A report on the participation and prospects for Pakistan’s
religious minorities in the upcoming general elections this year
makes an interesting observation.
“Many persons with whom we interacted during the course of this
research did not like to be called ‘minority’ or ‘non-Muslim,’” says
the report, entitled Religious Minorities in Pakistan’s Election,
commissioned by the Christian World Service, an international
non-governmental organization (NGO) implementing humanitarian and
development activities across Pakistan and Afghanistan. The report
aims to “assist non-Muslim communities to join as equals in the
mainstream political and electoral discourse” of Pakistan.
According to Tahir Mehdi, the lead researcher and author of the
report, those who were the focus of this study don’t like the label
“non-Muslims,” manifesting a strong desire and will on the part of
minorities to be part of the country as “Pakistanis” and not as
The desire to be part of a Muslim-majority country on the basis of
something other than religion goes back to the days when the
country’s Constituent Assembly got down to the task of framing the
Constitution. On March 7, 1949, the then-prime minister, Liaquat Ali
Khan, presented a resolution called Aims and Objectives of the
Constitution, which says sovereignty belongs to God. According to
the report, it was considered the “first legal instrument in
Pakistan’s history that brought religion into the sphere of
governance and politics.”
The 21 Muslim members of the Constituent Assembly at the time voted
in favor of the resolution while the 10 “minority” members voted
against it, fearing the country would become a theocratic state. The
outcome signified a divide that was to become more and more
difficult to heal.
Ironically, this vote happened within one year of the founding
father Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s first and oft quoted address to the
Constituent Assembly on Aug. 11, 1947, in which he envisioned a
pluralistic state not interested in the caste, creed or religion of
However, in the early 1950s, there were riots in Pakistan over
declaring one sect in particular— the Ahmadiyyah, who consider
themselves Muslim—as non-Muslims. They were officially declared
“non-Muslim” in September 1974. Moreover, in 1985, the definition of
who is a Muslim, and more importantly, a non-Muslim, was
incorporated into the Constitution. Christians, Hindus, Sikhs,
Buddhists, Parsis and the Ahmadiyyah were defined as “non-Muslims.”
Those categorized as non-Muslims have faced varied degrees of
stigmatization and, in particular, had little success in politics.
Only one non-Muslim has won a general seat in the last two general
elections in 2002 and 2008.
Tahir adds, however, that the study found that the electoral profile
of minorities is not quite that bleak. “In almost a third of the
National Assembly constituencies (98 of 272), the estimated number
of non-Muslim voters is 10,000 or more.” He points to the fact that
during the 2002 and 2008 elections the margin of victory in 107
National Assembly constituencies was smaller than the number of
non-Muslim voters residing there. This suggests that, if the
political parties do their math right, minorities can’t be taken for
granted or ignored in the upcoming elections.
However, M. Prakash, chairman of the Minority Rights Commission
Pakistan, an NGO, thinks there is need to go beyond the electoral
significance of minorities in order to be recognized as Pakistani
and to take part in the political process as equals.
“Political parties should field candidates from minorities for
general seats,” Prakash says. Though the government has introduced a
bill to increase the number of seats reserved for minorities in the
national and provincial assemblies, Prakash also wants political
parties to dismantle their “minority wings,” which work with
Pakistani non-Muslim electorates separately and often create a sense
of separateness in these communities, to give them a complete sense
of participation in the political process.
“Why can’t we be equal members of a political party?” continues
The report recommends that equal and joint voting by both Muslim and
non-Muslim voters can only be effective if discriminatory laws and
provisions in the Constitution are removed, pointing especially to
the fact that a non-Muslim cannot become the president or prime
minister of Pakistan.
According to the report, “‘Equality of vote’ is good, but the
environment of fear, coercion and harassment must end as well; the
State should declare itself non-partisan in matters pertaining to
As a way out of the identity question that does not alienate
minorities, Prakash says it would be better if they are called
“Christian Pakistanis” or “Hindu Pakistanis.” Perhaps only then can
we stop talking in terms of majority-minority and begin talking
* Daud Malik is currently leading a parliamentary reform project
in Islamabad and has a background in journalism and development.
This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).
Source: CGNews, Jan. 22, 2013, <www.commongroundnews.org>.
Copyright permission is granted for publication.