Elections 2024: The Minority Vote In Sindh

Sindh's large minority population, particularly the Hindu community can greatly influence elections, yet they claim they are underrepresented both at the provincial and national level with their issues unaddressed

Elections 2024: The Minority Vote In Sindh

As political activity picks up across the country ahead of next year's general elections, one segment of the population feels they have been completely left out: the religious minorities. This feeling is particularly pronounced in the southern province of Sindh, which hosts a substantial concentration of minority population, particularly Hindus, whereby support from these communities in certain cases can mean the difference between a comfortable victory or a crushing defeat. 

This article will explore the different hues of the minority vote in Sindh, its influence, challenges, and reservations.

However, members of minority communities living in Sindh have complained that they have not been fully included in the electoral process. They claim that the process of exclusion began long before the dates for elections were finalised when the census took place. They were not counted fully, reflecting a population tally which the community does not agree with. The injustice, they say, continues when registering with the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) and with the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) when registering as a voter.

According to the law, a citizen must be registered with the state and then must register with the apex electoral regulator as a voter before they can exercise their right to franchise. However, members of the lower caste Hindus, the largest minority community living in Sindh, claim that compared to their population, few people are registered as voters due to issues in their identification documents.

The census showed that Hindus account for just 2.14% of the total population; in Sindh, their concentration means they account for nearly nine percent. But if they are under-counted, and their identification documents carry discrepancies, even the right of franchise is jeopardised, let alone seek to contest on general seats.

"We are not counted properly," claimed minority social leader Mukesh Meghwar.

Class difference 

A prominent feature of the Hindu community in Pakistan, particularly in Sindh, is the class and caste difference. Members of the minority community who belong to the business community, the landlords, the elite, all of whom are economically affluent and do not face the same problems as the less fortunate members of the Hindu community, such as labourers and farmers. While you may think this is an issue faced by members of the majority as well, but for members of the Hindu community, it could even mean being viewed differently in legal terms.

"If you visit different districts of Sindh, you will realise that the word Hindu and Dalit are used in the box of religion," Meghwar said, suggesting that this practice serves to segregate Dalits - a social class - from the Hindu community - a religious minority to which they ascribe. 

"When you are not given a proper status even as a Hindu, then you will be considered inferior; then what rights will the process of voting give?" he asked.

Pakistan Mandir Management Community Chairman Krishan Sharma says that to understand elections in Sindh, one must first understand the electoral mood in which Sindh conducts its politics and votes.

He said that the most obvious and important factor is the social class, community, or tribe you belong to.

Suppose you are a good businessman with money. In that case, you are easily selected by the political party for an electoral ticket. You may even be assigned a position as an office bearer in the party or a ministry.

Another prominent aspect is the variation of languages the Hindu community speaks in Sindh. They speak Sindhi, Saraiki, Dhatki, Gera, Gwariya, Gargula, Jandwara, Kobutra, Koli, Luwarki, Marwari, Sansi, Wagharia and Gujarati.

In practical terms, such people elected with support from a political party and by mobilising their community do not truly represent public voices since they have not risen from the grassroots level. Hence, they have little to do with anyone or their challenges, be they issues of employment or education.

On the other hand, members of the minority community from lower social strata and castes face a myriad of issues in obtaining a fundamental document such as an identity card - a prerequisite for voting.

You are unlikely to hear that the family tree of a Hindu contains many errors, with family members either ascribed incorrect religion or other issues. For instance, one common complaint is that if a man from a minority community has managed to get their computerised national identity card (CNIC) made, then their wife is unlikely to have one and vice versa. Such issues will likely impact the children of such a duo in obtaining CNICs. They are thus left out of the electoral process because they do not possess a CNIC or CNIC with incorrect information.

A section of the Hindu community in Sindh faces challenges due to their nomadic lifestyle. This segment of the Hindu community migrates between Thar and Tharkparkar and other regions of Sindh based on the season. Sometimes, the migration takes place during the process of voter registration, while at other times, it happens during their migration, thus impacting their turnout in elections.

Counting the minority vote

Some 105.9 million voters had exercised their right to franchise during the 2018 elections. The electoral rolls carried the names of some 3.626 million voters from minority communities. 

