During the 2013 election campaign, Mian Shahbaz Sharif made several visits to his constituency NA 129 Youhanabad, Pakistan’s largest Christian locality, where approximately 250,000 Christians live, as it had been of particular interest to Sharif. Out of the several election promises he made, one that stood out, and is still alive in the minds of the residents of Youhanabad, was about making this locality Paris.
Five years later, the condition of this area is as dilapidated as it was in 2013. There are no hospitals, no water filtration plant and no public school. The roads are still broken and turn into a den of filth when sewage water spills over from clogged gutters during rain. This is just the tip of the problems that people of Youhanabad face because of poverty and lack of civic amenities. The deeper one goes into Youhanabad social and infrastructural issues get worse, showing how narrowly do we define our priorities when it comes to minorities. One overwhelming problem, on a national level, is recognizing the numerical strength of minorities in the federal and provincial assemblies of Pakistan.
Since 1973, the reserved seats for minorities are 10 in the National Assembly and 14 in Punjab Assembly. In 2014, the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Law and Justice took a decision to increase the number of reserved seats for the country’s religious minorities. This decision was taken up on the private member bill moved by Asia Nasir, a Christian member of parliament from Jameet-e-Ulmai-Islam. According to the official statement released by the committee the number of reserved seats for minorities in the National Assembly were to be increased by five, in Punjab and Sindh by two each, and in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan by one each. It is an irony that since 1973 where the number of general seats in the National Assembly had been increased from 210 to 342 and reserved seats for women from 28 to 60, seats reserved for the religious minorities stayed 10.
Mindful of the importance of census that had just concluded in Pakistan minorities had been instructed by their leadership to be extra conscious and alert in getting themselves enlisted properly. Census will determine the size of minorities’ population, which will help define the proportion of representation minorities deserve in parliament. As per the National Population Census in 1998 minorities make up 2.8 per cent of Pakistan’s population, which included Hindus, Christians, Sikh, Zoroastrians, Ahmadis, and Jews.
Minorities also seek the right of choosing their representatives through direct elections. Currently, they are selected through the proportional representative system.
The Supreme Court of Pakistan had instructed the governments to give minorities the right to elect their representatives directly. However, like many other orders of the SC, this too was ignored.
Minorities in Pakistan face many issues that directly affect the quality of their life in terms of freedom of expression and religion. A delegation of minorities on May 17, 2017, met Nasir Janjua the Security Advisor to the Prime Minister and raised their concerns. On the top of their agenda was the issue of the misuse of blasphemy law and forced conversion.
Forced conversion has become a major issue for both Christians and Hindus in Pakistan. According to the data available with Aurat Foundation, about 1,000 young women are forcibly converted to Islam every year. In November 2016, Sindh Assembly took a bold step to introduce a bill against forced conversion, carrying a harsh punishment for the offense. The bill, however, could not be passed following the backlash from the Muslim religious groups.
Punjab Human Rights Minister, Khalil Tahir Sindhu, talked to Truth Tracker about Mian Shahbaz Sharif’s promise of developing Youhanabad to the standard of Paris. He agreed that the promise had not been followed, let alone fulfilled.
Talking about the underrepresentation of minorities in various assemblies of Pakistan, Sindhu said he had been in touch with the Federal Law Minister on this crucial issue and was given assurance that this matter would be resolved once the results of the census arrived.
“Ideally, census or no census, the reserved seats for minorities should have been increased the same way that the number of general seats and reserved seats for women were increased. Our representation should have been 14 in the NA and 16 in Punjab Assembly.”
Sindhu told Truth Tracker that seat adjustment required constitutional amendment under Article 101 and 56 of the Constitution of Pakistan.
Lately, Doctor Waseem, MPA from Jamaat-e-Islami in Punjab Assembly suggested making Islamiat a compulsory subject for every student irrespective of his or her religion. Sindhu said his party sharply criticized the proposal and the matter was dropped.
Sindhu further added: “In line with the provision given to the Muslims students of getting 20 per cent extra marks if they had memorized Quran (Hafiz), students belonging to minorities with similar trait should be also allowed to gain additional numbers.”
He however, said that unless election reforms are made, and minorities are given the right to elect their representatives, quality in legislation concerning minorities would remain an issue that would ultimately reflect in the continuation of discrimination and unmet social needs.
Pakistan Tahreek-e-Insaaf, MPA Punjab Assembly, Shanila Ruth, told Truth Tracker that Shahbaz Sharif was in a campaigning mood when he promised to convert Youhanabad into Paris. She further said that when the Church blast incident happened in Youhanabad two years ago, Sharif did not even visit the bombing site. He stance was that instead of empathizing with the victims of the explosion, the incident of the lynching of two Muslims following the blast was given more importance. Following which she added a witch-hunt began, and Christian boys were lifted from their homes for investigation.
“Many innocent people had been arrested. Those who are in jail, they are offered conditional release if they convert to Islam,” said Ruth. She criticized police for wrongfully holding onto innocent people.
Talking about the rights of minorities she said: “We have been asking the government in Punjab to give us five per cent quota in every field. If only this promise is fulfilled, many of our issues will get resolved.”
Ruth also believes that the representation of minorities should increase in the centre and in all four provinces, “But the litmus test,” she said, “lies in allowing the minorities to elect their own representatives.”
“Currently the selected ones are not the real representatives of minorities because of the sheer fact that they do not have contacts with the masses, and their entire activity revolves around self-interest,” said Ruth.
Maulana Tahir Ashrafi, Chairman All Pakistan Ulema Council, condemned all sorts of violence and discrimination against minorities. He agreed that minorities should be given the right to elect their representative.
“Their legislatures do nothing for their community. They serve the interest of the party or work on raising their status,” Ashrafi said.
On forced conversion, Ashraifi told Truth Tacker that the issue has nothing to do with religion. “It is,” he elaborated, “a social issue emanating from poverty on one hand and feudalism on the other. Girls from the Christian community, and Muslim boys from well to do families usually decide to marry. To lead a decent life, these girls usually agree to convert to Islam.” “Mostly,” Ashrafi further added, “the boys abandon these girls, which is very unfortunate.”
Kashif Nawab, Director at SATH Pakistan and Admin Minority Rights Watch, told Truth Tracker that, funds worth billions of rupees allocated for minorities were diverted to the construction of the Orange Train.
“The Finance Minister Punjab, Aysha Ghous, had said on the floor of the Punjab Assembly in the recent budget speech that the funds allocated in the preceding year for minorities had lapsed. It means those funds were not used. Our scholarships and grants were withheld,” Nawab said.
From the above investigation, Truth Tracker has reached the conclusion that CM Punjab forgot his promise of developing Youhanabad into Paris after assuming power. This forgetfulness meant that the government was not interested in reforming the lives of the minorities, including election reforms.