ASK Romana Bashir, and she will tell you that she wants political representation.
The seasoned political activist, and Executive Director, Peace and Development Foundation in Rawalpindi, has spent years speaking to leaders and members of the minority communities — a term the state uses to describe Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Ahmadis and others — only to discover a shared, widespread irritation with a Pakistan that refuses to integrate 2.3 million people in its politics.
“We can vote. Yes, our candidates can contest general seats. But when it comes to representing our shared interests, we have no say in who occupies the 10 reserved seats in the National Assembly,” she says. “Instead, these seats become a tool for victorious parties to pick chamchas (yes-men) who will do their bidding.”
Leaving aside Ahmadis — they do not want special representation but merely the right to be called and treated as Muslims — research and interviews with leaders from the minority communities indicate a shared frustration with the way members of the National Assembly (MNAs) are selected.
“There is a very weak link between those who occupy those seats and those who are active members of the community and have real roots among the minorities in this country,” says Paul Bhatti, the former minister of national harmony and minorities. Asked his opinion about the fact that he was selected after the assassination of his brother, Shahbaz Bhatti, he says that the current system does not allow him to contest for the right to represent minorities. “So, I have to make do with what I have,” he observes.
According to a series of interviews with 82 community leaders in a report issued by the Church World Service Pakistan/Afghanistan (CWSPA) last August, minorities are against a separate electorate — a system which used to exist in Pakistan between 1979 and 2002, when retired Gen Pervez Musharraf replaced it with 10 reserved seats. Instead, community leaders want a joint electorate, where minorities are allowed to vote for the MNA that will represent their physical constituency, and a system where the 10 MNAs occupying the reserved seats are directly elected by the country’s non-Muslims.
“Affirmative action is a good thing, but it cannot be divorced from the demands and politics of those it seeks to represent,” says Bashir.
According to the report, many within the community are calling for an end to a party-list system where the 10 seats are distributed according to the percentage distribution of the parties in the National Assembly at large. Instead, they want to see a double vote: “Non-Muslims should be awarded dual franchise. They should be given two ballot papers. They should cast one to a general seat candidate and the second to a member of their own community,” says the report. The report goes on to recommend that the 10 seats should reflect the gender distribution of the National Assembly — meaning that at least three seats should be allocated to women from minority communities.
“Women from the minority are discriminated twice over,” says Bashir. “First, because we are women, second, because we are Christian, or Hindu, or something else. The combination of the two means that we experience a very particular form of oppression.”
“Give us a ticket, too”
According to Bashir, Pakistan’s political parties seem to “labour under the impression” that non-Muslims would be unable to secure Muslims’ votes. The conviction ensures that few political parties are willing to award a ticket to minority candidates — even in areas where minorities constitute the majority of the vote.
According to the CWSPA report, 10 constituencies in southern Sindh (primarily in Umerkot, Tharparkar and Sanghar districts) boast more than 50,000 minority votes — a number so high that it could have swung the results of the last two elections. An additional 31 constituency seats stretching across the country could also have swung the last two elections, despite having less than 50,000 minority votes.
Despite the enormous electoral strength of minority communities, however, most parties do not give a ticket to candidates with non-Muslim backgrounds. Except for a handful of exceptions — the PPP almost always fields a Hindu candidate in lower Sindh’s NA-229 constituency, and a handful of Hindus have crept into the provincial assembly in Sindh — most prefer to bank on influential Muslim names even in areas where the minority vote could be mobilised far more effectively. For example, the Jilanis are almost always fielded in Mirpurkhas, even though the district’s population is more than 40 per cent from the minorities, and the Arbabs dominate the nominations in Umerkot. The latter have been criticised by minorities for ensuring a placement of polling booths that make it difficult for poorer, Hindu voters to cast their vote.
Last year, George Clement, one of the MNAs on the reserved seats, went one step further and asked political parties to dissolve their minority wings. “The parties should include a reform package in their manifestoes and end discriminatory laws,” said Clement at a press conference in Peshawar. According to Clement, minority wings treat non-Muslim members of parties as non-integrated members — a big challenge to the important work of bringing the minority into the mainstream.
“If we do not see any movement, then another election will come and go with our people are left on the sidelines. That, I think, would be an incredibly sad moment,” says Bashir.