— Illustration by Faraz Aamer Khan/Dawn.com
With the Sharifs now in power, much is being said and written about the main issues PML-N needs to address after taking over the reins. Militancy, a failing economy and the energy crisis remain on top of the agenda, followed by issues like development projects, health and education.
But then, there are issues stacked up on the shelves unattended, which face reluctance and hesitance on part of politicians – and on top of that list are the issues faced by religious minorities.
The Ahmadi community decided to boycott the elections citing reasons of unequal treatment as citizens of Pakistan in the polling process. This meant that around 200,000 members of the community from across the country refused to support any party. In the meantime, while much was being promised in the campaigns of election favourites, neither camp spoke for the Ahmadi community, or for the 200,000 votes that went in the bin.
“It was really sad to see that the politicians didn’t bother to ask us for voting for them, we are Pakistanis after all. We want to be part of the community; we wanted to participate in this process, we participated in the Pakistan movement. How does it feel when you become an alien within your society; I can’t explain this,” said Saleemuddin, the spokesman for the Jamaat-i-Ahmadiyya.
“We were discriminated against by the making of separate voter lists for us. This is not in the Constitution; this was made through an executive order. We want equal laws for all citizens,” he added.
The Ahmadi community in Pakistan has been under constant threat from militant organisations – it is argued that the two parties which have done rather well in the May 11 polls – Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaaf (PTI) and Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) – would have faced the wrath of these organisations if they had worked on securing these ‘200,000 votes’.
The problem faced by religious minorities is not limited to the Ahmadi community only. Political ignorance and ineffectiveness has led to the rise of discrimination against and insecurity of other religious minorities across the country.
Parties that were ostensibly secular were punished for their vocal stance on issues relating to religious minorities. While PML-N and PTI became front-runners in the election race, the campaigns of Pakistan Peoples Party, Awami National Party and Muttahida Qaumi Movement were systematically targeted by militants.
Arguably, the two parties did not speak out in defence of the parties that were targeted. “Politicians will always think pragmatically, some do think about their legacy apart from their political interests, in order to be remembered by people for doing some good and useful work. But the price of democracy is eternal vigilance,” says Wajahat Ali, a media and research consultant based in Islamabad.
Violence primarily hit Sindh, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkwa before the elections and with campaigning taking place in full swing in Punjab, it seemed that the province was like a different country, suggests Ali. Punjab holds the maximum number of seats in the National Assembly.
“Whatever happened to ANP, MQM and PPP before the elections, in the shorter run, it has given a political edge to PTI and PML-N, but in the longer run all political parties will be in trouble,” warns Ali.
The problem, however, has been constant. Sectarian violence against Christians in Gojra and Lahore’s Badami Bagh and various incidents where members of the community were accused of committing blasphemy have occurred during the tenure of the PPP-led government from 2008-2013. Former Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer was assassinated for taking a stand. He did not receive praise from either the PPP, or the state, for his efforts to raise his voice against a hateful, sectarian mindset.
For the Christian community at least, it appears that international pressure serves as primary support for its protection. The Pakistani government and politicians react promptly when violence is carried out against the community. The Badami Bagh incident where the construction of houses started within a few days of the attack is one such example, and so is the case of Rimsha Masih.
On the other hand, attacks on the Shia community have worsened during recent years. Hundreds have lost their lives in attacks on the Hazara community in Balochistan and in densely populated areas of the community, such as in Karachi’s Abbas town.
“The government’s reaction to the Hazara victims was as shocking as the event. It was a peaceful demonstration in a civilised country but you don’t let bodies (stay unburied) for three days. It was sheer incompetence by political parties, especially the manner in which the incident was dealt with,” criticised Ali.
Ali believes that there is a problem with the mindset of the people due to the absence of institutions where people’s perception can be changed about religion and religious minorities. For that, the government needs to sort out the education system in the country. Religious minorities believe that the syllabus is full of content that is against anyone who is not considered a Muslim.
“Course books have hate speeches against non-Muslims, and our children feel a lot of discomfort in schools. We are not looked upon respectfully,” said Guru Sukh Dayjee, an official of the Guru Gorakh nath Shera Mandal Pakistan, a religious NGO.
The problems for minorities don’t end there. Guru Sukh Dayjee says Hindu girls are forcefully made to convert to Islam and the local police don’t take any action, especially if the complaint is against any Muslim.
“No leader seems to have the courage to face the pressure of “Mullah culture”; even Imran Khan was clarifying himself in every jalsa before elections that he had no links with us. Everyone should keep in mind that today we are the target, but tomorrow some other community will be under attack,” Saleemuddin pointed out.
He adds: “We could be helpful in every department as the literacy rate is high in our community. Although we are already working in some departments, but if given equal opportunity regardless of religion, we can be more helpful. We are citizens of this country, we are tax payers, we have done a lot for this country.”
It remains to be seen whether the newly-elected government will decide to prioritise minority issues or turn a blind eye.