In a National Assembly constituency in Tharparkar, during the May general elections, a pamphlet was circulated warning Muslims against voting for an “infidel’ or a candidate belonging to a religious minority. What is worse, no action was taken against culprits, laments Mr. I A Rehman, secretary general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan(HRCP).
While ten seats of the 342 in the National Assembly are reserved for non Muslims, only one non-Muslim candidate was elected from the 272 general seats this time. After the euphoria has settled over Pakistan’s first democratic transition, reports of post election analysis indicate problems for both women and religious minorities and the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP)clearly needs to play a more enabling role.
HRCP’s report released on Thursday on Religious Minorities in Elections “Equal in law, not in practice” assessed the improvement in the level of respect for the political rights of minority religious communities, especially in relation to their participation in the elections as voters and candidates, Mr. Rehman said. The general elections of May 2013 was the third one since the abolition of separate electorates in 2002 and except for the Ahmediya community, everyone else had equal rights to vote or seek election to general seats. The HRCP chose six constituencies for observation with a substantial minority vote in Sindh province in Mirpurkhas, Umarkot and Tharparkar apart from Lahore which has a sizeable Christian population.
The HRCP said that the main minority group in the three districts was Hindu and both voters and candidates faced discrimination because of this. A large number of the Hindus worked as daily wagers in the farms of the feudal landlords and most followed their employer’s diktat. In one case, an influential candidate ran his election office from a polling station.
When minority candidates contested on the ticket of mainstream political parties they polled many votes, but when they stood as independents, they got less than 100 votes. Affirmative action was needed by the government, the ECP and political parties to deal with the considerable prejudice, he said.
The report said that there were some positive outcomes –despite their failure to win a general seat in the National Assembly in the past elections, members of religious minorities continued to stand and in five constituencies in Sindh, there were 11 minority candidates in 2013 as against five in 2008. Majority community candidates who in the past didn’t care for them actively sought their votes and even asked them to manage their campaigns in some cases.
However, there were serious issues of security. A minority community candidate in Mirpurkhas –Umarkot felt threatened by religious pressure groups and was too scared to name his tormentors. The report said almost all minority community candidates complained of being asked by the returning officers, during scrutiny of nomination papers, questions they thought derogatory of their faith. Voters from the minority community were deterred by deliberately registering them in far flung areas or by registering members of a single family in different polling stations, the report said.
While women voters from the minority community turned out in large numbers in Sindh often outnumbering Muslim women, there were problems in places. The report said women from the minority community were targeted by rowdy elements and the polling staff and even the caste factor was played up in these areas. In addition, they were kept waiting for upto four hours and they alleged the presiding officer was intentionally causing delays. In Mirphurkhas cum Umarkot constituency, the only non Muslim candidate Santosh Kumar, got 65 votes even though there were 85,000 voters who were non Muslim. Mr. Kumar told the HRCP that during the campaign he apprehended attacks by religious groups and was scared of naming anyone. In another constituency in Mirpurkhas where Hindus constitute 40 per cent of the population, the Hindu candidate lost his deposit.
The report said there was no evidence of any attempt by the administration to help the admittedly disadvantaged members of the religious minorities to freely exercise their right to vote. The ECP did refer to the need for special attention to the voters belonging to religious minorities in its five year plan but probably didn’t have the time to do anything worthwhile in this regard.