In the political history of Pakistan, 2018 will always be remembered as the year that Peshawar-born Radesh Singh Tony, a well-known Sikh leader, made history by contesting for a general seat (PK-75 Peshawar).
As the president of the Pakistan Minorities Alliance in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Tony broke down barriers and disproved preconceptions, making history with his extraordinary candidacy. Representing a significant Sikh community of about 220,000, he entered the election with the sole and admirable goal of speaking for his group.
However, in that election Pakistan Tehrek-E Insaf Candidate won that constituency by getting 27659 votes and Tony secured only 62 votes according to the election commission data. He sheds light on the challenges faced by minority candidates—financial constraints, security issues, and the prevalence of negative comments, even threats, during campaigns.
As the official announcement for Pakistan's parliamentary elections on February 8, 2024, reverberates through the nation, it signals not just a political event but a pivotal moment for the country's minority communities.
The long-awaited return to the democratic process has been met with widespread enthusiasm, particularly among religious minority groups who are gearing up to play an active role in shaping the future of the nation.
In a country of approximately 200 million people, religious minorities constitute a mere 4 percent of the population. The Election Commission of Pakistan reveals that the total registered voters have surpassed 126 million, as of June 30 2023, with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa boasting over 21.62 million registered voters. Within this demographic, 11.79 million are male, and 9.82 million are female.
Despite comprising a significant portion of the electorate, minorities, estimated at four million voters in 2022, still grapple with challenges that prevent them from fully realizing the rewards of their political significance. Hindus lead the minority population, followed by Christians, Sikhs, and others. Though there has been a slight increase in minority vote percentages since 2018, they were 3.63 million in 2018 which increased to 4.43 million. There remains a gap in translating electoral participation into tangible political influence.
The Pakistani Constitution guarantees political inclusion for minorities through reserved seats in Provincial Assemblies and the Parliament. Article 51(4) allocates ten seats in the national assembly specifically for minorities, while Article 106 guarantees non-Muslim reserved seats in all Provincial Assemblies. While the electoral system designates "reserved" seats based on parties' performance in elections, members of minority communities are increasingly eager to contest elections independently for the remaining seats in the 342-seat National Assembly and the four provincial legislatures.
The Elections Act of 2017, a landmark legislation, underscores the Parliament's commitment to integrating minority groups. Section 48 prioritizes the enrollment of non-Muslims, emphasizing specific measures for this purpose. Section 104 outlines procedures for filling reserved seats, urging political parties to include a prioritized list of non-Muslim candidates with their nomination papers. Despite these provisions, the turbulent election history of the nation raises doubts about the likelihood of Muslim voters choosing minority politicians.
Tony said that the minorities representation on special quota was introduced by General Pervez Musharraf to avoid minorities representatives’ involvement in horse-trading after elections which limited their representation. “Minorities can participate in contesting election provided that they are given conducive environment for their election campaign, election fee was 2500 in the history which has increased to 22000, the election campaign is in itself an expensive process which is not affordable for minorities because of their fragile financial status,” he added.
He further elaborated that on the reserve seats, political parties representation are given to those candidates who are not active political leaders and do not have any influence on the decision-making bodies of the political parties, due to which they just fill the seats without giving any input for the minority community.
Tony emphasizes the pressing issues confronting his community, including limited access to education, healthcare, and employment opportunities. With only four reserved seats for minority groups in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly, allocated typically to politically affiliated individuals, the majority of the community remains underrepresented. He urges substantial efforts to guarantee unhindered minority voting, emphasizing the paramount importance of inclusive participation. Minorities problems can only be solved through minority representatives and for this acceptance in society is the need of time.
Representing the Christian community in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Rizwan Batti, affiliated with the Pakistan People Party, reveals the approximately 50,000 Christians in the region. Despite having one reserved seat, it lacks the influence needed to address their community's challenges. Batti believes that independent minority candidates offer the best hope for effectively addressing Christian grievances.
Muhammad Atif Haleem, the President of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf's Trade Wing Khyber Pakhtunkhwa expressed that the PTI government in the previous election tried their best to accommodate minorities according to the given quota of the election commission, and for the upcoming election, their manifesto is focusing on the safeguard of minorities rights throughout the country.
Prewinder Singh, the Minority Chairman of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Fazal Rehman (JUI-F), expresses gratitude for the government's announcement of the election date. Singh acknowledges the significant challenges minorities face in education, employment, and security, affirming their party's commitment to addressing these issues as a top priority.
Haji Jalil Jan, the Provincial Spokesman for JUI, emphasized the parties has pledged to continue its efforts to ensure that all minorities are represented and have a voice in the political process. He believes that a truly democratic Pakistan must be one in which all citizens, regardless of their cast creed and colour are included in all democratic process.
In 2018 General Election on reserve seats four members from the religious minorities were nominated as Members of provincial assemblies (MPA). Ravi Kumar (Pakistan Tehreek Insaf), Wazir Zada (Pakistan Tehreek Insaf), Ranjeet Singh (Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal Pakistan MMAP) and Wilson Wazir (Pakistan Tehreek Insaf) were the members of different provincial committees also. They passed different resolutions in KP Assembly including Mob attack on Hindu temple in Rahim Yar Khan August 6 2021 and to Condemn the publication of blasphemous caricatures in France and Accolade the Prime Minister on writing letter to the Face book CEO - October 26 2020.
Echoing the sentiment of active university students, Samra Nelson and Farzana Parkash representing Christian community expressed that there is a growing call for minorities to directly choose their representatives. This would provide an opportunity for minorities to select leaders who genuinely comprehend and support their needs, goals, and concerns. Direct accountability to their community is seen as a means to strengthen trust between representatives and voters, potentially increasing minority voter turnout and political participation.
As Pakistan inches closer to the upcoming elections, the participation of independent minority candidates and the commitment of political leaders to address religious minority concerns stand as crucial steps toward fostering a more inclusive and representative democracy. The journey towards empowering minorities in Pakistan's political landscape takes center stage, shaping a narrative of historic significance in the nation's democratic evolution