M Murtaza Noor
RULE of the law and the equality in all spheres of life entail an important principle of equal status of citizenship in society. The social contract theory envisions the intermingling of state and society on reciprocal basis which demands equality in both rights and obligations from both sides. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were unanimously adopted by the 193 member states of the United Nations (UN) including Pakistan in September 2015. The new aspiring 2030 agenda calls on countries to undertake concrete steps to achieve these goals over the next fifteen years through collective efforts to end poverty, injustices, inequalities and ensure prosperity for all. The SDG 10: leaving no one behind- is specifically focused on reducing inequalities within and among the nations. Insistent inequalities hamper economic growth, fuel sense of deprivation, dissipate talent and human potential and suppress social mobility. The widening disparities and inequalities require the adoption of sound, implementable policies to empower the marginalized segments of society and promote their economic inclusion regardless of their religion, sex, race or ethnicity.
Pakistan s’ early history reveals an effective pattern of representation of citizens of other faiths in the Constituent Assemblies and ministries as 15 of the 69 members of Pakistan‘s first Constituent Assembly (1947-54) were citizens of other faiths. This trend of representation of minorities did not carry forward in subsequent years. The creation of Bangladesh greatly reduced the proportions of citizens of other faiths as less than 5% of West Pakistan‘s population was non-Muslim. Eventually, the separate electorate was introduced during the regime of General Zia ul Haq, effectively limiting the representation of non-Muslims in the National Assembly to their reserved seats. The separate electorate system was finally abolished in favour of joint electorate system during General Pervaz Musharaf ‘s rule in 2002. The issue of reserved seats for minorities has been a bone of contention during recent years as the National Assembly has failed to pass several iterations of this bill despite an increase in the general seats in 2002.
The Constitution of Pakistan clearly stipulates that adequate provisions shall be made for the minorities to profess and practise freely their religions. Therein shall be guaranteed fundamental rights, including equality of status, of opportunity and before law, social, economic and political justice, and freedom of thought, expression, belief, faith, worship and association, subject to law and public morality. It further states that adequate provisions shall be made to safeguard the legitimate interests of minorities and backward and depressed classes. In addition, Articles No. 20, 21, 22, 25, 26, 27, 28 and 36 of the Constitution of Pakistan guarantee equal citizenship and protection of rights of minorities. According to 1998 census, the overwhelming majority of Pakistan i.e 96.28% is Muslim while remaining 3.73% subscribe to other faiths. A close review of party manifestos reveals that all the major political parties of Pakistan have promised complete religious freedom and protection to citizens for practising their respective religions.
In Pakistan, although various steps have been undertaken for protection of minorities including abolishment of separate electorate, reservation of separate seats in the legislative bodies both at provincial and central levels (four seats in Senate, ten seats in National Assembly), allocation of 5% quota, celebration of August 11th as Minorities Day and establishment of Federal Ministry of National Harmony in 2011. However, the bulk of these steps appear shallow in their letter and in spirit. The 5% quota for minorities has so far not been successfully implemented. According to the Annual Statistical Bulletin of Federal Government Employees 2012-2013, statistics on the overall employment (BPS 1-22) of citizens of other faiths by the federal government reveal a slightly decreasing trend 2.56% to 2.32% between the years 2011 and 2013. Similarly, Federal Ministry for National Harmony, which is clubbed with the Ministry of Religious Affairs, fails to implement any significant legislation.
According to the Charter of Demands developed by Centre for Civic Education Pakistan, a reputed research and development organization after extensive countrywide consultative process, the challenges to equality of citizenship can be effectively addressed through review of the constitutional and legal instruments that put religious minorities in a disadvantageous position and vulnerable situations, adoption of ‘inclusive culture’ by the political parties at the federal, provincial and local levels, increase in the number of reserved seats in the National Assembly of Pakistan and all Provincial Assemblies, democratization of the system of party lists for reserved seats and making it more transparent, undertaking affirmative actions to support and facilitate the religious minorities to directly contest constituencies in the elections for local, provincial and federal level democratic institutions, celebration of the August 11 as the day of ‘Equality of Citizenship’ instead of the Day of Minorities and taking concrete steps to ensure strict adherence to job quotas reserved for the religious minorities.
It is high time for meaningful reforms and concrete steps to improve the conditions of religious minorities in Pakistan through recognizing their historic contribution in the creation of Pakistan, remembering the un-sung heroes of freedom struggle hailing from religious minorities, recalling the pledge of ‘equality based citizenship’ made by the founding father of Pakistan, Quaid-i-Azam, Muhammad Ali Jinnah and realizing the need for political and electoral reforms to ensure effective and expanded participation of religious minorities.
— The writer is freelance columnist based in Islamabad.
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