By Saba Imtiaz
The elections in Pakistan—a landmark in Pakistan’s history, representing the first transfer of power from one democratically elected government to the next—are over. For many voters, this was the first time they daubed their fingers in election ink, queued up outside polling stations in the heat, and witnessed election rigging. But as Pakistanis voted, and then stayed glued to their TVs to watch the results, approximately 200,000 Ahmadi Muslim voters were left out of the fray.
In a country where every vote counts, candidates for 272 parliamentary seats knocked on doors, and courted shopkeepers and businessmen to gain their support. But in this election—and in many preceding it—they did not ask Ahmadis to vote.
Given that hundreds of votes can change an election result this seems surprising. But political parties don’t need to make the effort, since Pakistan’s Ahmadis did not plan to vote in the May 11 polls, or in any foreseeable election for that matter. And it looks like this isn’t going to change, even though in Sindh alone the number of Ahmadi voters seems to have shot up to over six thousand.
To vote or not isn’t the question
The Ahmadiyya Jamaat, which represents the Ahmadiyya sect of Islam, does not vote in parliamentary elections; a matter of policy since 1974, when the Pakistani constitution officially excommunicated Ahmadis from Islam. The issue of a separate electorate further complicates that: a short order issued in former president Pervez Musharraf’s regime effectively made a separate electorate for Ahmadis, which the community says is discriminatory given that there is a joint electorate in force in the rest of Pakistan. In essence, Ahmadi voters are on a separate list, and have to register themselves as such—thus signing the declaration that they are non-Muslims, and which they dispute—even though Hindus and Christians are part of the same voters’ list as Muslims.
In a policy statement issued this year, the Ahmadi community called on the government to take steps to “effectively restore the right of vote to Ahmadis.”
But with a vocal right-wing that has long opposed the Ahmadis, it appears unlikely that any government will do so.
Saleemuddin, the spokesperson for the Ahmadiyya community in Pakistan, says that a delegation of the community met with the Election Commission of Pakistan last September to discuss the issue. “The chief election commissioner, the secretary and the director-general were there, and they were all very surprised at how this [the separate electorate] was done,” he said.
But nothing was done to resolve the issue, and Ahmadis remain on a separate list.
Earlier this year, a long-overdue petition by former bureaucrat who served as the chief secretary of Sindh province and was among the first batches of civil servants in Pakistan, Kunwar Idris was heard in the Supreme Court on the separate electorate. Idris, who filed the petition in 2007 in an individual capacity, says he went to over 20 hearings at the Supreme Court’s Karachi registry and then in Islamabad, but he withdrew his petition based on the attitude of the court. “It went on for years,” Idris said. “The bench was always changing, and the attorney-general did not seem serious about the case. The judges also seemed reluctant.”
The potential Ahmadi vote bank
Whether the increase in Ahmadi voters is accurate or not, it highlights an oft-ignored issue: that Ahmadis could potentially be a deciding factor in the elections, especially if the community decided to vote en bloc. According to Saleemuddin’s own analysis, there are several constituencies where the Ahmadi vote could be a deciding factor. “We’re the ones who helped (Zulfikar Ali) Bhutto win in Punjab in 1970. Until there was a joint electorate and we were not being persecuted, we participated whole heartedly in the elections; our members were in the provincial assembly.”
But despite the decision by the Ahmadi community to withhold their vote, their faith nonetheless became a campaign issue. A video that showed a girl questioning the London-based leader of the Ahmadiyya community, Khalifa Mirza Masroor Ahmad, about the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), went viral. The Khalifa said that Ahmadis did not vote because they were on a separate list and that when Imran Khan had first formed the PTI he sent an emissary to the community for their support.
Right-wing religious parties jumped on it, bashing Khan for asking for Ahmadis’ support. In response, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf leader Imran Khan said that he or his party had “never asked anybody to especially ask for Qadiani (a term often used to refer to Ahmadis since the movement was born in the town of Qadian, India, and is considered derogatory) votes for Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. This would be against the Representation of the Peoples Act, 1976 and instructions of the Election Commission of Pakistan.” Khan’s party said that it did not plan to seek an amendment of the laws excommunicating Ahmadis from Islam.
The PTI swept the polls in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where parties had used the alleged video as part of their campaign against Khan. But the strong statements from the PTI also kill any hope that Khan would support progressive legislation to reverse the excommunication of Ahmadis from Islam in Pakistan.
In 1974, as protests demanding the excommunication of Ahmadis from Islam swept Punjab, the US Embassy wrote in a missive released by WikiLeaks that “while regime almost certainly would prefer not to do so; Embassy now feels that (the Zulfikar Ali) Bhutto government probably will have to acquiesce in legislative action declaring Ahmadiyyas a non-Muslim minority.”
At the time, Ahmadis had a prominent presence in the military and government. Today, the community is a target for violence by extremist groups, with attacks on their places of worship and graves and targeted killings of Ahmadis in Sindh and Punjab.
The excommunication of Ahmadis – further strengthened by an ordinance passed by military leader General Zia-ul-Haq that criminalized Ahmadis identifying themselves as Muslims – has led to them being virtually excluded from public life. While the constitution guarantees the right to vote and select one’s representatives, for Ahmadis, this remains out of the question.
Saba Imtiaz is a freelance journalist in Karachi, Pakistan. She reports on politics, culture, human rights and religion for local and foreign publications and is currently working on a book about the conflict in Karachi. Her work is available on her website, http://sabaimtiaz.com and she can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
With support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs.
Featured image via nation.com.pk.