Pakistan’s religious minorities—comprising around 4.43 million registered voters nationwide—remain underrepresented in Parliament, largely relegated to reserved seats that cobble them together under one umbrella. Currently, there are 10 reserved seats for minorities in the National Assembly; four in the Senate; and 24 in provincial assemblies—nine in Sindh; eight in Punjab; four in KP; and three in Balochistan. These comprise all minority religions, whether Hindu, Christian or otherwise. Additionally, the largely defunct local government system has also reserved 5 percent of seats for minorities. Over half the registered minorities are Christians, mostly concentrated in Punjab, where they face persecution from non-state actors, as well as the country’s repressive blasphemy laws.
The past decade has been particularly tough for Christians. In September 2013, two suicide-bombers killed 127 Christians, mostly women and children, during a church service in Peshawar, with the Jundallah militant group claiming responsibility. A few months later, Lahore witnessed the forcible demolition of the walls of Anarkali Church and St. Frances School by a plaza-building mafia linked to the clergy. The state, meanwhile, has been punishing minorities for “blasphemy” since the 1990s, with the misuse of the legislation apparent in the higher judiciary often throwing out all charges on appeal.
Pakistan did not secure a Constitution until 1956, with elections to the provincial assemblies between 1951 and 1956 held under the Government of India Act, 1935, which provided for separate electorates. During the framing of the Constitution, there was a robust debate over the political integration of religious minorities, with Pakistan—unfortunately—learning no lessons from its origins as a land for India’s disenfranchised minorities, as religious parties pushed to adopt the conservative road of separate electorates instead of the more democratic joint electorates.
The Christian minority was subsequently kicked out of Pakistan’s democracy by Gen. Ziaul Haq, who amended the election laws during his military rule, creating separate electoral rolls for Muslim and non-Muslim voters. Ever since, Pakistanis Christians have demanded equality in democracy. By not accepting the right of Christians to be treated as “normal” Pakistanis, the country risks stoking extremism that sees their persecution as “revenge” against the West. We have already seen the disastrous effects of this play out in neighboring Afghanistan; Pakistan must do better.