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Feature: Promises for uplift of religious minorities continue to ring hollow

Updated July 09, 2018

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IN this file photo, people gather outside All Saints Church in Peshawar after a suicide bombing attack killed more than 70 people and left 120 injured. In the aftermath of the attack, then chief justice of Pakistan Tassaduq Hussain Jillani took suo motu notice of the state of religious minorities in the country and issued an eight-point directive to improve their situation.—AP
IN this file photo, people gather outside All Saints Church in Peshawar after a suicide bombing attack killed more than 70 people and left 120 injured. In the aftermath of the attack, then chief justice of Pakistan Tassaduq Hussain Jillani took suo motu notice of the state of religious minorities in the country and issued an eight-point directive to improve their situation.—AP

COME election time and political parties become vocal about their stance regarding the rights of religious minorities in the country. Despite the endless promises of safeguards and affirmative action, in practice, these parties rarely translate those assurances into action, and they remain mere lip service.

In 2013, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), poised to win the most seats in the country, presented a manifesto which promised the introduction of a job quota for religious minorities in “educational institutions and public sector jobs including diplomatic missions”. Five years on, religious minorities await its implementation.

Take a look: Problems with the electoral representation of non-Muslims

In the aftermath of a deadly attack on All Saints Church in Peshawar in 2014, then chief justice of Pakistan Tassaduq Hussain Jillani took suo motu notice of the state of religious minorities in the country and issued an eight-point directive to improve their situation. They include: job quota, educational quota, protective police force to guard places of worship, a national commission for minority rights, etc. At the time, the PML-N led government had vowed to see the implementation of the directive through, but in practice, pushed the matter aside.

Does this mean that parliamentarians in the assemblies are not doing what they are meant to do? Mary James Gill, who recently served as an MPA of the PML-N, says that she has had reservations over the system of a separate electorate and the way minority candidates are brought to the assembly. She says that although they should be more active, they have no training or capacity-building exercise that could help them serve their constituencies in a better way. This is a gap that was being filled by NGOs, even though their role, too, has been minimised.

The point is that political parties are more interested in having their puppets sit in the assembly seats. They give tickets to only influentials, and our concerns are not their concerns. Advocate Arjun from Sukkur

“Let me clarify, most parliamentarians have not read the manifesto properly and [do not know] what it promises,” she says. “Despite the problems many minority parliamentarians have tried to be as vocal as possible. Not everything has been changed as promised, but some things have.” She highlights the need for a roadmap to address issues of religious minorities, but she feels that those in the corridors of power are not interested. “Everything has to go through the minister, and that is where the voices of parliamentarians are slowly and eventually muffled,” she shares.

The Pakistan Peoples Party’s 2013 manifesto spoke about forming an Equality Commission that would ‘monitor the implementation of job quotas for minorities’ but no such commission was created during the party’s five years in government in Sindh.

“Nor is there any will among minority parliamentarians to get this materialised,” complains Advocate Arjun from Sukkur. “The point is that political parties are more interested in having their puppets sit in the assembly seats. They give tickets to only influentials, and our concerns are not their concerns.” Commenting on the issue of the job quota, he says many qualified Hindu young men and women had applied for jobs in the government but were not inducted.

Sociologist and Christian rights activist Dr Sabir Michael says none of the parties did anything substantial for religious minorities in the previous term.

“The PPP has always supported candidates from rich classes, ignoring poor scheduled caste Hindus and almost all Christians,” he says. “The Muttahida Qaumi Movement, too, says it represents the middle class but only supports rich candidates such as Sanjay Perwani. So I would like to know where the issues of a lower class minority candidate are raised.”

5 years ago in 2013, the PPP’s manifesto spoke about forming an Equality Commission that would ‘monitor the implementation of job quotas for minorities’ but no such commission was created during the party’s five years in government in Sindh.

He believes that issues impacting religious minorities are underscored by questions of class, caste and creed, and not religion per se.

A rich minority candidate will only serve the interests of the affluent, whatever religion they may belong to. “It’s all about money and socio-economic class,” says Dr Michael. “In my opinion though this reserved seats system should be stopped because we should be able to elect our own candidate,” he concludes.

The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s manifesto has only five points that generally cover a few issues faced by religious minorities. Their detractors call it “face saving”.

In 2013, the PTI said that religious minorities would be given “due representation in all state institutions” as did all the other main political parties. Yet the PTI, like other parties, did not have a single non-Muslim in its core committee.

Boota Imtiaz, a member of the Implementation of Minority Rights’ Forum in Hyderabad, complains about zero implementation of Justice Tassaduq’s 2014 directive. “This applies to all parties, including the PTI and PPP as well as the ruling parties in Balochistan, who knew about this but refused to adopt it. If this is not contempt of court then what is it?”

Religious minorities in all provinces have suffered many attacks on their places of worship.

When a church in Quetta was attacked around Christmas time in December last year, “The government was not ready to even disburse compensation cheques among families, and none of the minority parliamentarians were interested in making noise about it,” he says.

Apart from that, Sindh has the shame of retracting its Forced Conversion Bill which was presented by Pakistan Muslim League-Functional reserved seat candidate Nand Kumar Goklani.

Ultimately, the promises made in party manifestos tend to be taken seriously by communities — those who know about them — while many others argue if they would even make a difference. “For many, it’s just a piece of paper but for me it’s a paper with writing on it, which can be challenged later,” says Dr Michael.

Unfortunately, the reserved seat system ensures that only those who can promise to fulfil the agendas of their party leaders and are considered malleable or toothless are brought to the assemblies on reserved seats. The real issues are almost always ignored.

Published in Dawn, July 9th, 2018

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