PAK ELECTIONS: Religious minorities play a minor role

Millions of religious minorities in Pakistan are out of the picture in the upcoming elections, which many countries in the world are keenly watching. The minorities in Pakistan are subjugated in all manners and matters … A special report by Dr Sakariya Kareem

Religious minorities, numbering a few million, face insurmountable challenges in the political process of elections in Pakistan. These challenges are caused by state agencies, belligerent attitudes of Islamic groups, indifference by mainstream political parties and, all of it, compounded by the powerful military’s systematic campaign to deny the minorities any real sense of citizenry.

According to the Election Commission’s 2022 figures, of about 122 million registered voters, minorities account for about 4 million. Of them, 2,073,983 are Hindus 1,703,288 Christians and other minorities 174,165. As compared to 2018 figures, the minority vote share has increased by about 481,000. These numbers are substantial to seal or make the fate of candidates in general elections, minorities are denied the luxury of reaping the rewards of being crucial voters. Under Article 51(4) of the Constitution, ten seats are reserved for non-Muslims in the National Assembly and 24 seats in the four Provincial Assemblies under Article 106.

For minorities, elections are an exercise in which they hardly have any role or importance.

Former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the front runner.

In a recent report, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan quoted a Christian social activist from Peshawar in pointing out the serious disconnect between the electorate and the political representatives because of the indirect electorate.

The biggest challenges are faced by the Ahmadi community – a Muslim minority community which are disenfranchised by the Constitution itself. Ahmadis number over 500,000 in Pakistan. They remain excluded from freely expressing their political choices. To register as voters, Ahmadis must either renounce their faith or agree to be placed in a separate electoral list that categorises them as “non-Muslim.” Since Muslim identity is central to the Ahmadi belief, the community more or less are unable to participate in the electoral process in any manner.

The HRCP report quoted Sandeep Maheshwary, a rights activist from Karachi, in pointing out how separate electorate lists for the Ahmadiyya community cause deep fear among the community because it reveals their identities. Rabidly anti-Ahmadi groups like Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan use the electoral list to target the minority community. TLP is contesting the elections at the behest of the `establishment` and is known to target the Ahmadis by demolishing their places of worship, graves and accusing them of blasphemy on trumped-up charges.

According to Peter Jacob, executive director of the Centre for Social Justice, the 2017 amendment to the Elections Act only increased their marginalisation in the political landscape by retaining the provisions regarding their status. If anyone raises an objection against a particular voter identifying them as non-Muslim, the ECP can summon the voter and request them to either declare that they are not Ahmadi or be put on a supplementary special voter list.

One common problem all religious minorities face is false cases of blasphemy, an accusation which can lead to a death sentence or life imprisonment. This is a threat that religious parties use to push minorities to vote for their candidates.

Another serious problem is the undercounting of minority voters. For instance, in the Christian colony of Essa Nagari, Christian leaders pointed out that 2017 showed the number of voters in the area as 18,840, but when one of them ran as an independent candidate in 2018, he managed to get 22,500 votes from the area. Newborns are not properly registered and are not filed properly in the National Database and Registration Authority system which confounds the problem of undercounting.

Thus millions of religious minorities are out of the picture in the upcoming elections, which many countries in the world are keenly watching. The minorities in Pakistan are subjugated in all manners and matters.

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