Challenges to equality of citizenship

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 a reciprocal basis, which demands equality in both rights and obligations from both sides. Unfortunately, the track record of Pakistan on the issue of inclusion of minorities in the mainstream public life has not been very healthy.
The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were unanimously adopted by the 193 member states of the United Nations (UN) including Pakistan at an historic summit of the world’s leaders gathered 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. These goals aim to end poverty, injustice, inequalities and ensure prosperity for all.
Pakistan was created as a separate country in 1947 on the basis of protecting the rights of Muslim minority. The Founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah in his speech during the inaugural session of the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan presented his vision where the equality of all citizens was emphasized. He stated “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or any place of worship in this state of Pakistan.” This statement provides a complete framework of protecting the rights of all citizens of Pakistan without any discrimination of religion and race.
Pakistan s’ early history reveals an effective pattern of representation of followers of other faiths in the Constituent Assembly and Ministries as 15 of the 69 members of Pakistan‘s first Constituent Assembly (1947-54) were followers of other faiths. This trend of representation of minorities did not carry forward in the years to follow. The creation of Bangladesh greatly reduced the proportion of followers of other faith as less than 5% of West Pakistan‘s population was non-Muslim. Eventually, the separate electorate system 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 general seats in 2002.
The Constitution of Pakistan clearly stipulates that adequate provisions shall be made for the minorities to profess and practice 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. The white colour in Pakistani flag represents minorities. 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 practicing their respective religions. Even, PML-N, PPPP and MQM have laid down tangible mechanisms to implement the promises mentioned in their manifestos.
In Pakistan, although various steps have been undertaken for protection of minorities including abolishment of separate electorate system 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 appears to be superficial and shallow in their letter and 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 followers of other faith 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.
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 a freelance columnist and is associated with Inter University Consortium for Promotion of Social Sciences as National Coordinator.

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