The constitution of Pakistan does not allow minorities to elect their representatives to the assemblies. It is the prerogative of political parties to select minority representatives. Since minorities cannot vote to elect their representatives they have been raising their voice for the problems associated with reserved seats and less number of seats according to their population. Often times they are also not happy with their selection procedure.
Thirty seven out of 1032 seats in the four provincial assemblies, the National Assembly and Senate have been reserved as minority seats. Under Article 51(2A) for the National Assembly and 106 for Provincial Assemblies, these reserved seats are subjected to proportional distribution amongst the political parties, according to their electoral strength in the general elections.
In the National Assembly, 272 seats are linked with direct votes, therefore, any party securing 27.2 seats will acquire one minority seat. According to the 1998 census, the population of minorities stands at five per cent. Their proportion in the population in 2017 census is yet to be announced.
Since 2002, four bills have been set aside in the National Assembly that carried the suggestion of increasing the quota of minority seats up to five per cent. These bills were presented in the National Assembly in 2003, 2006, 2009, and 2011 respectively.
Aasiya Nasir, member Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, Fazlur Rehman (JUI-F), has been a member of National Assembly since 2002. Elected on a minority seat, she presented the four bills in the parliament which could not be approved.
The first breakthrough came in the last months of PPP’s coalition government. The government moved the 23rd Amendment bill on December 11, 2012 called, “Constitutional Amendment Act 2012” to increase four minority seats in the National Assembly. As the bill was not opposed, Deputy Speaker, Faisal Karim Kundi, sent it to the relevant committee. However, after the approval of the cabinet committee the bill could not be brought on the floor of the House.
“That phase of bringing the bill to the floor for the final stage of the 23rd Amendment stayed unfulfilled because opposition parties were indisposed to bringing an amendment in the previous government’s tenure,” Aasiya Nasir tells TNS. “Despite that unsuccessful exertion of acquiring more minority seats in the assemblies, we still managed to attain five per cent quota in jobs for minorities through another bill,” she informs.
“In 2014, the bill was resubmitted in the National Assembly which was referred to the electoral committee. Moreover, a special committee for constitution reforms was also formed,” she says, adding, “After conducting thirty meetings of the electoral committee our recommendations of increasing minority seats up to five per cent in all assemblies were approved at the end of 2017 and the bill was sent to the parliament.”
For the first time in 1985 under article 51(4), 10 seats were allocated to minorities in the National Assembly. Since then the number of seats could not be increased. It is proposed in the bill passed by the electoral committee that seats for minorities in the National Assembly should be increased from 10 to 15, in Punjab from 8 to 12, in Sindh from 9 to 12, and in both KP and Balochistan from 3 to 4. Senate is not included in the proposed bill as four seats are already reserved for minorities in the House of 104.
Selection of representatives is also a matter of prime concern for minorities. Party heads nominate minority representatives according to their priority which cannot be challenged. “Selection is a defective procedure which is hardly beneficial to the community,” says Amir Bashir, Chairman Voice of Minority Pakistan, based in Multan.
“We are proud to be Pakistanis and would not hesitate to sacrifice everything we own to make this country prosperous, however, the attitudes of political parties and leaders are apathetic towards us,” he complains, adding, “The way our so-called representatives get designated says minorities do not matter or they should be given little opening to contribute as part of the nation.”
Kapil Dev, a human rights activist based in Jamshoro, tells TNS, “We need representatives who can not only highlight forced conversion of religion, especially in Sindh, hate materials in syllabus, and use of blasphemy law against minorities but also play a role in building religious harmony among different ethnicities,” he says. “Unfortunately, most of the hand-picked representatives are inept and incapable of handling these issues.”
Allocation of minority seats is also a significant concern that ought to be addressed by the parties. “Six out of eight Punjab MPAs belong to the Lahore district, which means people who live in the South have to travel hundreds of miles to get their problem fixed. Even then they have no assurance that these disputes will be resolved,” says Shahazad Illyas, a human rights activist based in Bahawalpur.
“For instance, since 2012, dozens of sanitary workers have been dismissed from the Bahawal Victoria Hospital on several occasions, who had to visit Lahore many a times to seek help from the minority representatives because they had no representation in the whole southern region,” he says, adding, “Elected representatives on general seats also pay little attention to our issues which generates frustration among minorities.”
“The process of selecting representatives is always criticised by those who do not get the opportunity to serve at this level. The decisions about selecting minority representatives by the party heads are perfect because they are cognizant of who should represent them,” says Khalil George, member National Assembly on PML-N’s reserved seat for minorities from Balochistan.
“The talk of increasing the number of minority seats is illogical. The current number of seats is sufficient to highlight and solve minority issues at the provincial and national level,” he says.
“The best way to mainstream minorities is to recognise their rights and introduce steps accordingly,” says Kashif Nawab, former United Nations Observer on minority rights based in Lahore.
It has been observed that some minorities have often been overlooked in earmarking reserved seats, like Baha’is and Parsis. “Apart from an amendment in the number of seats, an amendment should also be introduced in all provincial assemblies that only one minority representative from one district can be a part of the House,” he says.
“The way of implementing this formula can be established by the lawmakers,” Kashif suggests.