development: On the margins

 —Syed Mohammad Ali

Limiting public participation of religious minorities, or other marginalised groups like peasants or women, in effect reduces their socio-economic status to that of underprivileged citizens. Subsequently, being a member of a minority or marginal group automatically reinforces a sense of disempowerment and deprivationDevolution and fiscal decentralisation have aimed to address multiple problems common to many developing countries, ranging from improved revenue mobilisation, more effective economic decision-making, better accountability of elected officials, and enhanced grassroots participation in governance.

Given that efforts to strengthen sub-national governance are still ongoing in many countries, it is necessary to pay closer attention to their on-ground effects, to see if they are really capable of moving government ‘closer to the people’, particularly those who had been previously marginalised by their state systems.

Several governments in ethnically and religiously diverse countries have in fact experimented with devolutionary frameworks to overtly ensure greater minority protection. Focusing on the impact of devolution on minority communities, therefore, provides a good litmus test concerning its intended responsiveness, which this article will try to examine with reference to the case of Pakistan.

It is evident from the political history of Pakistan that gender and class barriers have become quite regimented, enabling local elites to concentrate all power and resources in their own hands.

To supposedly provide democracy a chance to permeate to the grassroots level, the Local Government Ordinance promulgated by the recent government in 2001 designated reserved seats for women, and other marginalised groups like workers, peasants, and religious minorities, at the union council level. These reserved seats were supposed to provide an opportunity to marginalised segments to take part in the previously inaccessible institutions of policy and governance.

However these measures have not been successful in terms of achieving their stated goals. For example, while have been provided women a chance to contest elections, this opportunity has brought forth very few women capable of actively engaging in political processes to help improve the status of women at large.

Conversely, numerous workers seats have been captured by factory owners to become politicians, and many landlords have become councillors using seats reserved for peasants. Although there was certainly room for devolution to have put in place more stringent measures to ensure that more genuine candidates had been elected, to in turn promote the concerns of their constituencies more effectively, such measures in themselves would not have sufficed either.

There is need for putting in place more broad reforms to reinforce initiatives like provision of reserved local government seats, instead of negating them. These vitally needed broader reforms include addressing varied hurdles that are preventing various minority communities from equal participation in public life, despite being Pakistani citizens. Besides women and poor people in general, Pakistan’s religious based minorities — Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Parsi and Ahmadi — are also evidently victimised by a discriminatory socio-political and legal regime.

The minorities in our country had never sought separate electorates, yet General Ziaul Haq introduced separate electorates in 1985 to replace the existing system of reserved seats. Putting in place separate representation of minorities on an ad hoc basis in effect made them of no interest to the mainstream political parties, which compounded their marginalisation.

The democratically elected governments of the 1990s neglected annulling the separate electorate law, even though it was seen to have incited religious prejudices; and to have caused a further splintering amongst minorities.

Eventually, the October 2002 elections were held once gain under the joint electorate system. Nonetheless, the recent National Assembly still had only three Hindu members, and with the exception of Justice Bhagwandas, there are hardly any prominent minorities amongst the senior ranks of the civil service, the judiciary, political parties, and the armed forces.

In addition to reassessing overarching political processes, it is essential to see how discrimination takes place in everyday life. According to reports by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, feudal lords keep thousands of Hindus as captive labour. Bonded labour is also evident amongst Christians engaged in farm labour and also in the carpet industry.

Minorities remain vulnerable to attacks on their places of worship. In 2006, the Supreme Court showed some activism to discourage the trend of forcible conversions. However, more generally religious minorities have not been adequately protected by the state against such infringement by private persons. While the Constitution provides for equal protection of law to all citizens of Pakistan, the police and sections of the judiciary usually demonstrate an apparent indifference to their obligations to adequately protect and prevent abuse against minorities, or to sufficiently support them in obtaining legal redress.

Like religious minorities, women are also subject to a range of biases that are in turn compounded by discrimination at the institutional level. While some measures have recently been introduced to address discriminatory legislation such as amendment of the laws of witness, the introduced bill was too dilute to enable effective protection of women from sexual violence.

Simultaneously, attempts to introduce newer myopic policies such as the NWFP provincial assembly’s effort to ban photography of women became apparent, which indicated that Pakistan has yet got a long way to go in enabling women a chance to become equal citizens.

Limiting public participation of religious minorities, or other marginalised groups like peasants or women, in effect reduces their socio-economic status to that of underprivileged citizens. Subsequently, being a member of a minority or marginal group automatically reinforces a sense of disempowerment and deprivation.

While devolution may have provided reserved seats for dis-empowered groups in Pakistan, both these elections (2001 and 2005) evidently left the major political parties weak and divided, thereby reducing overall political participation and limiting the political space for secular parties. Instead the position of religious parties was boosted for the purposes of legitimising the ruling government, but these religious parties were hardly keen to provide greater equity for marginal groups, particularly to women or religious minorities.

The tokenism of representation in local government structures alone has proven insufficient with regards to enabling previously neglected segments of Pakistani society secure greater representation to date. Any such future opportunity must be accompanied by a range of measures to help overcome marginalisation in a more comprehensive manner.

The writer is a researcher. He can be contacted at

This article was first published in the Daily Times

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Filed under Development, Pakistan, Poverty

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