Last week, Pakistan’s government announced the formation of the National Commission on Minorities (NCM). The government has acclaimed the development of the commission as a major step toward a religiously inclusive Pakistan. The commission not only includes members of the Parsi and Hindu communities, but also appointed a member from the Hindu community as its chairman.
However, there are some major constitutional flaws in the commission that emphasize that the body is hardly set up to address the woes of minority communities in Pakistan.
In general, the development is a welcome move in a country where minorities’ constitutional rights do not ensure religious or political freedom. For instance, in Pakistan, a non-Muslim cannot hold the prime minister or president’s office. The creeping Islamization has been directly enshrined into the country’s constitution, which has increasingly made the Pakistani founding father’s commitment of giving equal rights to all citizens an unattainable goal.
One of the major flaws remains with the NCM’s constitutional interpretation. It’s important to note that the body has not been set up through an act of legislation or by the parliament. The setting up of the NCM was carried out by a federal cabinet and is not likely to have any significance when it comes to the commission enjoying constitutional powers backed by the state’s enforcement rules. Moreover, after the passing of the constitution’s 18th amendment in 2010, the issue of minorities became a provincial matter. Thus, the decision of the federal cabinet to appoint a commission doesn’t hold any sway beyond the capital territory. Simply put, the commission doesn’t have the legal power to enforce its resolutions across the country.
The members of the commission should recognize the limits of their weak jurisdiction. The fact that the commission still comes under the Ministry of Religious Affairs, which is headed by a Muslim, takes away much of the working space. Furthermore, the inclusion of Muslim members into the commission underscores that issues which generally get refused by right-wing extremists will not find a platform for discussion here.
Significantly, Prime Minister Imran Khan had to walk back his declaration to include members of the Ahmadi Muslim community in the commission. Last week, the minister of religious affairs refused to follow the cabinet’s decision that recommended making Ahmadis part of the commission. An onslaught of criticism was launched against the prime minister’s decision not only by right-wing Islamist groups, but also by the government’s ministers and allies.
After the cabinet’s first decision to include Ahmadis into the minorities commission, Ali Muhammad Khan, a lawmaker from the ruling party, tweeted that “Beheading is the only punishment for those who mock Prophet Muhammad.” The head of Pakistan Muslim League Quaid said that “The opening of Ahmadis’ Pandora box is beyond understanding. The Ahmadis neither accept themselves as non-Muslim minority nor do they accept the constitution of Pakistan. Under these circumstances, favoring Ahmadis is a joke with Pakistan that is unacceptable.” These sentiments should only make the non-Muslim members of the forum nervous as any slipup could make them a target of Islamists that sit inside and outside the government.
The prevailing attitude of fanaticism is not likely to allow any more political or social space for Ahmadis or minorities regardless of what the country’s founding father may have promised. It’s a fact that Pakistan’s first foreign minister, Zafarullah Khan, belonged to the Ahmadi community and was a close friend of the country’s founder. Additionally, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, in his address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on August 11, 1947, said that “We are starting in the days when there is no discrimination, no distinction between one community and another, no discrimination between one caste or creed and another. We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State.”
It should not come as a surprise that the mainstream Ulama didn’t support Jinnah’s idea of a separate homeland. “The main argument of the Jamaat-e-Islami against Pakistan was that the Muslim League leaders were too westernized and were not known for their religiosity and therefore, they were in all likelihood to turn Pakistan into a secular- democratic state,” notes Kalim Bahadur in his book Democracy in Pakistan: Crisis and Conflicts. Over the last seven decades, all mainstream Islamist parties that once rejected Jinnah’s journey for a separate homeland now own the state’s constitution.
The Pakistani state needs to establish the commission through an effective legislative way that can give the body real authority. The parliament should get involved in the process and expand the NCM’s jurisdiction to all provinces. Moreover, the current setup doesn’t send a message of inclusivity, particularly after the exclusion of Ahmadis. The decision also shows that the Pakistani state remains a weak actor when it comes to formulating policies that might offend the religious right’s sentiments.
Unless a serious effort is made to bring credibility to the commission, it will remain powerless with no effect beyond the paper trail.