The non-Muslims of Pakistan

Published: August 28, 2011
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The blasphemy laws are still on the statute book and regularly used to victimise the minorities. PHOTO: ATHAR KHAN/EXPRESS

The blasphemy laws are still on the statute book and regularly used to victimise the minorities. PHOTO: ATHAR KHAN/EXPRESS

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.

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Reader Comments (14)

  • Aug 28, 2011 - 10:00PM

    They are reserved seats for Ulema? Who and what constitutes an “Ulema”?

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  • Aug 29, 2011 - 12:47AM

    I am really sorry 90 percent of the articles here are talking about minority issues as such but in reality the problem is not that severe. there is a much pressing problem in karachi that is target killing and a bigger porblem in wazirirstan . while i don’t disagree with this i dont think the word minority is justified , i guess equal citizenship is better as Rana Bhagwandas , Yusuf Yohanna Danish kaneria are a pressing example of lack of discrimination against them. Also a look at the media sphere will certianly highlight equality , though there are problems but they are not as severe as the current issues like target killings , Curroptions etx.

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  • Tribune Reader
    Aug 29, 2011 - 12:57AM

    if you think its only minorities that have it bad, think again!!!! our society has become so radicalized that even non practising muslims are not immune from harassment, abuse, discriminatiom, prejudice, violence etc. A certain kind of xenophobia is growing amongst the religous people towards their non practising fellow Muslims, we are also seen as Kafirs. I would love to see an editorial about that, such xenophobia is the product of right wing wahabi influenced relgious schools like alhuda.

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  • Subhash, India
    Aug 29, 2011 - 10:20AM

    @Ovais: Both have a common thread i.e. both stem from the same intolerant thinking which blocks us from appreciating other party’s view point.

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  • Grayskull
    Aug 29, 2011 - 2:22PM

    The fact that Bangladeshi Muslims are trying to break into a Hindu-majority India certainly gives credence to the idea that a state created for Muslim has just been one big mistake.

    I’m not saying that India is some sort of haven, considering the rampant corruption and is free of religious persecution and sectarian divisions.

    But it’s clearly tolerant and prosperous enough that Bangladeshi Muslims are trying to break into it and leave their own Muslim homeland.

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  • Aug 29, 2011 - 2:47PM

    @Subhash, India:
    Target killing is not intolerance its just dirty politics
    Waziristan Issue may be due to intolerance but also its a fight between the state and those opposing Pakistan
    Corruption is certainly not due to intolerance .

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  • Saima
    Aug 29, 2011 - 4:00PM

    Every time an article like this is published, someone comes along saying I see no discrimination at all, therefore it doesn’t exist! I’m sure whites during the civil rights era didn’t, I’m sure gorays think Britain is liberal and racism free while my relatives get racial and islamophobic abuse all the time. I’m sure Gujrat never happened because Amir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan are famous Indian Muslim names right? Yes there are many issues in Pakistan to deal with. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t protect our minorities and give them equal rights and representation in parliament. Pakistani Hindus/Christians and Sikhs are just as Pakistani as the average Pakistani Muslim and even more patriotic. I think I realised how bad it had got after Salman Taseer sab was murdered and lawyers of all people, people who are supposed to represent the people came out in support of the killer, plus the fact that no one would lead his funeral prayer. Is Pakistan now like Taliban controlled Afghanistan? The group of Osama supporters who came out and cried for after his death make it seem like it. It seems like it’s heading there soon. It’s becoming less like Jinnah’s Pakistan everyday. Wahhabis are everywhere, forgetting why Pakistan was made in the first place so we could have a land (eh or state heh) where Muslims could live without fear of discrimination and under-representation and neglect in politics, yet they continue to treat non-Muslims with disrespect and yes the average Muslim too.

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  • Aug 29, 2011 - 7:17PM

    @Saima:
    i need more citation to understand your point . I am just saying it is an issue but one which is not of urgent importance or so much media highlight .Corruption , lawlessness , Waziristan , Unemployment , etc are bigger concerns for Pakistani’s. I am just stating we are not as horrible as gujrat etc. Our minority especially Christians has the biggest contribution in the education sector with 5 of the best schools in karachi which should be commended. I dont seriously see that much discrimination that is being projected .
    You guys are following altafs claims in 1980s and look where it has lead MQM to. so don’t exaggerate this situation , the situation does occur and it needs to be rectified but its not a pressing concern for heavens sake 1000 people have died in Karachi

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  • Cynical
    Aug 30, 2011 - 4:47AM

    Non-muslims should migrate to the west,India,Turkey and even some central asian countries to escape from this hell.
    It’s good for them and good for Pakistan as well.
    No minorities, no minority related problem.Every one is happy.

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  • riaz
    Aug 30, 2011 - 7:55AM

    We really should not have separate electoral system for Muslims and no Muslims. No where in the world people reserve seats for minorities because they are unrepresented. We should all be Pakistanis and let however has the bigger gun or most money to buy vote win! it is democracy after all why should no Muslims be exempted from this.
    Seriously we should progress and have one nation and one vote for one and all.
    I do wonder express for picking up this issue as if this is the most pressing concern it is not. I agree with @ovais on this.
    Talk to a businessman or a frightened mother and you will what is important.

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  • uH
    Aug 30, 2011 - 1:08PM

    @Ovais:

    so does that mean that all other issues of relavence are sidelined???

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  • uH
    Aug 30, 2011 - 1:09PM

    aaaaaaaaaaaa

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  • Aug 30, 2011 - 1:32PM

    @uH:
    There are more pressing concerns , In an ideal situation its a huge issue but Pakistani is not an ideal state by any stretch of imaginations. People die of Hunger hare and certainly its not only the minorities who are suffering. So the media should stop highlighting it to a level that every second post is regarding this. Write about corruption , killings , Health care system , Education etc as well

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  • Abdul Rehman Gilani
    Aug 31, 2011 - 10:18AM

    liberals always cry about minority rights. When have the majority gotten theirs!? What about those murdered at the hands of liberal fanatics in Karachi!

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