In compliance with the 18th Amendment, President Asif Ali Zardari recently signed an amendment in the Senate (Election) Rules 1975 to reserve four seats for non-Muslims in Pakistan’s Upper House. This means that each province will send an additional member to the Senate which consists 100 members including 17 seats reserved for women and 17 seats reserved for technocrats and ulema. The Senate will have reserved seats for non-Muslims for the first time. Although the Senate represented the provinces, it was presumed earlier that they did not need to pay special attention to getting their non-Muslim minorities an airing there despite their disadvantaged position.
On the other hand, the National Assembly was sensitive to the position of the largely backward religious minorities. It had a total of 342 seats, including 60 seats reserved for women and 10 seats reserved for non-Muslims. We are at a loss to understand the thinking behind this difference in envisaging representation in the two houses of parliament but welcome the correction that the 18th Amendment has brought about. The provincial assemblies already have non-Muslim seats in proportion to the numbers in the constituencies, in addition to those elected on the basis of still controversial joint electorates.
A lacuna has been addressed by all the political parties who voted for the 18th Amendment. It is just as well that the ruling PPP did not have a two-thirds majority to pass the amendment; now the change denotes a political consensus otherwise in short supply in the country. This is not to say that problems faced by the non-Muslim minorities are well on the way to being resolved. The controversial and much-misused blasphemy laws, are still on the statute book and regularly used to victimise them individually or collectively. Finally it is a measure of how incapable our political parties are of providing leadership on crucial issues and will go along with the base instincts of society to retain themselves in popular focus.
Pakistan has a very small non-Muslim population. By normal accounts, it should have no ‘minority problems’ unlike Bangladesh which was declared a secular-socialist state in 1971 but was not able to handle its large Hindu minority amounting to almost 25 per cent in 1947. Because of the maltreatment meted out to the Hindus, their population is down to 11 per cent in today’s Bangladesh. Deprived of land through legislation and maltreatment, the Hindus have steadily fled into India over the years. Ironically, Muslim Bangladeshis, too, have fled to India in large numbers.
The germ of the two-nation doctrine is embedded in the mind of the Muslim majority community and it is misapplied to an already minuscule non-Muslim population in Pakistan. Its original application was related to the ‘imagined’ nations in India. The Congress claimed there was one nation in India and the Muslim League claimed there were two. After Partition, Pakistan should have moved to a single identity: whoever is a citizen of Pakistan belongs to the nation of Pakistan. But this universally applied concept was soon scuttled when the Muslim League thought of separating the non-Muslims through separate electorates.
General Zia actually separated the non-Muslims from the rest of the nation through separate electorates. Behind the change in the Eighth Amendment to the 1973 Constitution was the idea of ‘zimmi-hood’ which he and his partners in power had close to their heart although many thought it was violation of the spirit of Mithaq-e-Madina envisaging one nation. He, however, stopped short of ‘jazia’ (special protection tax) which is a historical corollary to ‘zimmi-hood’ — a kind of ‘payment from minorities’ received by some Muslim kings in India. There is helplessness in the face of the cruelties inflicted on the non-Muslims by the blasphemy law. When late Governor Punjab Salmaan Taseer publicly condemned the law, he was killed by his own bodyguard. After his death no one would lead his funeral prayer, and the man who finally did has run away to the UK seeking asylum from those who threaten him with death. And the Christian woman whom Governor Taseer died defending is still rotting in jail under a seemingly trumped-up charge of blasphemy. In Punjab, the Christian minority wants its support to the Pakistan Movement mentioned in the textbooks while religious fanatics torch their houses.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 29th, 2011.