While Pakistan’s political parties struggle to continue their campaigns amid the current volatile, militant atmosphere, the difficulties are doubled for members of religious minorities.
The woman who chairs the Christian Progressive Movement pointed this out in stark terms at a press conference at Lahore Press Club yesterday. After presenting the party manifesto for next month’s general election, Naila J Dayal said her candidates are under extra pressure simply because they do not belong to the religion of the majority.
“Our 15 representatives in 17 constituencies around the country are under threat,” she said. “One Muslim competitor called me and said he could purchase his opponent for a few sacks of flour.”
Her Islamabad-based party is one of only three Christian affiliates listed with the Election Commission. Along with the country’s secular, liberal factions, they are pleading for protection while the Pakistani Taliban wage little less than all-out war on any party with a non-Islamist agenda.
People have been warned against attending rallies organized by these secular parties and, in general, they are heeding that advice. Media reports count 13 incidents of electoral violence since campaigning began, in which at least 23 lost their lives and 54 were injured.
Just hours after yesterday’s press call in Lahore, five people died and 30 were injured in a bomb attack on the headquarters of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, an anti-Taliban party in Karachi.
Some Christian politicians are withdrawing from the race, complaining that the interim government has failed to ensure a peaceful election. One of them is Saleem Khurshid Khokhar, a former member of the Sindh assembly who had to go into hiding after surviving an assassination attempt this month.
“It was late at night and I was driving with a friend when we saw two armed men on the road. I increased speed and we ducked as they fired. The windscreen shattered, injuring my right arm,” a visibly shaken Khokhar told ucanews.com.
“We are more at risk than secular candidates simply because of our faith and because we stand against the forced conversion of minority girls to Islam, the blasphemy laws and other discriminatory practices.”
Samson Salamat is the director of CHRE, the Centre for Human Rights Education, an NGO that offers courses on democracy and human rights awareness.
“A level playing field should be provided for all political parties in the election campaign and the security of candidates should be ensured. A peaceful and transparent election is the only way to democracy in the country,” he said.
“The time has come to openly denounce the undemocratic forces which have plunged the county into darkness.”
He went on to call the ongoing victimization “an attempt to sideline the representation of minorities and sabotage progressive thought.” Sadly, at the moment, it is an attempt that appears to be working.