As Pakistan prepares for elections later this month, the country’s minorities – particularly its Christians – have expressed dismay at their lack of representation among the candidates.
Among the thousands of candidates contesting hundreds of provincial and national constituencies across the country, not a single Christian is nominated by any party – from the ultra-right to the liberal left.
In the 210-million-strong nation, minorities account for about 5 per cent of the population, but they remain absent from mainstream politics, with the country’s constitution even encouraging segregation between Muslims and non-Muslims in the political arena.
The current political system dictates that there are two types of seats: general seats, which are directly elected and which anyone can contest, but which in reality usually only Muslims win; and reserved seats for women and minorities, which are nominated by the party and filled according to the number of general seats won (proportional representation).
Created in 1956, Pakistan’s first constitution initially barred non-Muslims from becoming president. Then in 2010, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) – led by the Bhutto family and considered a liberal party – brought the 18th Constitutional Amendment, which added a further block to minorities: also prohibiting non-Muslims from becoming prime minister.
Until 2002, minorities were only able to vote for their coreligionists for the seats reserved for religious minorities in the provincial and national assemblies (ten in the National Assembly; eight in the Punjab Assembly; nine in Sindh; and three each in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan).
Gian Chand, a Hindu senator, told World Watch Monitor that, before then, the minority parliamentarians who came through the segregated electoral system had little influence, as Muslims controlled the government. “Also, parliamentarians on general seats did not concern themselves with religious minorities in their neighbourhoods because they did not need their votes,” he said.
The military dictator General Pervez Musharraf in 2002 introduced the joint electoral system, which allowed minorities to vote on and contest general seats. However, the reserved seats for minorities were kept, in part in recognition of the unlikelihood that a minority candidate would win on a general seat.
But these minority seats were not to be filled through elections but allotted to each political party proportionate to the total general seats gained. So, in the National Assembly, it is expected that out of ten reserved seats for minorities, three major political parties will get two to three seats each.
In practice, the system has proved much more beneficial to the Hindu minority than to the Christian minority. Despite both having around the same share of the total population, Christians have half as many seats due to the Hindu minority’s longstanding involvement in politics and greater share of wealth and connections to political parties.
For the upcoming elections, the PPP, which ruled Pakistan between 2008 -2013, has nominated three Hindus on general seats in the province of Sindh, its stronghold. Christians, meanwhile, mainly live in the Punjab province, with several sizeable neighbourhoods where their population is in the thousands. Lahore has around 0.7 million Christians, with Youhanabad the largest Christian neighbourhood with about 50,000 Christians. Yet no political party has fielded a Christian candidate in this area.
Christian politician Naveed Anthony from Karachi, the capital of Sindh province, nominated on a reserved seat by the PPP for the Provincial Assembly, told World Watch Monitor that Hindus, rather than Christians, can be expected to be nominated on general seats because they are well entrenched in their constituencies.
He added that the PPP could not be criticised for failing to give Christians representation on general seats due to the fact that no Christians applied. Yet, in reality, the reason no Christian applied is because they know they would have little chance of winning.
Christians also under-represented on reserved seats
Christians are not just overlooked for the general seats; they are also under-represented on the reserved seats for minorities.
Elections are to be held on 25 July, but the nominations for reserved seats were submitted to the Election Commission of Pakistan on 11 June. Hindus and Christians each account for about 1.6 per cent of the total population, yet Hindus are going to have six or seven seats out of the ten reserved seats for minorities, and Christians will have two, while one will go to the Zoroastrian community.
Following in the footsteps of the PPP, the outgoing Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz has nominated Hindus on its top two slots for the National Assembly, alongside, as third priority, a Zoroastrian business tycoon.
Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf, run by the former cricket star Imran Khan, also has a Hindu as its top nominee for the National Assembly. Shunila Ruth, a Christian woman who served in the Punjab Assembly during the last tenure, is the second, and the third is another Hindu: Dr. Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, who leapfrogged several Christians in the pecking order despite only joined the party in the past month.
The Balochistan National Party has also nominated a Hindu as its top nominee for the national seat.
Surprisingly, the top-three nominations of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a coalition of ultra-right religious parties, are all Christian, with James Iqbal in the top slot. (The coalition recently stated that if elected, it will enforce Islamic law.) However, the coalition isn’t predicted to win many seats.
In the past, one of the six member parties of this coalition was Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam, headed by Maulana Sami-ul-Haq (considered the father of the Taliban), which applied in the Supreme Court for the Bible to be banned in 2011. The application, later withdrawn, was filed after a US pastor, Terry Jones, threatened to burn a copy of the Quran. Now this party is closer to Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which has provided huge funds for Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam’s madrassahs (Islamic schools).
