As Pakistan heads towards general elections, civil society, lawmakers and journalists have stressed the need for material efforts at the national level to induct the country’s vulnerable religious minorities into the national mainstream, promote religious freedom and encourage dialogue.
Addressing a seminar for assessment of delivery on political parties’ manifestos to protect minorities’ rights, organised by Lahore-based Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), participants said it was unfortunate that promises were made to the masses ahead of elections, but little was done to keep them after coming into power.
“It is unfortunate that mainstream political parties formulate manifestos only to grab the attention of voters and forget all about their pledges after assuming power,” said CSJ Executive Director Peter Jacob in his keynote address.
He went on to say that it was the responsibility of civil society and the masses, in general, to remind the political leadership of its promises and demand the provision of their rights as enshrined in the Constitution.
“If you look at the track record of parties that have ruled the country over the past couple of years, it seems that their manifestos have been nothing more than an eyewash. Committees are formed to present a manifesto that the party leadership itself is found to be unaware of, let alone it works towards fulfilling the promises.”
Jacob said that governments come and go but elections make no difference in the lives of the voters, especially those belonging to the country’s minority communities.
“No roadmap is presented for the betterment of the people. Human rights in general, and those of minorities in particular, should not even be up for debate. Rights are not a subject that needs attention, but in fact, lie at the centre of the state’s responsibility towards its people,” he added.
‘PROMISES TO KEEP’
Referring to CSJ’s publication titled “Promises to Keep & Miles to Go”, which was also launched at the event, Jacob said that research revealed that most major parties put forth similar promises in their manifestos.
“If they can make similar pledges, how hard is it to legislate on these matters once elected to the parliament?” he questioned, reiterating that it seemed the mainstream political leadership didn’t make these promises with sincerity in the first place or repeatedly capitulated to extremist groups.
The CSJ has carried out an analysis of political party manifestos, promises made and has examined party performances. The study has been based on empirical evidence from the elections held in 2008, 2013, and 2018.
The assessment comprises three parts, including pledges, actions, and performance of the parties. Manifestos from all three years for all seven parties (Pakistan People’s Party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, PML-Quaid, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, Awami National Party and Muttahida Qaumi Movement) have been taken into consideration. It noted that PML-Q used its manifesto from 2013 in the 2018 election.
The analysis tracks the progress on the implementation of pre-election pledges, with the data collected by legislative watchdogs and from the data of the federal and provincial governments and departments. The study in specific reviewed the mainstream political parties’ commitments with regard to the protection of minorities and their empowerment.
It concludes the pledges of the political parties did not match the urgency and gravity of issues being faced by religious minorities, some of the pledges were considered inappropriate and potentially counterproductive and hence categorised as unreasonable in this analysis, such as the proposition of the replacement of the term “minority” with “non-Muslim”, and seemed to incorporate non-issues. This may be because the parties may have found it challenging to address core issues of religious freedom and equality among citizens in the context of rising religious intolerance.
“Some promises such as laws to prevent forced conversion of underage minority girls are harder to keep in the face of extremist elements, but it pains us as equal citizens of Pakistan to see that most of these never even make it to the floor of the House for discussion,” Jacob said.
‘PARALYSED POLITICAL PARTIES’
Addressing the gathering, rights activist Irfan Mufti said that a narrative had been adopted 75 years ago, which had paralysed the political parties, rendering them unable to practice election politics with independent thinking.
“In my experience, the political leadership is hardly ever familiar with the promises their party made to the masses in its manifesto, which results in no ownership or commitment,” he said and added that the populist narrative these leaders promote in public gatherings goes on to contradict their pledges.
Mufti said that ideological groups also existed outside the political sphere and there populist narratives aimed at inciting religious sentiments of the masses often led to pressure that left political groups powerless.
Lawyer Saroop Ijaz said that rights and religious freedom had been compartmentalised and equality was something that could be discussed but it would make no difference until religious freedom was made part of the political agenda.
According to activist Tanveer Jahan, no religious state could ever guarantee religious freedom.
“Our current policy is politics of appeasement to appease religious powers regardless of what the Constitution says. Regardless of what promises are made, there no longer exists a political spectrum in Pakistan and all parties are inclined towards the right-wing alone,” she said.
Journalist Ajmal Jami pointed out the irrelevance of the minority communities in the national mainstream and called for a more inclusive approach towards highlighting and resolving issues facing vulnerable groups.
“It is unfortunate how minority leadership only gets any airtime when an untoward incident targetting their communities has taken place,” he said, adding that this irrelevance also led to the absence of a way forward within or without the political landscape or through deceptive party manifestos.