Reflecting their numbers in the census, the Hindu community accounts for the most registered minority voters at 1.777 million. The Christian community was second with 1.639 million voters. Ahmadis numbered 165,369 votes, while the Sikhs had 8,833 voters. 

From 2.77 million in 2013. 3.626 million in 2018, minority voters in Pakistan have increased by more than a million to 4.43 million in 2023. Despite this increase, members of the Hindu community suspect they have been under-counted, impacting their potential representation in any upcoming election.

Power of minority votes

Across Sindh, members of minority communities cannot even hope to contest a general seat and win - except for in Tharparkar and Umerkot, where there is a large concentration of minority populations - because they have not been properly counted anywhere else.

During the 2018 general elections, Mahesh Kumar Malani from NA-222 Tharparkar-II won the election candidate by obtaining 109,056 votes. What was curious about his victory was that around 70% of the votes polled in his favour had been cast by Muslims.

Reserved seats and fair representation

Minorities, however, also make their way into legislative assemblies through reserved seats.

According to Article 51 of the Constitution, ten seats are reserved for members of minority communities in the National Assembly and 24 seats in the provinces under Article 106.

Journalist, writer and social leader Masoom Thiri says that constitutional amendments made in 2002 gave the right to elect minority representatives on reserved seats to the political parties based on proportional representation. Hence, parties often opt to appoint a member of the minority community from a certain business class or someone with a wealthy background. Such individuals are also given prominent and responsible positions, but they never pay any attention to the problems of the minorities because they do not feel they are answerable to the communities. 

Social activist Safina Gill says that the Hindu community is plagued by illiteracy, poverty, and a lack of awareness about their rights.

How can a person, who is worried about eating two square meals a day, think about other things, she asked.

Moreover, Gill noted that the distribution of the Hindu population in parts of Sindh makes access to registration facilities such as NADRA or the election commission's office difficult to access.

The constitutional inequality towards members of minority communities -- they cannot contest for the seat of prime minister or President --- also disincentivises their participation in elections. 

Dr Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, a prominent minority politician who has had multiple terms in the National Assembly, introduced the Minority Rights Amendment Bill in the National Assembly in 2013, seeking to increase the seats of minority members in the assembly and to hold direct elections for minority members on 'safe seats' rather than allow parties to pick a representative for minority communities. The bill has been presented five times since but has yet to pass.

Krishna Kumari Kohli of Tharparkar in Sindh became the first female senator from the Hindu community of Sindh in 2018.

She noted that if seats in all parliaments can increase based on population increase, then the seats reserved for minorities should also increase to reflect the increase in their respective population.

She said there are four seats for minorities in the Senate - one for each province. They should be increased to at least eight in accordance with population increase. If the provincial assembly in Sindh has nine reserved seats, then there is a dire need to increase them to at least 15.

"I think that all Pakistanis, whether they are a minority or a Muslim, in this sense, it should be made mandatory to have a minority seat in every district so that we can best represent ourselves," she said.

Minority women and politics

Kumari stressed the dire need to increase representation for women from minority communities.

She said that men are not as interested as women in the legislative process, adding that they introduced the Minority Protection Bill in the Senate, but it was rejected. 

Deepna Karan from Karachi said that women from minority communities in Sindh face grave challenges ranging from forced conversion, kidnapping for ransom, forced marriages, lack of educational opportunities, lack of employment facilities, health issues, under-representation in census and other securities concerns.

A Hindu girl representing her community in the assembly can properly highlight women's problems in her community, leading to a solution.

She added that unless your representative is a woman, your voice will not be heard.

However, she stressed that the prerequisite was for women from minority communities to actively participate in the elections, with women candidates contesting seats and women of the minority communities voting for their preferred candidates.

To address the literacy issue, she suggested building community schools with a specific curriculum that is run by the Hindu community. 

Lamenting that the community has not been counted accurately or the information is not available publicly, she noted that if the population of a city like Karachi cannot be counted properly in the census, how can minorities be counted?

Munwar Ali Ghangharu of the statistics department said they have yet to compile data on the minority community, specifically Hindus.

Prominent politicians from leading political parties either refused to speak on the subject or simply did not respond to queries.