In the past five years, there were six Hindus, three Christians and one Zoroastrian on the ten reserved seats in the National Assembly. Before that, from 2008-2013, there were eight Hindus and two Christians.
The situation in the provincial assemblies is also not very encouraging for Christians; for example in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where the only sizeable minority is Christian, the PTI has nominated a Hindu as its first recommendation.
In the past, the most effective representation for Christians came in the shape of former federal minister for minority affairs Shahbaz Bhatti. Since his assassination in March 2011, no male non-Muslim parliamentarian has spoken about the mistreatment of Christians, particularly on the misuse of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, including the case of the Christian woman Asia Bibi, who remains on death row.
In the last government, which ended on 31 May, there were a total of 22 Christian parliamentarians in provincial and national assemblies, and among them were three women who regularly stood up for Christians.
Aasiya Nasir in the National Assembly and Shunila Ruth in the Punjab Assembly fearlessly spoke on the issues faced by Christians. The third woman parliamentarian, Mary Gill, belonging to the ruling PMLN, did not speak on the floor of the assembly, but intervened in several incidents where Christians were persecuted because of their faith.
For example, in February, about 800 families ran from their homes in Lahore after a Christian youth, Patras Masih, 18, was accused of posting a blasphemous picture in a WhatsApp group. On 20 February, Nasir stood in the National Assembly and spoke against the injustice and misuse of blasphemy laws.
“The honourable interior minister is sitting here. He should take special note that recently incidents of such accusations against Christians have increased in Punjab, which has sent a sense of fear among them,” she said.
On 23 February, the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) arrested Masih’s cousin, Sajid, 24, and were interrogating him when he allegedly jumped from a fourth floor window of the FIA office after he was tortured and forced by officers to perform oral sex on his cousin.
Christian parliamentarian Mary Gill, with the help of the police, negotiated with the religious elements who were not allowing the 800 families to return to their homes. Later she told the Washington Post how she had “informally” defused the situation and taken personal responsibility to have the families moved safely back home.
On 27 February, Shunila Ruth spoke against the powerful FIA on the floor of the Punjab Assembly and demanded justice, but the Speaker accused her of defaming the agency, saying she was speaking based on unconfirmed media reports.
A day earlier, on 26 February, she tweeted: “FiAs investigation in patras and sajjid’s case is disgusting. Threat and torture forced sajjid to jump over fourth floor of FIA building. We demand that JIT be formed to investigate the issue and security be provided to patras and sajid and their families.”
Regrettably, two of this trio – Aasiya Nasir and Mary Gill – have failed to secure nominations to serve again in the assemblies.
Way forward for Christians
Many members of religious minorities believe the reserved-seat system is flawed, saying performance, ability and political acumen aren’t enough to help them make it onto the priority list.
Veteran Christian politician Julius Salak told World Watch Monitor that in the current electoral system the only successful minority members are those who are rich or who have relations with the higher leadership of political parties.
William Barkat, a Christian who was member of the Balochistan Assembly in the last government, said that many rich Hindu businessmen in Sindh were able to give a huge amount of money to their party to get onto a reserved seat.
“But Christians are mostly very poor and cannot pay to get on priority lists,” he said. “So they have to serve decades as party workers to earn the pleasure of their party leadership, before they can make into the assemblies.”
George Clement, also a Christian, was twice a parliamentarian before 2002, when there was a separate electoral system. He had religiously served the PTI for about ten years, hoping to be one of the top-three positions, but instead he finds himself seventh priority, meaning his chances of serving again are extremely remote. Instead, a Hindu candidate, Dr. Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, after serving five years in government with the ruling party, has joined the PTI and now been given its third slot because, his critics say, of his affluent background.
“All top positions are given to financially very strong Hindus,” Clement said. “The Hindu and Sikh cultures are a lot more appealing to the Pakistani Muslim majority than that of the Christians. Hindus are also a lot more connected and have a better group psychology, while Christians are pitted against each other.
“The relation with Christians is complex. They are sometimes perceived as of low origin because many come from ‘downtrodden’ [lowest caste] families, a colonial baggage left by the British and a part of the inherent struggle going on between the ‘cross and crescent’ [Christianity and Islam], which is fuelled by the recent war on terror.
“As Hindus have a better group psychology, so the tickets are also given to those who can help Muslim candidates contesting on the general seats to get a few thousand minority votes. So these seats by design are not for any benefit of the minorities but to serve the financial and vote interests of their parties, which Christians are unable to meet; hence, their low representation on these seats.”
Tahir Mehdi, a political analyst from a Muslim background known for speaking out on behalf of religious minorities, told World Watch Monitor that the only possible way to improve the situation of minorities is to abolish these reserved seats.
“Any representation system based on religion will strengthen the minority-majority divide,” he said, adding: “Once these seats are abolished, then political parties need to give [minorities] representation on general seats.”