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Is the NA apathetic towards minority issues?

Updated September 22, 2014

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This picture shows a Christian man mourning over the death of his relative at the site of suicide attack on a church. — File photo/AP
This picture shows a Christian man mourning over the death of his relative at the site of suicide attack on a church. — File photo/AP

LAHORE: For Pakistan’s minorities, legislators did not seem to have too much time on their hands.

According to a collaborative study by South Asia Partnership, coupled with the National Assembly’s own report on its performance, during its first year the house could spare only 15 hours to discuss minorities’ issues as a whole.

Overall, minorities’ issues were raised in the house only about 10 times, including in the question and answer sessions, and this was entirely spread out during all the assembly sessions held over 131 working days, or to be exact, 322 working hours.

Since 2013, there have been various attacks on churches, gurdwaras and temples in different parts of the country while several non-Muslims were killed in the name of religion, or jailed under Section 295C of the Pakistan Penal Code, and assembly records show that not many among the legislators spoke up for them, even though the attacks were not condoned by any. And even though two bills were passed in the assembly with regard to these attacks on religious places, not a single terrorist was arrested or handed down due punishment.

Only in July 2014, for example, did sectarian terrorists kill at least three Shias in Quetta on Eid while later in the month the city of Gujranwala witnessed an atrocious massacre of Ahmadis, including an unborn baby, two girls and a woman, all burned alive by a mob over a picture on Facebook.

There are 10 MNAs in the elected house who represent minority communities. These honorable members include Dr Darshan of PML-N, Dr Ramesh Kumar Vankwani of PML-N, Bhawan Das PML-N, Isphanyar M Bhandara of PML-N, Tariq

Christopher Qaiser of PML-N, Khalil George of PML-N, Ramesh Lal of PPPP, Lal Chand Malhi of PTI, Sanjay Perwani of MQM and Aasiya Nasir of JUI-F.

But for minority communities, whose voice is hardly heard, there is barely any political representation. Violence remains their number one issue, but following that political prominence is the most pressing concern. Elected representatives, activists and members of the civil society all agree that they are unhappy about the running of system of a party by selected candidates instead of elected ones, and separate electorates. They say that this electoral system ends up in ostracising them from mainstream politics, and candidates on merit often never get the chance to run for community representation in the parliament. While in 2013, minority representatives in NA succeeded in getting a bill passed from the federal cabinet which approved an increase in the reserved minority seats proportionate to their population, the bill was not tabled in the parliament.

In January 2014, the Constitution Amendment Act was presented in the NA regarding minority rights. The house was again asked to increase the quota of reserved seats to 15. (There were 10 reserved seats for non-Muslims when the number of general seats was 207, but when the latter were increased to 272 in 2002, the number of minority seats remained the same).

Again the bill was not accepted.

“We have been unsuccessful in tabling bills for our rights in both the national and the provincial assemblies,” says MNA Isphanyar M. Bhandara. “The main reason is that because the census has not been held since 1999, the exact population of both Muslims and non-Muslims is unknown (which is required) in order to increase the seats. But once the census takes place, there will be demands coming in from many other sections as well, not just from minority communities, for an increase in seats. This will also include reserved seats for women.”

Unfortunately, the country is so divided at the moment that a census in these circumstances seems impossible, says Bhandara, and he does not see it happening in the near future.

“I would also like to point out that the minority MNAs have been given peanuts when it comes to development funds,” he points out, saying that they have to work within a few millions only which can hardly achieve anything, especially for marginalised communities in a developing country. “Although I am from the ruling party, I still criticise this serious lack of funds for us.”

Meanwhile, MNA Lal Chand Malhi says the bill urging an increase in reserved seats was also opposed previously during the PPP tenure. Now that the PML-N has turned from opposition to treasury they still seem indifferent and apathetic towards the issue. “We were told that the bill was too complex because it demanded too many things and was rejected on technical grounds, but we feel that if the assembly members had really wanted they could have easily passed it. Apart from an increase in seats, and direct elections, we also wanted dual voting and seating for minorities on a divisional basis.”

Malhi too blames the absence of a census, and adds that the overall performance of the National Assembly has been poor to say the least. “The ruling party it seems steers clear of anything potentially controversial,” he laments.

Although non-Muslims formed more than a quarter of Pakistan’s population when the country was formed, it is important to note that their numbers rapidly depleted soon after, and now they account for only around 4pc of the population.

Published in Dawn, September 22nd, 2014