Registered, Not Represented: The Fate Of Pakistan’s Non-Muslim Voters
The current electoral system and the incentive structures it creates effectively disenfranchise Pakistan's non-Muslim voters
As Pakistan gears up for general elections this year, the country’s religious minorities appear dejected over their parliamentary representation. Beset by a spate of issues ranging from underemployment, a dwindling population and undercounting to victimization at the hands of blasphemy laws, forced conversions and marriages, Pakistan’s non-Muslim voters feel that the current system of appointing their representatives to the national and provincial assemblies does not give them any meaningful democratic representation.
The constitution allows minority candidates to be elected by Muslim voters. However, going by the country’s checkered electoral history, the possibility of minority lawmakers being elected by Muslim voters is remote.
Nevertheless, to ensure representation of minorities, who make up less than 4% of the country’s 220 million population, seats are reserved in the national legislature and the four provincial assemblies, that are distributed proportionally among political parties which win a minimum of 5% of the seats in the assemblies.
Minority rights activists say that when it is the prerogative of the main parties to nominate minority representatives, often such representatives, instead of serving the community they represent, become servile to the party.
What is portrayed as minority representation is a charade or disinformation aimed at perpetuating underrepresentation, they claim.
As a result, when a serious problem arises, Pakistan’s minority communities are at a loss, as has been highlighted by Christian citizens at Essa Nagri (Jesus Town) in Karachi.
Children of a lesser god
On May 4, 2021, an eight-year-old Christian girl was allegedly raped by a 19-year-old Muslim youth in her tuition teacher’s house. The suspect was the teacher’s brother.
The victim’s parents said the girl spent eight days under intensive care in a hospital and after that, they sent her to a hostel as they feared for her life.
They claimed that the medico-legal officer was hesitant to examine the girl, and it was only after the neighborhood committee contacted a Christian MP, Naveed Anthony, that the examination was finally done. It proved that the girl had been raped. The suspect was arrested, but the victim’s parents came under immense pressure and threat to withdraw the complaint.
“Thank God, we were heard in the court of law. Our case is going on,” the girl’s mother said.
She said that although she had been living in this area for more than 40 years, not a single Muslim family supported them during the crisis.
“I can never forget that overheard voice ‘this is what should happen to Christians’,” she said, wiping her tears.
Miracles awaited in Jesus town
Essa Nagri is home to more than 50,000 Christians, the second largest minority in Pakistan after Hindus. It is part of a high-profile National Assembly constituency. In 2018, Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf candidate Aamir Liaquat won the seat. In 2002, 2008 and 2013, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) candidates, including former Karachi Mayor Farooq Sattar, won the seat. Pakistan People’s Party senator Anwar Lal Dean has also been closely associated with the area.
Despite the area’s proximity to big names, the run-down locality appears underprivileged even by Karachi’s standards. Piles of garbage and overflowing sewers are a common sight. When this scribe visited the area, distressed residents narrated multiple problems they faced.
“The sword of Damocles”
Pakistan Masiha Millat Party (Christian People Party) Chairperson Liaquat Manawar described the issue of blasphemy as the sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of the minorities. He said blasphemy accusations which are often spread without being verified, had led to riots, with minorities getting killed and wounded.
For instance, he said those who were behind the 2012 Quran-burning incident were not Christians, but neighboring-area ruffians involved in gang warfare.
“The gang members used to hide in our neighborhood. When our people protested, they burnt the Quran and blamed us,” Manawar said.
But mercifully, the then Deputy Superintendent of Police Nasir Lodi had a better understanding of the situation and took measures to protect the Christian locality. “He allowed us to build protective walls that we long demanded. Eight walls were built overnight.”
“We are not counted”
Expressing concerns over undercounting, Manawar said, “The latest census (2017) gives the number of voters of the area as 18,840, but I contested as an independent candidate in 2018 and got 22,500 votes from the area.”
He added, “Our newborns are not properly registered at the local union council. They do not upload the children’s birth certificates onto the National Database and Registration Authority system. This creates problems during school admission.”
A futile visit by World Bank
Social activist Kamal Ashraf says that the area saw some development work only during the 1987-1997 period, when minorities elected their own representatives.
During the tenure of then Sindh Chief Minister Jam Sadiq, minorities were appointed as professors, inspectors and grade 16 or 17 officers. “At present, although non-Muslims are allocated a five percent job quota, they only get the jobs of janitors,” he said.
