By Umar Farooq
Rights groups welcome Pervez Musharraf-era reforms to Pakistan’s electoral system, which helped put religious minorities on an equal footing with Muslims. But Ahmadis say they were left out, and some other religious minorities say they still don’t have adequate representation in Parliament.
“We want to be part of the mainstream, but they [the government] won’t let us. They are keeping us out of elections,” a spokesman for Pakistan’s Ahmadi community said.
Muslim extremists in Pakistan persuaded the government to pass a constitutional amendment in 1974 declaring Ahmadis non-Muslims. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan estimates there are at least one million Ahmadis in the country.
Ahmadis follow the teachings of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, a late 19th Century reformer who they consider a prophet. Most orthodox Muslims believe there were no prophets after Prophet Muhammad.
In 1985, President Zia-ul-Haq altered the country’s election laws so that when someone registered to vote, they were put into a group based on their religion. Non-Muslim groups were given a handful of seats in Parliament and barred from voting in general elections for their districts. Ahmadis, for example, regardless of where they lived in Pakistan, could only vote to elect representatives to one of two reserved seats at the national level.
The rules left minorities without effective representation, said I.A. Rehman, secretary general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Even in districts where minorities made up a sizable chunk of the population, they were never courted by mainstream candidates because they couldn’t vote for them.
In January 2002, President Musharraf introduced a “joint electorate,” lifting the requirement to declare religion when registering to vote. Millions of Hindus and Christians in Pakistan were listed along with Muslims, and could vote in general elections.
Ahmadis could also vote in general elections, but they were listed separately to Muslims, Hindus and Christians. Also, any candidate running for office was still required to sign a document saying Ahmadis were not Muslims.
“We are glad that in 2002 that system was abolished and replaced with a joint electorate. Now Muslims and non-Muslims living in the same street have their names in [a single list] – except for members of the Ahmadi community,” said Mr. Rehman.
“The Ahmadi community has a right to vote, like all other citizens, but they are not enrolled in a joint list,” he added.
A spokesman for Ishtiaq Ahmad Khan, secretary of the Election Commission of Pakistan, confirmed that the agency keeps a separate list of Ahmadis in each district.
The separate listing means that despite the 2002 reforms, most of Pakistan’s Ahmadis will boycott the upcoming elections on May 11, as they have been doing since the separate electoral rolls were first introduced. “They don’t get registered as voters and they don’t take part in elections,” said Mr. Rehman.
The Ahmadi community spokesman said voting would affirm the government’s view that he is not a Muslim. “We Ahmadis do not want to disassociate ourselves from the Prophet Muhammad,” he said.
Pakistan’s Supreme Court took up a petition against the practice last month, but neither Pakistan’s Attorney General nor the Election Commission replied to the court’s request to explain why Ahmadis were being listed separately. The listing could also allow religious extremists to easily identify Ahmadis in each electoral district, the Ahmadi spokesman said. In 2010, 86 Ahmadis were killed in attacks on worshippers in two mosques in Lahore. Last year, at least 20 Ahmadis were killed in Pakistan.
Pakistan’s constitution sets aside 10 seats in Parliament for religious minorities, but they are not filled by direct elections. After general elections, each political party nominates candidates from minority communities for the seats based on the party’s proportional representation in the new Parliament.
“People are chosen for us,” said Zeeshan Joseph of the All Pakistan Christian League. “When our homes, our churches are destroyed, all we get are checks. We don’t need checks, we need justice.”
Mr. Joseph says minority representatives are not accountable to the groups they are supposed to represent, but only to the political party that nominates them. A handful of minority groups, including the All Pakistan Christian League, advocate giving minorities in Pakistan a second vote, which they would use to select parliamentarians to fill the 10 reserved seats.
The right to cast two votes played a decisive role in the creation of Pakistan. In 1909, British rulers ceded to pressure by Muslims in India, allowing them a second vote for seats reserved for Muslims. Mr. Joseph says that without the additional representation in the colonial legislature, Muslims wouldn’t have been able to demand an independent state of Pakistan.
“We are sincerely loyal to Pakistan, but we are being kept from being politically involved. In our churches, the first thing we pray for is the well-being of our country and of our leaders,” he said.
Umar Farooq is an independent journalist based in Pakistan. He blogs at umar-farooq.com and tweets @UmarFarooq_
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