SPECIAL: Minority Rights and Electoral Dynamics in Pakistan


Religious minorities in Pakistan, including Christians, Hindus, and Shia Muslims, also encounter discrimination and persecution, notably through the country’s blasphemy laws. Advocacy organizations representing Christians and Hindus, as well as other minority groups, criticize the electoral system, asserting its undemocratic nature and its marginalization of religious minorities from mainstream politics … writes Dr Sakariya Kareem

As Pakistan grapples with the arduous task of establishing a democratic government post the nationwide parliamentary elections in February 2024, a particular religious community finds itself severely marginalised. Ineffectual and discriminatory clauses within Pakistan’s electoral legislation systematically disenfranchise members of the Ahmadiyya community based on their religious convictions.

For Ahmadis to be eligible as voters, they are compelled to either renounce their faith or accept being categorized as “non-Muslim,” relegating them to a distinct electoral registry. The cornerstone of Ahmadiyya religious belief revolves around self-identification as Muslim. Despite the Ahmadi population exceeding 500,000 in Pakistan, they find themselves practically excluded from participating in local, provincial, and national elections.

In Pakistan, Section VIII (“Elections”) of the 1973 Constitution encompasses provisions governing electoral laws, election conduct, and the functioning of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). Article 51 and Article 106 of the Constitution delineate the allocation of reserved seats for non-Muslims in the National Assembly and provincial assemblies, respectively.

According to a document from the ECP disclosed to Dawn news in early January 2017, nearly three million religious minority voters exist in Pakistan. Hindus constitute the largest group among these minorities, accounting for approximately 1.49 million registered voters, followed by Christians with around 1.32 million registered voters. Ahmadi Muslims, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, and Buddhists constitute the remaining minority voters. It is crucial to note that the accuracy of these figures could not be independently verified.

The Election Act of 2017, passed on October 2, 2017, aimed at facilitating the swift re-election of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, was met with controversy. The requirement for Muslim candidates to sign a specific oath related to the finality of Prophet Muhammad’s. Therefore, the Act of 2017 maintains these provisions concerning the Ahmadiyya community. According to Pakistani law, if any individual objects to a voter’s identification as non-Muslim, the election commission can summon the person to assert their non-Ahmadi status; otherwise, they are added to the non-Muslim list. Many Ahmadis, unwilling to compromise their beliefs, choose to abstain from voting altogether.

Beyond the denial of suffrage, the Ahmadiyya community faces perilous violence from extremist Islamist factions. The existence of a separate list containing the details of registered Ahmadi voters exposes them to an elevated risk of targeted assaults. In recent years, numerous Ahmadis have suffered injuries and fatalities in bombings and other assaults.

The constitutional and legal treatment of religious minorities in Pakistan is a multifaceted subject. This report specifically delves into the intersection of elections and minority rights. The Ahmadi Muslim community faces extensive institutional and societal persecution in Pakistan, stemming from the Second Amendment to the Constitution in 1974, which labelled them as non-Muslims. Furthermore, in 1984, Ordinance XX imposed restrictions on Ahmadis, limiting their ability to openly practice their faith, including the use of Islamic titles and epithets.

The prevailing Pakistani legislation essentially legitimizes and, to a certain extent, endorses the persecution of the Ahmadiyya community. The penal code overtly discriminates against religious minorities, singling out Ahmadis by prohibiting them from “directly or indirectly posing as a Muslim.”

Hence, the Pakistani elections cannot be deemed equitable and impartial if an entire community is effectively barred from the electoral process. Disagreements over religious beliefs should not serve as grounds for denying individuals their right to vote. The Pakistani authorities should permit the complete and equitable participation of Ahmadiyya community members in the upcoming general elections and subsequent electoral processes.

Religious minorities in Pakistan, including Christians, Hindus, and Shia Muslims, also encounter discrimination and persecution, notably through the country’s blasphemy laws. Advocacy organizations representing Christians and Hindus, as well as other minority groups, criticize the electoral system, asserting its undemocratic nature and its marginalization of religious minorities from mainstream politics.

Recent discussions surrounding the Ahmadi electoral issue are seen by some analysts as a manifestation of increased political activism and extremism within the Barelvi sect of Islam. Groups like TLYRA are leveraging issues such as the Ahmadi question and blasphemy to mobilize politically. The evolving political landscape, especially with the formation of alliances among Barelvi and other religious parties, raises questions about potential impacts on mainstream parties, particularly the PML-N.

Dr Saadia Toor emphasizes the likelihood of anti-Ahmadi rhetoric persisting, given its resonance across the Pakistani Muslim mainstream. Former Federal Minister for Population Welfare, Julius Salik, articulated the minorities’ demand for the government to ensure their representation through direct voting in the general elections. Salik, also the Convener of the World Minorities Alliance and a human rights advocate, stressed the urgency of this need, emphasizing Pakistan’s commitment as a signatory to the UN Minorities’ Rights declaration and protocols, ensuring fundamental rights to marginalized segments of society.

Salik underscored that Article 226 of the Constitution had been consistently violated in all elections, rendering every elected parliament unconstitutional. He highlighted the existence of around 60 National Assembly seats reserved for women and 10 for minorities, elected through proportionate representation, which he deemed unconstitutional.

