Feb 6, 2024
By Waqar Mustafa
Imran Masih applies distemper to the walls of a house, infusing his aspirations with each stroke.
“I pray winners of the February 8 polls will address needs of the minority community,” says Masih, a young painter, residing in a Christian-majority village in Khanewal, 275km south-west of Lahore.
Pakistan, as per the 2023 national census, has a diverse population of 241.49 million, yet the exact statistics on minority faiths remain elusive. Muslims constituted about 96 percent of the population, while Hindus, Christians, and Ahmadis represented 2.1 percent, 1.6 percent, and 0.2 percent respectively in the 2017 census.
Despite constitutional provisions granting citizens a voice through elected representatives, religious minorities, with 4.43 million registered voters, feel their representation remains inadequate. Seats reserved for minorities in the National Assembly and provincial assemblies, as well as a five percent allocation in local governments, have not fully addressed the imbalances hindering their integration into mainstream politics. Issues such as blasphemy allegations, forced conversions, attacks on places of worship, and undercounting in the census also continue to plague minority communities.
The country’s half-million-strong Ahmadi community has announced a boycott of elections citing a surge in attacks on its members, institutions, and burial sites in the weeks preceding the vote.
Reviewing the manifestos of political parties contesting the February 8 elections, it becomes apparent that they intend to allocate a fair share to minorities. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) has pledged a comprehensive approach to protect and empower minorities, while the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has committed to revising outdated Christian family laws and implementing rules outlined in the Hindu Marriage Law.
Peter Jacob, a veteran human rights activist, highlights notable mentions, such as the PML-N including forced conversions in their manifesto and pledging to establish a commission, which he thinks would be “a departure from their previous reluctance”.
He notes the PPP’s consistent reaffirmation of their support for minority communities. Further, he appreciates the Muttahida Qaumi Movement’s (MQM) acknowledgment of abuses related to blasphemy laws and their pledge to address them. He also mentions emerging commitments from other parties such as the Balochistan National Party and the Awami National Party on issues of religious abuse and freedom.
Romana Bashir, a prominent community activist for women and minority rights, while talking with Voicepk on phone from Rawalpindi, highlights the political promises made by various parties regarding reforms in laws affecting minorities in Pakistan.
She says the PPP pledges to revise Christian family laws dating back 150 years, as well as ensures the implementation of rules outlined in the Hindu Marriage Law established in 2017.
Romana Bashir says the PML-N promises a comprehensive approach to protecting minorities against forced conversions, hate speech, attacks on places of worship – and promotes minority empowerment. She seeks assistance from Jamaat-e-Islami in the implementation of laws already passed.
Bashir acknowledges the MQM’s understanding of minority issues, suggesting a positive engagement with the MQM in addressing minority concerns.
In the midst of these hopes and concerns, there is a call from Hindus, the largest minority in Pakistan, for the political parties to translate promises into concrete actions.
Krishen Sharma, President of the Hindu Mandir Management Committee, voices the frustration of Pakistan’s Hindu minority, calling for genuine representation and equal citizenship. “We are Pakistanis by choice. We must be treated as equal citizens,” he says.
Talking on phone from interior Sindh, Sharma urges political parties to translate promises into actions and address the marginalisation of scheduled castes within minority communities.
Pundit Haroon Sarab Diyal, a religious scholar from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, advocates for electoral accountability and interfaith harmony, emphasising the need for social support for marginalised Hindus, especially in Sindh and Punjab.
Both Sharma and Diyal seek tangible progress towards a more inclusive Pakistan.
Professor Dr. Kalyan Singh Kalyan, a distinguished Sikh scholar, voices frustration over political parties’ failure to fulfill promises. He cites the PTI’s unfulfilled pledge to allow Hindus and Sikhs to manage the Evacuee Trust Board. “Despite proposing rules for provinces, progress has been slow,” he says.
Dr Singh highlights the unmet five percent employment quota for minorities. He stresses on the need for the implementation of the two percent quota in education quota.
Dr Kalyan raises concerns about access to graveyards and occupation of cremation grounds by others, questioning where minorities would bury their dead. He advocates for increased minority women representation in parliament and adjusting minority seats based on population growth, with a focus on women.
Warning of past promises left unfulfilled, Romana Bashir says, “It would be a significant achievement if even half of the promises made by the political parties are kept when they come into power.”
As Pakistan prepares to chart its course through the democratic process, the narratives of hope and caution intertwine, painting a complex picture of the aspirations and challenges faced by minority communities in the pursuit of a more inclusive society.