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Check box religion

March 16, 2012

-Illustration by Mahjabeen Mankani/Dawn.com

Know thy box. I mean do you know what box your faith can fit into? You better check that out or you won’t be able to vote in general elections. You need to fill out Form IV to register yourself as a voter and if an enumerator has already luckily knocked at your door he would have filled Form 1 and 2 for your family. These and all other forms of the Election Commission include an array of check boxes titled Muslim, Hindu, Christian etc. You can’t help but fit yourself into one of these and in case of any confusion or hesitation you are awarded a liberal ‘Others’ box as well.

If you are a Hindu or a Christian your checked box is believed in as such. But if you are a Muslim you have to prove it. Don’t worry; you won’t be asked to walk on fire nor would you need to recite anything from your Islamiat text book. No, not even your deeds or character matter. The procedure has been simplified. All you need to do is sign or thumb impress a special For-Muslims-Only Oath declaring that you are not an Ahmadi. If you are not an Ahmadi, you are a Muslim for the purpose of and to the satisfaction of the state of Pakistan. All those who sign the Oath can take pride in being constitutionally declared Muslims besides being registered voters of the same status. [Reminder: Ahmadis were declared non-Muslims through the Fourth Constitutional Amendment in 1974].

Hey, but wait a minute. Why would the Election Commission need to know what religion I believe in? Don’t we have joint electorate system where everybody from an area votes for the same set of contestants?

Yes, we currently have the joint system but we have, over time, experimented quite a lot with representation of non-Muslims in elected Houses. It has been a debate in this country from day one but the calls for separating voters and contestants on the basis of religion were resisted till Gen Zia’s time. The electoral circus of 1985 was the occasion when finally the religious right was granted its long standing wish and this system remained unchanged for the following four elections as well. It took us another general, the puppy-loving, singing and dancing type this time, to revert to the joint electorate system.

The Commission was overwhelmed by the reversal order of 2002 and when it started the campaign to update the voter lists in November 2003, it dropped the column on religion from its Forms and also the For-Muslims-Only Oath; soon to be reminded, rather rudely, that it had misread the situation. The ‘enlightened’ Order issued by President Musharraf in January 2002 was ‘moderated’ in June declaring that notwithstanding the joint electorate system the status of Ahmadis shall remain the same. This moderation was ostensibly mediated by some visitors to the Presidency with the right length of beards.

The President’s words were there but still the poor Commission could not comprehend the utility of those check boxes. The guardians of our faith actually had to seek support of the court to make known who was in charge of matters related to religion over here. A petition in Lahore High Court challenged in January 2004, the Commission’s decision to do away with the oath and the column on religion. Soon the Oath made a proud come back followed by a victory march by those sacred boxes.

Ok, they won. But what purpose does this information serve that the state of Pakistan is so obsessed with? I couldn’t find a plausible justification until I was helped by a person with the right level of faith.

Suppose a non-Muslim, Tariq Pervaiz, a Christian or Abdus Salam, an Ahmadi decide to contest a general seat of National Assembly. Around four lac or so poor electors of that national constituency would never know that they are voting for a non-Muslim for his name is very deceptive.

Even worse, the same non-Muslim person gets elected by the House as the Prime Minister or God forbid, the President of this nuclear armed fort of Islam. What a shame and what a great constitutional blip that could be.

So more than 80 million voters of Pakistan are made to check one of those boxes and sign that Oath to block that one in 80 trillion chance of a non-Muslim deceitfully rising to the highest political office.

Thank you, Election Commission for reminding us that we live in an extremely insecure security state.

 

The writer works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group that has a primary interest in understanding governance and democracy.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.