Pointing to overflowing sewage, Masiha Millat Party official Haroon Miraj said some candidates after the announcement of local government elections visited the area — some of them even brought World Bank officials with them – and met them at the church. They promised to develop the area but no one turned up after the postponement of elections, he said.
Dual vote a hope
Essa Nagri’s residents deem the upcoming elections a futile exercise. They favor the present joint electorate but are broadly dejected over the system because legislators appointed by mainstream parties to the reserved seats are under obligation to serve their ‘Masters’ (party leaders), instead of their communities.
With nominated yes-men aloof to their problems, minorities believe that a dual vote system allowing them to elect their representatives to the reserved seats would be the best solution.
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 and 1,703,288 Christians and other minorities 174,165.
In comparison to 2018 figures, the minority vote share has increased by about 481,000. Although these numbers can decide the defeat and victory 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.
In addition, they are allocated four seats in the Senate.
The reserved seats are distributed proportionally among parties which win more than 5 percent of the assembly seats. So it is a case of Muslim party leaders selecting the minority representation according to their whims and fancies — not a case of minority people electing their representatives.
A bill presented five times
National Assembly minority member Ramesh Kumar presented a bill – for the fifth time — in 2013, proposing amendments to Articles 51 and 106 to increase minority representation and introduce dual voting, one for the general seat and the other for the reserved seats.
Yet, little has happened.
Dr. Kumar noted the bill failed to make headway because there was little support from minority members in the legislature. He said perhaps they feared they would be rejected by the people if they stand for elections.
Mainstream parties were also not interested in the reforms because they did not want to part with the power of appointing minority representatives, he said.
However, Dr. Kumar said he was hopeful of a breakthrough as National Assembly Speaker Raja Ashraf had appointed a committee to review the bill.
Azam Miraj, the founder of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Shinakht, a minority-rights advocacy group, said the 34 reserved seats meant little for minorities when they did not elect their own representatives. “The present system only produced “factotums” dependent on mainstream parties,” he said.
They neither oppose discriminatory legislation nor contribute towards reforms, he said, citing the controversial Hindu Marriage laws and the Christian Divorce Act.
Pushing for a direct vote in electing representatives to the reserved seats, Mr. Miraj suggested a formula where every non-Muslim citizen has the right to vote and contest general elections at the national, provincial, district, tehsil and UC levels. The basic mechanism for dual voting will be that non-Muslim Pakistanis should elect their representatives for reserved seats. By enacting a constitutional amendment, minorities in each province should have representation at the federal level. Their reserved seats should be increased in keeping with the Constitution’s preamble that urges ‘adequate provision shall be made to safeguard the legitimate interests of minorities, backward and depressed classes’.
Miraj said the constituencies for religious minorities could be formed according to their population and where there is not a sizable number, electorates should be formed with lower numbers.
Narainpura, one of the few Hindu-majority neighborhoods in Karachi’s southern district, is decrepit and dilapidated.
Established in 1824, this scheduled caste Hindu-dominated settlement is located in the congested locality of the Ranchor line. A walled compound, accommodating more than 10,000 people, it has a mixed population. The Hindus, Sikhs and Christians live in harmony in the compound and maintain a good rapport with the thick Muslim population outside.
Commenting on this unity, Narainpura resident Kali Das, a District Municipal Corporation employee, said that last year when the Muslim grieving period of Ashura fell during the Hindu’s Navratri festival, they faced no issue. “We celebrated it with fervor. The police provided us security.”
Narainpura is part of the National Assembly Constituency 247 which the present President, Dr. Arif Alvi, contested and won in general elections from 2013 to 2018 as a Tehreek-e-Insaf candidate.
Residents proudly say their votes have a decisive power. The eight Panchayats (community committees) had voted in unison and their favored candidates had won.
“We have tested all, but no one comes back to us after winning,” lamented Hardas Patel, a retired clerk from the Karachi Municipal Corporation.
Patel complained of hidden moves to reduce their electoral strength. He claimed that Narainpura had a population of around 25,000 with 15,000 registered voters in 2018. The number of voters had been reduced to 4,500 through gerrymandering, he said.
Eviction hung in the balance
The hapless people’s biggest worry is the recently served notice by the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation ordering them to vacate the settlement.
