Shrinking political space for minorities

It is unacceptable to look at people through the narrow prism of religion, ethnicity or caste

Sarwar Bari October 26, 2017
The writer works for Pattan Development Organisation

It is unacceptable to look at people through the narrow prism of religion, ethnicity or caste. However, if people are discriminated against on these grounds, then one has to act on his/her conscience, simply because a human being must act humanely. But this alone is never enough. Discrimination must also be exposed empirically and analytically.

Pakistan’s parliament takes not even an hour to pass the amendment to clear the ground for a convicted person to become the head of a political party. Nearly 100 meetings of the Electoral Reform Committee were held before its members could finalise the Election Bill 2017. Yet the committee has not bothered to improve the representation of minorities since 2002.

Consider. While reserved seats for women in legislative bodies continue to rise, the representation of minorities has declined drastically. Even as concentration of political power continues to deepen in a few dynasties, the political and social space for minorities is shrinking. This would seem almost deliberate.

History and data uncover the truth. In 1985, ten seats (or 2.4%) were reserved for minorities in the National Assembly of 237. It dropped to 2.9% in 2002 when the military government of General Musharraf increased National Assembly seats to 342. While he should be appreciated for replacing the ‘separate electorate’ with the ‘joint electorate’ system, the method of their election turned into a selection and reportedly ‘it turned minority MPs into toadies’ and it further strengthened the stranglehold of party leaders.

Sadly, the representation of minorities also declined in all provincial assemblies too. For instance, in the Sindh Assembly until 1997 elections, there were nine out of 109 seats, which remain nine even today while the total number of seats had jumped to 168 in 2002. Resultantly, minorities’ quota was almost halved from 8.2% to 5.3%. In the Punjab Assembly, too, minorities’ quota declined from 3.2% to 2.1%.

Almost all parliamentary parties have been in power somewhere in the country. They overhauled the Constitution twice but didn’t improve an iota of representation for minorities. In fact, the injustice continues. Punjab has witnessed slaughter in the physical and political sense too. Many areas where minorities were in substantial majority were divided across union councils in order to suppress the electoral majority of a minority. For instance, Warispura neighbourhood in Faisalabad city with 16,000-plus Christians — was divided across three union councils. Similar delimitation exercises were held in some districts of Sindh. In order to suppress the majority of Hindus in these districts, constituencies were carved across two or three districts. For instance, NA-235 spreads over Sanghar-Mirpurkhas and Umerkot. As the new delimitation is going to take place soon, it is imperative to end this shameless gerrymandering. Let’s keep an eye on that.

Consider the vote bank of minorities in various National Assembly constituencies. According to 2012 electoral rolls, in eight constituencies registered minority voters were between 25,000 and 100,000 (or 25% — 49.3%). In another eight and 12 constituencies, minorities had votes between 50,000 and 99,999; and between 25,000 and 49,999, respectively. Moreover, in 75 constituencies, they had between 24,999 and 10,000 votes. Out of 13, in eight of the Lahore constituencies their vote bank was more than 5% and the total number reached 230,000, which is equal to one provincial assembly constituency. In NA-125 alone, Christians had nearly 48,000 votes. NA-128 and NA-127 had 34,096 and 31,000 minority votes, respectively. Also, in NA-83 Christians had 31,000 votes.

In most democracies, minorities don’t have reserved seats in parliament, yet we find a meaningful percentage of political representation of them in parliament and local councils. For instance, the Lord Mayor of London is a Muslim of Pakistan origin. And there are 14 Muslim MPs in the House of Commons. In the Netherlands’ parliament, 15% of the MPs belong to various minority groups. What happens there? Political parties issue tickets to minority party members who actively work with parties or have influence over their communities. This has gradually increased the representation of minorities in Western countries.

The quota system and the way quotas are being implemented have in fact caused more harm than good to the well-being of minorities in our country, because most minority MPs are reluctant to speak out. For instance, the results of the sixth population census have been released but the government has failed to announce the populations of minorities despite having Kamran Michael — a Christian as the federal minister for statistics. Also, we found silence on the part of the minority MPs during the 30 long months when the Electoral Reform Committee had overhauled our electoral laws. Shamelessly, no party nominated a minority MP as its member, neither minority MPs made this an issue. All political leaders look alike, as they have now shown that minorities have no stake in Pakistan’s legislative and governance structures and by keeping quota leads to MPs maintaining silence during the whole process.

Therefore, it seems sensible to demand abolition of the quota. It should be replaced by a direct and democratic method of election — parties should issue tickets to minority candidates on general seats in constituencies where minorities have significant presence. Precedence has already been established. Section 206 of the Elections Act 2017 says — political parties, “through a transparent and democratic procedure and while making the selection of candidates on general seats shall ensure at least five per cent representation of women candidates.” This has paved the way to ask for an amendment to the Elections Act for the direct representation of minorities too.

As I am aware of the fact that dynasties which have been made ‘electable’ and allowed to monopolise the constituencies, would oppose any reform that affects their control. Therefore, in order to neutralise their opposition, the constituencies where minorities have substantial/significant presence should be declared multi-member constituencies, having two directly elected members — one of them must belong to a minority community. As stated above, there are about 28 such constituencies. The same formula could be applied for provincial assemblies.

The concept of multi-member constituency is being practised in many Western democracies and in our country too. Under the Local Government Act of 2001 and the K-P Local Government Act of 2013, the tier of union council has been kept as multi-member constituency. Each voter has six ballot papers — one each for various categories of councillors, including the minority. I propose the same for National and provincial assemblies. Each voter should have two ballot papers — white for minority and green for majority.

This will build a healthy competition between the two MNAs and two MPAs as the constituents will have access to both. Moreover, I am sure the multi-member constituency method will also deepen inter-faith harmony and end extremism — a major objective of the National Action Plan. Also, we all know peace leads to happiness and development.

No wonder for centuries human beings have been trying to be humane. Yet, it seems an unfinished agenda. Sadly, often the protagonists of religions happen to be in the forefront of violations of the teachings of the founders of the religions they follow. Let’s remind them what the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) had said in his last sermon “… An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor does a non-Arab have any superiority over an Arab; a white has no superiority over a black, nor does a black have any superiority over a white.”

Published in The Express Tribune, October 26th, 2017.

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