Balochistan's Unheard Voices: Minorities Seek Political Representation

As citizens recognise the importance of their vote and the power it holds in reshaping the country's political landscape and, in some cases, their fortunes, this awakening has fostered the belief that the voices of the minorities can no longer be marginalised

Balochistan's Unheard Voices: Minorities Seek Political Representation

In the dust-laden, sun-bathed streets of Quetta, if you travel south on Zarghoon Road and continue driving west across Brewery Road from Dokaani Baba Chowk for around 10 minutes, you will likely end up in a little neighbourhood called Essa Nagri.

As the Urdu name suggests, this is an enclave for the city's Christian community. An impoverished locality, the scent of frustration and crushed dreams hangs heavy in Essa Nagri's air. A lingering fragrance only the locals have the disheartening privilege of inhaling.

Jazib is a humble and hardworking painter who lives in this neighbourhood. His rainbow palette of acrylics may sparkle and shimmer in the brazen Quetta sunlight, but those hues do little to brighten his gruelling life--a stark contrast so harsh, it could have been painted by Van Gogh during his most turbulent times. Jazib is not just responsible for his dreams; he carries the aspirations of six more souls who rely on him. A family of seven, they share meals, stories, and a sandwiched living space that reeks of both warmth and despair.

For years, Jazib has splashed colours on countless canvases. Yet his world remains grey, opaque and foreboding. The problem? It is a deep-rooted and complex electoral process where representatives of the local Christian community are chosen not by a democratic vote from the community, but a representative is chosen by the far-off leaders of political party leaders. A reserved seat that vibrates with the pulse of his people.

"No one cares," he mutters under his breath. He narrates how, in the polling booth, his eyes scan the ballot paper for any sign or symbol that truly represents him in power corridors. As far as he is concerned, those who sit in the grand halls of national and provincial assemblies, seemingly to represent him, bask in their authoritative glory while remaining oblivious to the needs of his community. 

Jazib complains that no political leader ever visits their neighbourhood to take stock of the life they are compelled to live. Disappointment and disillusionment have become constant companions, wrapping them in a cloak of despair.

"We don't want handouts; we want a voice and a seat at the table where decisions are made" - Activist Manoj Kumar

"Representation," Jazib states, "shouldn't be a mere charade. It should echo the people's voice, hear the silent heartbeats and respond to them." 

While Jazib's faith in public representatives may be dwindling, his spirit remains undeterred. He dreams of the day when his community can directly choose their representative, a leader from amidst them who genuinely understands their trials and tribulations, joys, and sorrows, reflecting them in Parliament.

Minorities in Balochistan, much like in the rest of Pakistan, have long remained on the periphery of the political landscape. Throughout Pakistan's 75-year history, three distinct electoral systems have been implemented for non-Muslim voters.  Ironically, on each occasion, the impetus for these electoral reforms was driven by the minority communities themselves.

Balochistan's electoral landscape

A substantial 5.285 million people are registered as voters in Pakistan, indicating a robust participation in the democratic process.

Among these eligible voters, some 2.968 million are men, while 2.317 million are women. 

Balochistan's minorities primarily consist of Hindus, Christians, and other religious and ethnic groups. 

The minorities of Balochistan make up less than one percent of the total registered voters, or around 51,245.

Hindus account for 28,551, Christians number 20,761, and other minorities contribute another 1,933 votes.

By comparison, the Election Commission has registered some 4.43 million citizens from minorities as voters.

This table provides the population ratios for different communities in Pakistan for the years 1981, 1998, and 2017, along with the percentage change between these years for each community.

Change in ratios of different religious communities in Pakistan
Community 1981-1998 1998-2017
Christians +60.31% +25.71%
Hindus +64.84% +70.62%
Ahmadis +180% -35.71%
Scheduled Castes N.A. +157.58%
Other Religions -9.09% -60%
Muslims +56.45% +59.30%

Evolution of the reserved seats 

Balochistan's political history is a complex mosaic marred by conflicts, power struggles, and the dominant influence of ethno-nationalist forces. Over the years, this political landscape gave rise to the concept of reserved seats for religious minorities.

It began as a well-intentioned measure to ensure their political participation. However, of late, its effectiveness and ability to genuinely represent minority communities have been called into question, as they often resulted in tokenism rather than genuine empowerment.

The Balochistan Assembly is composed of 65 members to represent the population of the province. It comprises 51 general - or direct election - seats and 13 reserved seats. 

These reserved seats are further segregated, with ten designated for women, while only three are set aside for minority representation in Balochistan.

The election process for these reserved seats, as stipulated in the Constitution, follows a proportional representation approach. This means that political parties are allocated reserved seats proportionately to their general seat holdings in the assembly.

The more general seats a party holds, the more reserved seats it is awarded. This method of election is entirely indirect, and it has not garnered the approval of minority communities in Balochistan.

But it was not always so, and the system for the election of non-Muslims has undergone quite a few changes to the point where today, not only can they compete for general seats but also, through lobbying and the right connections, being awarded a reserved seat.