Citing a Supreme Court full bench’s dissenting notes from August 5, 2015, Salik pointed out that the court directed the federal government to fill reserved minority seats through direct elections and minority votes. Renowned human rights lawyer and pro-democracy advocate from Pakistan, Hina Jilani, astutely acknowledges the influence of the military in shaping the outcomes of her country’s elections. She emphasizes, “The military has a unique tendency to interfere in politics and not do the right thing,” as conveyed to TIME.

In the recent elections conducted on February 8, the military exercised this influence by incarcerating former Prime Minister Imran Khan and restraining his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), from engaging in electioneering. Furthermore, it imposed a nationwide internet suspension and attempted to prevent Khan’s supporters from accessing the ballot box. Despite these interventions, the PTI secured slightly over a third of the 265 seats in a surprising and contentious electoral outcome. This led to a political impasse. To resolve it, PTI’s rival parties, the military-backed Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN), led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), agreed to form a coalition. Presently, Sharif intends to nominate his brother, Shehbaz Sharif, for the position of prime minister. Pakistan must establish a governance structure capable of addressing its imminent economic challenges. In the preceding month, the nation faced a concerning 28% annual inflation rate, coupled with a rapid escalation of its debt burden, partially alleviated by a $3 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Hina Jilani asserts, “While Pakistan’s voters may not always possess the political will or expertise, they are deeply concerned about the rising cost of living. Perhaps these circumstances will propel them towards seeking stability.” Jilani emphasizes, above all, the need for a responsible opposition to ensure effective governance.

Additionally, members of the minority Hindu community express a sense of exclusion from the electoral process, despite their significant presence, particularly in the southern Sindh province. Census data reveals that Hindus constitute only 2.14 percent of Pakistan’s total population, but in Sindh, their concentration amounts to nearly nine percent. According to Pakistan’s Constitution, the National Assembly reserves 10 seats for minority community members, along with 24 seats in the provincial assemblies.

Leaders and members of the Hindu community lament the lack of proper representation, with many not even registered as voters. Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, the Patron-in-Chief of the Pakistan Hindu Council, emphasizes that the lower economic sector and those in remote villages in Sindh feel marginalized in the electoral process. He disputes the accuracy of the census data, claiming that the Hindu population was not fully counted, leading to discrepancies in the population tally finalized by the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) and the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). The lower-caste Hindus, the largest minority community in Sindh, argue that, compared to their population, few are registered due to identification document issues in their predominantly uneducated and remote areas. Shiva Kaachi, a local Hindu community leader, asserts that despite an estimated Hindu population of around 4.77 million, only 1.777 million are officially registered as voters, questioning the accuracy of their representation.

Pakistan Flag. (Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

In contrast to the increasing trend of minority voters in Pakistan from 2.77 million in 2013 to 3.626 million in 2018, reaching 4.43 million in 2023, Hindus from lower castes continue to face challenges in obtaining voting rights. Mukesh Meghwar, another community leader, emphasizes that this lack of voting rights diminishes their impact and representation in the electoral process, especially for Hindus at the lower rung who feel left out due to class and caste differences.

Despite speaking various languages, Hindus in Sindh are still struggling to achieve proper representation, both as voters and candidates. Shahnaz Sheikh, a journalist and social worker, highlights that political parties predominantly choose rich businessmen, traders, landlords, or professionally qualified Hindus, who often lack a genuine connection with the grassroots Hindu community. As a result, challenges related to healthcare, unemployment, proper representation, and education persist for minorities.

Krishna Kumari Kohli, a senator from Tharparkar, advocates for an increase in Parliament seats for minorities based on population growth. She stresses that the current representation does not adequately address issues such as forced conversion, kidnapping for ransom, forced marriages, lack of educational and employment opportunities, and health concerns. On another front, the Minorities Alliance Pakistan rallied in December 2023 on International Human Rights Day, highlighting the government’s constitutional responsibility to ensure fundamental rights for all citizens without discrimination. Chairman Akmal Bhatti called for the rejection of the discriminatory electoral system for minorities and women, emphasizing the constitutional entitlement to the right to vote in specific seats. He criticized perceived exploitation, including gerrymandering, an increase in seats, and the right to double voting, which, according to him, compromises the democratic spirit and leads to electoral deprivation of minorities. Bhatti urged authorities to prevent external interference or doubts about the electoral process, ensuring equal opportunities for all political parties during election campaigns.

In conclusion, Pakistan stands at a critical juncture, grappling with pressing economic challenges and the need for effective governance. The recent 28% annual inflation rate and escalating debt underscore the urgency of addressing economic issues. Hina Jilani’s call for responsible opposition highlights the importance of mutual respect for effective governance. The concerns raised by the Hindu minority regarding representation in the electoral process are significant. The discrepancy in census data and challenges faced by lower-caste Hindus in obtaining voting rights necessitate a closer examination of the electoral system’s inclusivity. The advocacy for increased Parliament seats for minorities, as proposed by Krishna Kumari Kohli, and the Minorities Alliance Pakistan’s plea for equal opportunities underscore the imperative for a fair and inclusive electoral framework. As Pakistan navigates these complexities, fostering stability requires a concerted effort to address economic woes, promote responsible governance, and ensure equitable political representation for all citizens, regardless of caste or creed.

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