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Society at fault

While rushing bills through parliament last week, the government neglected to take up the 23rd Amendment bill, which seeks an increase in the number of seats for minorities. Staging walkouts, several minority representatives rightly complained that the bill was not taken seriously.

The failure to muster the two-thirds strength needed to pass the minority affairs bill highlights the callousness of our lawmakers at a time of soaring intolerance and persecution of religious minorities, the latest incarnation of which involved a mob attacking a Christian community in Lahore this weekend. But it is an even greater indictment of the Pakistani electorate.

The deferral of the bill is disappointing because increased representation for minorities is the necessary first step of a holistic plan to stem discrimination. More representation means greater access to government funds for community development as well as a louder voice in parliament.

And with that voice, minority representatives could ask for drastic measures — better law-enforcement, curriculum reform, tough hate speech laws, repeal of discriminatory legislation — needed to make Pakistan honour its founding commitment to religious minorities and return that white strip in the flag to its pristine state.

But in the last days of this government’s tenure, this important bill took a backseat because minorities do not comprise an important constituency. The bill that did pass — the National Counter Terrorism Authority Bill, which establishes an authority to coordinate the national response to extremism and terrorism — is the type to appeal to most voters. This is simple politics: in the weeks before an election, politicians will do anything to appease potential voters.

But what does the deferment of the minorities’ representation bill say about the electorate? While minorities themselves do not constitute a major voting bloc, the number of people who endorse adequate political representation, security and human rights guarantees for religious minorities should be overwhelming. That it isn’t says more about Pakistani society than parliament. Rushing into an election, it is easy to blame politicians for their many wrongs. But as Pakistan matures as a democracy, the electorate too must take responsibility for the actions of its representatives. Clearly, the public does not see minority rights or freedom of religion as important enough issues to sway politics.

This explains the soaring popularity of the PML-N in recent opinion polls, despite the party’s affiliation with extremist groups that target Shias and religious minorities. The PML-N has been held responsible by its political rivals for recent sectarian violence in Quetta and Karachi because it has allowed the consolidation of groups like the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LJ) on its turf.

Apparently, the PML-N retains its tacit support of the LJ and other extremist groups because it feels it has much to gain in the form of political backing in southern Punjab, where these groups influence or intimidate voters. But what if this backing came at the expense of the majority of other voters in central and northern Punjab and other parts of the country? If those voters chose to punish the PML-N at the polling booth on the basis that it enables violent extremists, the political response would suddenly shift.

Sadly, such a scenario remains highly unlikely. We have a long way to go before voters prioritise minority rights over basic service delivery. At present, the PML-N’s popularity is predicated on anti-incumbency and the perception that Punjab has experienced better governance (albeit more corruption) than other provinces.

The parallel with Bharatiya Janata Party leader Narendra Modi across the border is stark: Modi has to a large extent left behind his entanglement with communal violence in 2002 by selling Gujarat’s promise of development to the rest of the country — even Muslims and other lower castes who are yet to benefit from the state’s economic growth have supported Modi in the hopes of better times to come.

The real question, then, is what will make ordinary Pakistani voters (still hankering for good governance) think twice before supporting candidates who do not appear to champion minority rights? In a country as fragile and ideologically driven as ours, the rhetoric of human rights has little power — how can it work in the face of religious extremist rhetoric that simply dehumanises communities through labels such as “infidel”, “heretic” and “blasphemer”? In the absence of universal principles, how to temper the tyranny of the majority?

Around the world, discrimination and violence against religious and ethnic minorities and other disenfranchised groups has usually ended when the majority — the backbone of the electorate that can spur political action with the force of its opinion — feels that it is in its interest (specifically its economic interest) to do so.

In a globalised economy, Pakistan is suffering from poor market access, strict visa regimes, and the lack of foreign investment owing to its dismal security situation and the international perception that the only thing the country can export is terrorism. High levels of violence — much of which is directed against Shias and religious minorities — has led the country to miss out on business, education and cultural exchange opportunities that other countries in the region are exploiting. This is the message that Pakistanis need to hear in order for them to start rejecting extremist viewpoints and privileging security for all.

Politicians and civil society organisations must summon the courage and vision to make this “everyone benefits” argument to the public. Without it, there is little hope for the country’s religious minorities, and by extension, the rest of the population as well.

The writer is a freelance journalist. huma.yusuf@gmail.com

Huma Yusuf, "Society at fault," Dawn. 2013-03-11.