An alternative history -- III

Separate electorate and the exclusion of minorities

An alternative  history -- III

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was ousted from power by Zia ul Haq on July 5, 1977 through a coup d’etat. After consolidating his power, two measures taken by Zia from the whole process of Islamisation that he adopted deserve special mention with particular reference to the status of the minorities, namely separate electorate and blasphemy law.

Here we will talk only about separate electorate. Under this system, the citizen is barred from voting for any candidate except those belonging to his own faith. The issue of separate electorate is a painful reminder of the fact that despite the traumatic event of partition, the problem of representation could not be resolved. That problem manifested itself with all its complexity in Pakistan where nationalism came to be equated with Islamic ideology.

In 1952 when the Government of India Act, 1935 was amended to institute separate electorate for Caste Hindus and Scheduled Castes from among the Hindus of the East Bengal, that issue generated a considerable amount of controversy. The ideological zealots from right-wing parties like Muslim League, Jamaat-i-Islami and Nizam-i-Islam Party stood for unequivocal espousal of separate electorate. Interestingly, no such demand was made by any minority community. Most of those supporting separate electorate hailed from West Pakistan.

The Awami League, the Krishak Sramik Party, the National Awami Party and the Ganatantri Dal disproved of such a constitutional device considering it an impediment in the evolution of a democratic and secular polity. They argued that separate electorates would disenfranchise the minorities in both wings of the country. During the debates in the constituent assembly, the members from the East Bengal namely S.C. Chattopadhyaya and D.N. Dutta raised their voice of dissent, saying ‘that even with joint electorates the representation of the depressed classes can be ensured’.

With Muslim League being put to rout in the 1954 elections for East Bengal Assembly, the pro-separate electorates lobby got considerably weakened. The minority parties like Pakistan National Congress and Scheduled Castes’ Association bagged 24 and 27 respectively, along with smaller parties and factions, emerged as a strong group in favour of a joint electorate.

However, unlike Hindus from East Pakistan, smaller minority groups like Christians, Buddhists and Parsis demonstrated a conciliatory attitude towards the emergent Muslim ruling elite. The Christians did not seem "intensely committed" to either side on the issue of the electorates. After the 1956 constitution was adopted, the issue was referred to the two provincial assemblies of East and West Pakistan and both the assemblies voted for joint and separate electorates respectively.

However, after a year, the National Assembly passed a resolution in favour of a joint electorate thus the controversy was put at rest.

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The Constitution Commission set up by Ayub Khan circulated the questionnaire to ascertain the public response on the nature of the electorate in 1962. 55.1 per cent of the respondents favoured joint electorate. The Commission, however, recommended separate electorate to the president as its members were not sure of the loyalty of the Hindus to the Pakistan ideology. President Ayub, contrary to the recommendation of the commission, settled for a joint electorate for all communities.

Like preceding constitutions, in the 1973 constitution, the practice of a joint electorate was adhered to, despite the fact that after separation of East Pakistan in 1971, the religious minorities had been reduced to merely 5 per cent. Besides, the Z.A. Bhutto government reserved six seats for minorities in the National Assembly whereas five seats were set aside for them in the Punjab. That system ensured that minorities ‘had a better sense of participation but were far from being treated with equality’ and still much needed to be done in this regard.

In the elections of 1970 and 1977, minorities mostly voted for the PPP under joint electorate which gave rightist/religious parties sufficient reason to demand separate electorates. General Zia announced local bodies’ elections in 1979 and realised to his utter dismay that ‘the spectre of an imminent PPP victory under a joint electorate system loomed large on the political horizon.’ Political expediency forced Zia to rescind the joint electorate; therefore Articles 51 and 106 were amended by the parliament in 1985 to accommodate the change in the system of election.

Most of the Christian leaders, however, resented the fact that the separate electorates were being thrust on them against their will. In that dispensation, constituencies for the minority contestants comprised several districts and even provinces in some cases.

After the promulgation of the separate electorates, the minority representatives were faced with a dilemma. Either they had to stay away from such electoral system, thus totally disenfranchising themselves or accept the ‘enforced segregation.’ Bishop Alexander John Malik called them ‘apartheid electorates’ causing division in the society; therefore, he opted to abstain from voting during Zia’s regime. Ironically, in the post Zia era of elected governments of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif (1988-99) and three interim governments in between the dismissal of those governments ‘consistently shied away from annulling the separate electorate law’ .

With the exception of a few individuals, almost all minorities disproved of the separate electorates. Those supporting this law thought it would ensure greater representation for minorities. Some Christian leaders like Emmanuel Zafar, H.L Hayat, Gulzar Chuhan, Isac Sosheel, Aziz Hamdam, Walter Z. Haq and Prof. Salamat Akhter from Pakistan Massih League launched an agitation against the joint electorate when the 1970 elections were announced.

Failing to forge a consensus, Pakistan Massih League was divided into two factions on the issue of the electorate. In the following elections Pakistan Massih League fielded 33 candidates for national and provincial assemblies, with ‘spectacles’ as party insignia but all of them lost very badly. Splinter group Azad Pakistan Massih League persisted with its struggle against joint electorate under Joshua Fazal Din. Those espousing separate electorates aspired to have such system whereby their separate identity was maintained, permission to have their own political parties was accorded, allocation of the national and provincial assembly seats in proportion to their population and the demarcation of the constituencies were ensured accordingly.

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The separate electorates introduced by Zia hardly provided any reflection whatsoever to these demands and aspirations of the Pakistani Christians.

Most of the Christian leaders, however, resented the fact that the separate electorates were being thrust on them against their will. In that dispensation, constituencies for the minority contestants comprised several districts and even provinces in some cases. Christian candidates, in most cases belonging to Punjab were obliged to take their campaign up to Karachi, in a bid to appeal to their voters.

Benazir Bhutto despite acknowledging the separate system as unjust and iniquitous could not re-introduce the joint electorate. Even in her second term in 1996, she tried to introduce the double vote for minorities but failed. Similarly, Justice Fakhr-e-Alam, Chief Election Commissioner in the late 1990s on the eve of his retirement very strongly espoused the re-introduction of joint electorate. Ironically, while in office no one could do anything concrete ‘to push through a change in the election system’.

General Pervez Musharaf after assuming power in October 1999 sought to bring about certain changes in order to display a religiously tolerant image for himself. Hence, he showed a resolve to initiate ‘a procedural change’ in the implementation of Blasphemy Law but he had to buckle under pressure from religious factions and parties.

Similarly, it was indicated immediately ahead of local bodies election for 2000-2001 that a joint electorate would be restored but all the hopes of the minorities were dashed to the ground when nothing of the sort happened. At the time of announcement of elections on 14 August 2000, same procedure continued to be in operation.

It was only after 9/11 when America put pressure on the Pakistani government to introduce reforms that separate electorates were eventually repealed in early January 2002. Similarly, Pervez Musharaf nullified the statement regarding reaffirmation of the finality of Prophethood on the voter’s registration form that seriously affected Ahmadis. The government, however, could not withstand the pressure exerted by the clergy and religious parties therefore the decision was annulled on 29 May 2002.


An alternative history -- III