QUETTA: With just less than a week to go from elections, everyone is busy in campaigning but the religious minorities of the province are effectively excluded from the process.
Due to the joint electorate system and the handful of reserved seats allocated to them, politicians from religious minority backgrounds have no choice but to depend on the whims of the party leaders who have the sole power for nomination on reserved seats.
Though, Pakistan successfully managed to conduct national census last years after a gap of 19 years, but the government has not released the official figures of the population of religious minorities counted in census. However, according to the estimates of the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, there are 60,466 Hindus and 49,360 Christians living in Balochistan. The figure of Hindus population is disputed by Pakistan Hindu Council, a Pakistan-wide organization working for the welfare of Hindus. According to the Pakistan Hindu Council the population of Hindus in Balochistan is 117,345 and Hindu population is concentrated in Jaffarabad, Bolan, Lasbela, Sibi and Quetta districts. There is no independent data about the population of Christians in Balochistan. Apart from that Balochistan also has Sikh and Parsi population as well, but those are too few in number to matter in the electoral politics.
Sadly, religious minorities are also largely excluded from the mainstream economy of Balochistan which is based on government jobs and agriculture. Most of the Christians can only get janitorial jobs in the government and private sector. Whereas most of the Hindus use trading to earn their livelihood.
For the upcoming polls, 22 non-Muslim candidates are contesting elections on general seats in Balochistan out of 1,007 candidates. It’s needless to say that none of these non-Muslim candidates have any chance of winning elections on a general seat in Balochistan. There are three seats reserved in Balochistan Assembly for non-Muslims which are proportionally allocated to political parties based on the number of general seats that they have won. In case of National Assembly there are 10 seats allocated for minorities which are proportionally allocated among political parties without any provincial quotas. So, there is no guarantee that a minority member from Balochistan can be elected as MNA on reserved seat this time either.
In 1985, the military dictator Gen (retd) Zia ul Haq introduced the separate electorate system for minorities. This meant the minority voters could only vote for the non-Muslim reserved seats and not for general seats. As a result, Abadan Faridoon Abadan and Bashir Masih were elected as first two non-Muslim minorities to the Balochistan Assembly in 1985. In 2002, Gen (retd) Musharraf changed the separate electorates to Joint electorates. This meant that minority voters can vote for the general seats and there will be reserved seats for minorities where members will be elected through party nominations.
Article 106 of the Constitution states that there will be three seats reserved in Balochistan Assembly for non-Muslims. This is to ensure that minorities get some representation in Balochistan Assembly when they can’t get elected on the general seats. However, it’s still baffling that why a non-Muslim can’t be elected on a general seat even after 70 years of independence of Pakistan. There is no official answer to this question. Moreover, three minority seats in Balochistan assembly are normally distributed among the top three parties. No party can even get two out of these three seats because for that to happen a party has to win 34 out of 51 general seats in Balochistan which has never happened. Consequently, political parties can only elect just one minority MPA in the Balochistan assembly. This has created huge problem for minority politicians who not only have to join the party but then enter into the battle to be the number one on the priority list of nominees for the reserved seats. Even being number 2 on the priority list can’t help them to be elected.
Ambrose John Francis who served as minority member of Balochistan Assembly from 2002-07 from PML-Q, believes that the current system of elections of minority members of assembly is unfair. “We do not demand separate electorates because then we would be considered separate from the mainstream,” he said. “We want dual electorates where we can vote not only for the general seats but also for reserved seats of minorities,” he said.
Francis has now joined the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) and he on number 13 of the BAP to be considered for nomination to the minority seat. Francis is not successful in making it to the top three priority list of nominees. He complained that the minority politics has become dependent on the likes and dislikes of the party leaders. “Whoever is close to the party leader will get the nomination irrespective of merit,” he lamented. However, Francis is still loyal to BAP and has no plans to quit it. “We will remain in the BAP because as minority leaders we need a party to survive,” he said.
Khalil George, who served as an MNA on the minority seat from 20013-18 on PML-N ticket, managed to get nomination for reserved seats in Balochistan Assembly from BAP this time. George says while the Christian population has increased to more than 60,000 in Balochistan they need more representation in the national and provincial assemblies. The “BAP leadership has committed to us that they will raise voice for increasing the seats of minorities in the national and provincial assemblies,” he claimed.
Ganesh Lal has been nominated by the BNP-Mengal on reserved seat for minorities in the Balochistan Assembly. He complains that after national census 2017, the federal government increased the reserved seats for women from Balochistan in the National Assembly but not the minority reserved seats. He believes the problems of religious minorities can only be resolved if they have adequate representation in the national legislature.
In Balochistan, over the course of last decade, minority members have been persecuted in form of kidnapping of Hindu tradesmen and occasional forced marriages of their women. Besides, the minority members of assembly have also been victims of this persecution in the pronvince. Handery Masih Baloch was elected to the Balochistan Assembly on a reserved seat in 2013 from the National Party. In January 2014, he was shot dead by his government-provided gunman outside his residence in Quetta. The government claimed that there was a scuffle between the nephew and the gunman of Handery and when the latter tried to intervene the gunman inadvertently shot him. The gunman was arrested but the government denied that it was an act of religious extremism.
Furthermore, according to a report Minority Rights in Pakistan: Historic Neglect or State Complicity conducted by PIPS in 2014, as many as 96.7 % minority members in Balochistan stated they were excluded and treated as second-class citizens. The overall findings of the report revealed that “discrimination against minorities within the social and cultural mainstream, undermining economic livelihoods and political participation is connected with overall inequality and government inattention.” Luckily, minorities in Balochistan have so far not been victimized by abusing the blasphemy laws like in Punjab.
Clearly, the mounting problems of minorities can’t be resolved by three MPAs in Balochistan assembly who are handpicked by their party leaders. What needs to be done is to increase the number of minority seats in Balochistan Assembly and allow the minority voters to directly vote for these seats through a dual voting electorate system. This arrangement can provide relief to the beleaguered minorities in Balochistan. However, all the problems of minorities will only end if the Pakistani nation changes its attitude towards the non-Muslims.
Adnan Aamir is a journalist and researcher based in Quetta. Follow him on twitter iAdnanAamir. Email: Adnan.AamirLive.com.