Pakistan’s bicameral legislature is dominated by feudals and capitalists, with the political parties that represent the working class too weak to reach the legislature. Religious minorities, although also disenfranchised, are unfortunately shy of joining the political struggles of the working class. A few among them attempt to stoke the same sectarianism that makes minorities vulnerable for their own political and economic gains.

The Constitution’s Article 51(2A) provides 10 reserved seats for religious minorities in the National Assembly, and 23 seats for minorities in the four provincial assemblies under Article 106. The political parties are provided reserved seats proportionally on their numerical strength in the legislature and candidates stand elected according to the order of the list provided by the party. These "picked-ups" are counted only when it is found necessary to show some electoral strength in parliament.

The rationale for these reserved seats lies in the existing socio-religious situation in which non-Muslims cannot win by contesting general seats. Why this is so, is a question the state has not addressed in 69 years. Institutionalised bias and discrimination against religious minorities has created a suffocating atmosphere.

For parties, not peopled

It is a fact that the current mode of minorities’ representation on reserved seats is a farce that neither brings them closer into the national mainstream nor the business of the state. Practically speaking, these seats are essentially for political parties and not for religious minorities.

The concept of the model of proportional representation has, in fact, been abused and the notion of representation has been defeated by the political leadership of the nation. These reserved seats are often filled by such persons who are neither competent nor representative of their supposed electorate. Ironically, many of them have neither had any political schooling nor were they party members prior to being selected by their respective political parties.

In the context of Pakistan, the situation is even more preposterous. Islamic political parties also select and send minority members to assemblies, despite the fact that, under the guise of Sharia, these same parties aren’t prepared to grant them equal status of citizenship and fundamental rights.

The two-nation theory coined for political and economic gains for Muslims later facilitated the Partition of British India and formation of a new state – the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. This divisionary theory has since become redundant, but the religious right (once against Pakistan’s creation) has used it to divide the Pakistani nation on religious lines into binaries of Muslims and non-Muslims.

Influenced by religious extremists, the state has remained unwilling to grant equal citizenship to non-Muslims, who were thrown out of the national mainstream through an apartheid mode of separate electorates that remained in force for more than 25 years over five general elections. It was after much political struggle of democratic forces that joint electorates were restored; however, the status of equal citizenship – the basis of the right to vote – is still contested by religiously influenced political forces.

Some voices among minorities are demanding the right to elect their own representatives. Given the current scenario, this demand is tricky and may once again open the doors to separate electorates and further strengthen retrogressive forces. This issue, therefore, needs an honest political solution.

The way ahead

Religious minorities have suffered all these decades and some resuscitative measures are required. The Repre­sen­tation of the People Act of 1976 and the rules under the Election Commission need to be amended in order to bring religious minorities into the national mainstream.

Political parties that restrict membership on religious grounds must not be registered with the Election Commission of Pakistan and should not be allowed to participate in the electoral process. It should be mandatory for registered political parties to allot tickets to non-Muslims candidates to contest elections on a number of seats according to the ratio of their population. Successful candidates would become representatives of an electorate that would include minorities as well.

However, for a specified period of time, special measures could be adopted to elect minority members on reserved seats under joint electorates. These legislative measures would root out sectarian politics and parties whose politics are based on religion. This process would cultivate Pakistan’s democratic culture and promote socio-religious harmony as well. Had this electoral practice been carried out decades earlier, Pakistan would have been much different today.

Religious minorities need strong voices in the legislature, not the presence of some lackeys in the name of so-called representation. They need bold and strong spokespersons who may be Christians, Hindus or Muslims. It is a fact that progressive and democratic Muslims have always represented them better and always stood by their side. Pakistan cannot become a democratic society unless the wall between state and religion is maintained and society is built on pluralistic lines.

This article first appeared on Dawn.