History of Non-Muslim electoral system in Pakistan
Year Electoral System
1951 Separate Electorate
1954 Separate Electorate
1962 Joint Electorate
1965 Joint Electorate
1970 Joint Electorate
1977 Joint Electorate + 6 Reserved Seats
1985 Separate Electorate
1988 Separate Electorate
1990 Separate Electorate
1993 Separate Electorate
1997 Separate Electorate
2002 Joint Electorate + Reserved Seats
2008 Joint Electorate + Reserved Seats
2013 Joint Electorate + Reserved Seats
2018 Joint Electorate + Reserved Seats

The joint electorate system implies all citizens, regardless of their faith or minority status, vote together to elect the representative of their area.

However, a separate electoral system allows minorities to vote their representatives into the assembly, ensuring their representation and accountability of their representatives.

To understand the nuances of this issue, we must delve into the past and seek insights from historians, socio-political analysts, and community leaders. 

Dr Ziauddin, a historian specialising in Balochistan, explains: "Reserved seats were introduced with noble intentions but fell short in practice. Often, individuals with little connection to the communities they were supposed to represent filled them. This perpetuated a sense of exclusion."

Sham Lal, a former member of Parliament, appreciates the allocation of reserved seats for members of the country's recognised religious minorities in the legislative assembly of Balochistan. He argues that the measure does allow for representation of their respective communities.

However, he believes there is a demand among these minority groups for a greater democratic process. 

“They wish for the opportunity to elect their own representatives through direct voting," he said.

“The idea behind this plea is personal empowerment and fostering a sense of belonging and ownership within the political sphere. It's an aspiration towards greater political inclusion and direct participation which enhances democratic representation," he said, hoping it can lead to a more accurate reflection of minority interests and concerns in the legislative affairs of the country through their chosen representatives.

"This direct vote could potentially ensure that representatives are genuinely answerable to their community rather than broader political interests," he added.

While data shows that minorities constitute only a small percentage of the population, their political influence can be substantial, especially in closely contested elections

The question arises: how will the dominant ethno-nationalist forces in the province perceive this shift in political dynamics? 

Historically, these forces have wielded considerable influence and have shaped the course of Balochistan's politics. The advent of a more pluralistic and inclusive political landscape could signal a significant departure from the status quo.

Carrying the mantle for rights

As we journey through Balochistan, we encounter remarkable individuals and communities who have historically been relegated to the sidelines of political discourse. These voices have endured, resisted, and are now asserting their presence.

Manoj Kumar, a member of the local Hindu community, is one of those who have worked for this cause. His journey was catalysed by the realisation that his people, like other minorities, have remained voiceless for far too long in a province where ethnicity and political power are deeply intertwined. He has worked for greater political representation of minorities and has called for social justice and equality. 

"Our people have been living here for centuries, contributing to the rich tapestry of Balochistan's culture. Yet, we have been excluded from the political process," he lamented. He went on to describe what he means by political inclusion.

"We don't want handouts; we want a voice and a seat at the table where decisions are made."

Kumar's passion is mirrored by others in Balochistan's minority communities. This includes people like Mariam, a Christian schoolteacher in a remote village in the province. She has seen generations of her community struggle for basic rights and representation. Mariam's enthusiasm for the changes unfolding in Balochistan is palpable.

"Our children should grow up knowing that one day, they too can be leaders, regardless of their faith. It's a dream we've nurtured for so long."

The political landscape in Balochistan is constantly evolving, spurred by a renewed sense of awareness among minority communities. As citizens recognise the importance of their vote and the power it holds in reshaping the country's political landscape and, in some cases, their fortunes, this awakening has fostered the belief that the voices of the minorities can no longer be marginalised, their concerns ignored, and their aspirations left unmet.

The desire for change reverberates not only among minority communities but also within the broader Baloch society. 

Hasan, a Baloch student from Quetta, acknowledges the importance of diversity and political representation.

"Balochistan is a mosaic of cultures and beliefs. It's time we reflect this diversity in our political institutions."

While data shows that minorities constitute only a small percentage of the population, their political influence can be substantial, especially in closely contested elections.

As the another set of elections near, there has been a surge in voter registration among Balochistan's minorities, a testament to their determination to participate actively in the democratic process.

Sociopolitical analyst Dr Nadia Khan believes Balochistan's political arena is undergoing a transformation. 

"If minority communities become active political stakeholders, it will not only diversify the political landscape but also foster greater inclusivity and representation."

However, challenges remain. The existing political power structures are deeply entrenched, and change seldom comes without resistance. The struggle for a more inclusive political system that respects minority voices will require perseverance and collaboration.

Kumar envisions a Balochistan where every citizen, regardless of background, can participate in the political process without prejudice or discrimination. His determination is emblematic of the changing tide in Balochistan, as minorities and their allies seek a more equitable, diverse, and representative political landscape.

In a province marked by its diversity, this movement aims to weave together the threads of different communities, bringing them into the vibrant tapestry of Balochistan's political life. Balochistan's unheard voices are speaking up, and their message is clear: it's time for a more inclusive and representative future. Balochistan is at a crossroads, and the winds of change are whispering that a more inclusive political landscape is within reach.