Area resident Manohar Lal Chauhan lamented, “This notice has caused us sleepless nights. Many generations have grown up here, living in one- or two-room houses in cramped conditions. We can’t afford residence elsewhere as the property price is skyrocketing in Karachi.”
Harijans, the neglected children of god
In contrast to Narainpura scheduled caste Hindus, upper caste Hindus live in Karachi’s affluent areas such as Bath Island, Defense and Clifton.
Upper-caste Hindus hail from rural Sindh. They are landlords and businessmen, wealthy enough to get nominated to the reserved seats, while the scheduled caste Hindus remain marginalized.
To end this socio-political inequality that favors the upper caste Hindus, Narainpura residents say the reserved seats should be filled with elected representatives and not selected cronies.
Party provides support: Anwar Lal Dean
Pakistan People’s Party Senator Anwar Lal Dean said he was in favor of the current electoral system.
“I have been with the PPP since 1985. I did not have the resources to contest for a general seat. The party made me a senator in recognition of my loyalty and services,” he said.
Rejecting the allegation that those who fill the reserved seats obey only the party, Mr. Dean said his party had extended strong support to minority representatives to solve the problems of the minorities.
“Direct vote to counter disinformation”
Prof. Karan Singh, a retired principal of SM Arts and Commerce College Karachi, said if representatives to the reserved seats were picked through direct elections, they would be more accountable to their voters than to their political parties. “They would play the role expected of them in the legislatures to deal with blasphemy and other sensitive issues that usually occur on account of misinformation.”
Dr. Farooq Sattar supports reforms
Karachi’s ex-Mayor and Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) central leader Farooq Sattar said Essa Nagri was regularized during his tenure as mayor. He said that from 2008 to 2013 when he was the Federal Minister, he tried hard to regularize Narainpura, but the then People’s Party administration did not allow it.
Dr. Sattar said he was in favor of double voting for minorities. Not only should they be allowed to choose their own representatives and be part of the national electorate, but all political parties should nominate minority candidates to contest for constituencies where there are significant numbers of minorities.
“If needed, the MQM will support legislation for the dual vote,” Sattar said.
‘Dual votes a stopgap measure’
PPP National Assembly member Nafeesa Shah said her party promoted the democratic rights of minorities. She said two non-Muslim candidates contesting on the PPP ticket won general seats for the provincial and national assemblies in 2018 elections.
Ms. Shah said non-Muslim members should be included in political parties’ nomination boards so that minority candidates could be given tickets to contest constituencies where a particular minority had a significant presence.
“In my view, reserved seats, quotas or dual votes are temporary arrangements. We have to move towards an inclusive democracy,” she said.
Special arrangements under Election Act
Election Commission spokesperson Haroon Shinwari said Section 48 of the Election Act 2017 guaranteed the electoral rights of minorities. Special measures were being taken in this regard.
He said 453 workshops had been held countrywide to encourage marginalized groups to register as voters while working groups and education committees had also been set up for the purpose.
One-man commission for minorities
According to the 12th report of the One-Man (Shoaib Siddal) Commission for Minorities Rights, 87% of those employed under the minority quota are Christians, 95% of them are employed as sanitary workers largely in Punjab, while there are more than 30,000 vacancies are to be filled.
According to the Director General, Glulam Qasim Khan, the commission nudged the federal and provincial governments to fill the available vacancies for the minorities through special recruitment campaigns.
“Performance of a legislator matters”
Peter Jacob, head of the Center for Social Justice, says he believes the dual vote requiring separate electorates will only aggravate inter-faith divisions. Formation of constituencies will also be an issue, given the scattered demography of the minorities.
Jacob says parties should, however, train and choose reserve seat candidates on the basis of merits because in the long run performance of a legislator matters.
Jacob concerned over a decline in the minority population from 3.72 percent in 1998 to 3.52 percent in 2017, also referred to the white paper from the Center for Social Justice.
Conundrum of Pakistan’s Non-Muslim Voters
In the 75 year history of Pakistan, three electoral systems have been tested for non-Muslim voters. Ironically, each time the demand for electoral reforms came at the behest of minorities.
First published on The Friday Times, "Registered, Not Represented: The Fate Of Pakistan’s Non-Muslim Voters" story is produced under the ANFREL Asian Media Fellowship on Election Reporting.