Punjab Assembly, should be educated, politically trained and aware of human rights.

The National Assembly’s lone Parsee member, Isphanyar M Bhandara, also argues it is the performance of a legislator that counts the most, not the way he or she is elected. “What is the guarantee that those who are elected through a direct vote would serve their people with selflessness and integrity?” he says.

Yet many among the minorities want their representatives chosen directly by them even if that means the restoration of separate electorates. Others argue that non-Muslims should have a double-vote — they cast one for a general seat candidate and the other for a non-Muslim candidate.

Sarwar Bari, general secretary of the Free and Fair Election Network, a conglomerate of civil society organisations, also supports a dual vote for non-Muslims. “Non-Muslim voters should have double votes in at least 24 National Assembly constituencies where their vote is 25,000 or more,” he argues.

This system may work in districts where the population of non-Muslims is high but it will be difficult to implement in areas where their population is thin and scattered. It runs the risk of disenfranchising a huge number of non-Muslim voters living in constituencies where their votes are not sizeable.

Peter Jacob, executive director of the Centre for Social Justice, a civil rights organisation based in Lahore, offers another solution. He wants political parties to hold internal elections to decide their nominees for reserved seats. This will make the nomination process transparent, he says, and remove the perception that non-Muslim legislators are only hand-picked by their party bosses. Elections held within parties, though, are yet to establish their credibility as we have seen in several aborted PTI attempts to elect its officials.

Tahir Mehdi does not agree with any of this. He wants reserved seats abolished altogether. “Any representation system based on religion will strengthen [the] minority-majority divide and will lead to a separate electorate system,” he says. He suggests that political parties should be made more inclusive by law. “They should be made to have more non-Muslims at their top posts and their general election candidates should also include a sufficient number of non-Muslims.”

As Bari puts it, religious harmony will improve only when Muslims elect a non-Muslim.


In a previous version of the story, we stated that Dewan Sachal is additional general secretary of the Sindh minority wing of PTI and a resident of Thano Bula Khan in district Jamshoro. He wrote to us subsequently and stated that he is additional secretary of the mother body of PTI and belongs to Berani in district Sanghar.

Herald Dawn