Soon Pakistanis will go to the polls in a general election that will define the next period in the country’s history. Among the traditional campaign fodder of economic debate, international relations, and social and cultural issues, one topic has been conspicuously absent from the public discourse: the role of minorities in 21st century Pakistan and the issues they face.
Religious minorities in Pakistan often face a range of difficulties in accessing the same rights and opportunities as communities that are part of the Muslim majority. As religion and nationalism have become increasingly intertwined in the ongoing debates seeking to define the national narrative, minority voices have often struggled to be heard.
Advocates of minority rights in Pakistan often report a lack of political will in responding to these issues. This failure of governance can lead to situations of social exclusion, promoting division and mistrust between communities. One strong tool to counter the effects of this marginalization are job and education quotas that could create a path to guaranteeing at least some minimal representation for religious minority communities.
Such a quota system was established with regard to jobs in federal services in 2009. A blanket 5 percent target was announced for each province to observe and is now in place everywhere except in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) where it is 3 percent (up from an initial 1.5 percent). This is in contradiction of a 2014 Supreme Court ruling. While some consider this failure to adopt the mandated quota as a clear violation of the rule of law, others argue that 3 percent is a more realistic target, representing a desire to actually achieve the quota and not maintain it as merely aspirational.
But recent analysis from the peacebuilding organization International Alert highlights the fact that there is scant evidence of these quotas being met in any province and that the failure to enforce them properly is not only harming minority communities but potentially creating dividing issues that could cause or exacerbate conflict.
Further, there seems to be no real path to successful implementation, with few mechanisms established to turn the legislation into a reality and even fewer means of accountability or transparency. No provincial authority has established any means to assign ownership of the task of achieving the quotas, for example, and what reporting does take place against these targets is insufficient and rarely acted upon.
Similarly, quotas have long been proposed for access to higher education with the justification that this would not only help to combat the structural obstacles minorities face in accessing many institutions, but also the extra credit offered to admissions applications of students who memorize parts of the Quran. Attempts to create legislation that enshrines these quotas at a national level have been unsuccessful thus far, though provincial level efforts in Punjab are more advanced.
Of course, such quota systems would not solve all the problems of representation and inclusion even if they were successfully implemented. They do not, in any proposed state, distinguish between religious minorities, a fact which means the quotas are blind to the real and nuanced relationships between different minority communities and the different and unique social and economic problems that each community faces.
Additionally, there is the question of the types of jobs that are offered to minorities. Our analysis elicited examples of minorities finding it almost impossible to access any government jobs that weren’t considered low pay and low status, and of being passed over for promotion once in those jobs.
The media undoubtedly has a huge role to play in highlighting and shaping discourse around minority issues in Pakistan. International Alert works together with partners and networks in Pakistani media to promote discussion around minority issues, and increase tolerance, respect and mutual understanding between communities. Fairer representation of minority issues in the press could shift the spotlight of public opinion and create pressure to make these quotas more than the meaningless targets they are in danger of becoming.
As the political campaigns in Pakistan enter the final few days of what is sure to be an important and influential election, we may not hear much discussion at the national level around these issues. But the inclusion of religious minorities remains key to how the country will define itself going forward.
The affirmative action of a jobs and education quota system won’t offer any permanent solutions on its own. But if initiatives like this are accepted and rolled out successfully across all provinces, it will be a strong indication of the next government’s approach.
Ben Francis is a senior program design and assessment officer for South and Southeast Asia at International Alert.