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The myth of equal rights: religious minorities in Pakistan

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Kaleem Dean

The government recently approved a five percent job quota for minorities in all official departments. This development largely owes to the selfless efforts partaken by late Clement Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian Minister of the PPP cabinet, assassinated in 2011.The 1998 census showed as much as 20 percent of the country’s over 163 million population employed in the government sector. While no further census was conducted in the last 18 years, other surveys observed that the Pakistani population has crossed 200 million. As the 2017 census is still underway, its results, when tabulated, might even reflect a higher number.It can, thus, be expected that the demographical changes would finally help establish an accurate population percentage of minority groups. Although birth and death rates are bound to impact all Pakistanis, official statistics are determined to put down their share at a mere three percent. If the country’s estimated population was assumed to be 180 million in 2009, then its minorities would also have increased proportionately. Further, if the increase in governmental employment quota had been actually implemented, these reforms would have markedly helped in reducing poverty from ethnic minorities. Nevertheless, these groups are still fighting for the realisation of this approved legislation. It is quite disheartening that even the available job opportunities are mainly used to recruit religious minorities for menial jobs, particularly sanitation-related. In lieu of considering non-Muslims for all jobs, their special quota is usually filled by recruitment in municipal corporations. The few exceptions to this rule are the unusually talented individuals from minority communities, who are employed in various governmental departments solely because of their personal achievements, not any state reforms. Minorities, in general, have to struggle in life for the acquisition of smallest of governmental jobs. However, their absolute poverty and a dismal lack of development opportunities continue to incessantly posit them at the bottom of the ladder. Recruitment advertisements, mostly sponsored by governmental institutions, have repeatedly reserved sanitation posts for minorities during the last several decades. The caste system prevailing in pre-partition India was heavily criticised by Muslim scholars, who condemned this discrimination as Hindu bigotry. However, the same discrimination based on the descent is also seen at play in Pakistan, where the pure and impure dichotomy continues to dictate the social structure. Being an Islamic country, Pakistan should act upon principles of equality, brotherhood, justice and tolerance. However, such ideals have not yet been included in the social order, at least for the country’s minorities. Whenever brought to light, discriminatory advertisements always spark heavy criticism from all corners. A similar advert published for vacant jobs in Sheikhupura was recently condemned for its blatant discrimination in the British parliament. With great dismay, Member of the Parliament Jim Shannon even wrote a letter to the Punjab chief minister. He raised serious reservations against the violation of minorities rights and said, “According to the constitution of Pakistan, all citizens are equal regardless of race, religion or any other differences, however, I have (recently) noticed a job advertisement… (which) skirted the government’s allocation of 5% quota in employment sector to be reserved for the religious minorities; by reserving all the sweepers’ jobs for the non-Muslims. The advertisement is blatantly discriminatory against the religious minorities because whereas the females and the disabled people’s quota is widely spread among all the vacancies: The religious minorities’ quota, on the other hand, has been limited to sweepers only.”

This was not the first time that the government reserved specific posts for non-Muslims. Only this month, The JUI-F elected Tehsil Nazim in Bannu also publicised a similar advertisement, which reserved sweeper vacancies for “Shias, Hindus, Balmeeks and Christians”. The resulting uproar, especially on social media, influenced the PTI chief, Imran Khan to instruct the provincial chief minister to take strict action against the spread of bigotry and discrimination.

Time and again, the political elite in Pakistan are asked to work towards the provision of equal rights, as guaranteed by the constitution. However, the imperial law of “might is right” continues to orchestrate a societal chaos by infringing upon the rights of the religious minorities. This marginalisation can be well reflected by a decrease in their population share from 23 to a mere three percent in the last seven decades. It is largely because of their fragile situation that minorities continue to flee the country. Given the present state of affairs, they might soon be reduced to negligible numbers if not disappeared altogether.

Thus, Pakistan should at least try to provide them what is offered by its constitution, in true letter and spirit. Article 27 of the constitution, which safeguards them against discrimination based on work, states, “No citizen otherwise qualified for appointment in the service of Pakistan shall be discriminated against in respect of any such appointment on the ground only of race, religion, caste, sex, residence or place of birth.”

As for job advertisements in Punjab, The UK All Party Parliamentary Group on Pakistan minorities Secretary General, Morris Johns, precisely summarized his concerns in these words, “To avoid allocating the required 5% jobs quota to the minorities, the advertisers often add all the vacancies together, e.g., in this case, the minorities’ share of 14 vacancies out of total 271 have all been put in the sweepers’ column. However, the female, disabled and the employees’ children quotas have all been divided among various categories. These jobs are not skilled or well-paid jobs. They are gardeners, drivers, and lab attendants, but the hatred against the minorities is such that they are not given an opportunity to apply even for these lowly paid jobs. They want to confine the minorities to just one occupation.”

Minorities in Pakistan greatly appreciate Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s recent speeches that talked about the importance of solidarity, assuring them of their rights and development. Nonetheless, the complacency previously shown by the government in this regard paints every promise with hues of dubiety and uncertainty. Only time will tell how long the state would take to resolve the problems of the people it has always treated as the children of a lesser God.

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