May Issue 2013
In the Shadow of Religiosity
The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has bravely announced that soliciting votes in the name of religion, or threatening people with religious sanctions if the call to vote for or against somebody is ignored, is a penal offence and any one found guilty of it could land himself in jail for three years. However, indications are that like quite a few other ECP resolves, this decision too will remain largely unimplemented. This is because the 2013 election may turn out to be not only the bloodiest ever in this country’s history, but also the one in which the electorate could come under unprecedented pressure from the religious right.
Skepticism about the ECP’s ability to enforce its decision is based on experience. Since 1920, the Penal Code has barred any interference with anyone’s electoral right — perhaps this is the only statute in Pakistan that defines “electoral right” — in the name of religion. Sec 171-C of the PPC says: ‘(1) Whoever voluntarily interferes, or attempts to interfere, with the free exercise of any electoral right commits the offence of undue influence at an election. (2) Without prejudice to the generality of the provision of sub-section (1), Whoever…. (b) induces, or attempts to induce a candidate or voter to believe that he or any person in whom he is interested will become or will be rendered an object of Divine displeasure or of spiritual censure, shall be deemed to interfere with the free exercise of the electoral right of such candidate or voter…’ Punishment: imprisonment for upto one year or fine or both.
Under the Penal Code, “electoral right” means the right of a person to stand, or not to stand as, or to withdraw from being, a candidate or to vote or refrain from voting at an election.
It is easy to see that all those who have been preventing women from voting, as well as those who have invoked religion to interfere with the free will of a candidate or a voter, have been liable to action under this law.
While the British-made provision treats the offence of undue influence as bailable and nobody can be arrested without a warrant, the provision added by General Zia-ul-Haq in 1984 (before he decided to win a record number of votes in a so-called referendum) is much harsher. It says, in typical Zia-period idiom, that ‘whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representations, induces or, directly or indirectly, persuades or instigates, any person not to participate in, or to boycott, any election or referendum, or not to exercise his right to vote thereat, shall be punishable with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend upto three years, or with fine which may extend to five lakh rupees or with both.” An offence under this provision is non-bailable and offenders can be arrested without a warrant.
One does not know whether anyone has ever been prosecuted under the 1920 or 1984 provision, even in days when religious militants were not around to threaten the officials or the people. Today, everybody is afraid of defying the edicts of the various self-appointed religious vigilantes.
We are all aware of the fact that much before this year’s general election was announced, the militant hardliners had warned the people of their resolve to disrupt the electoral process. They had also declared the candidates and workers of three parties (PPP, ANP and MQM) as the targets of their murderous attacks. The fact that these parties were in the outgoing coalition government could not have been the reason for the militants’ hostility, because other coalition partners (the PML-Q, for instance) were not targeted. Acts of violence are being carried out day after day, especially in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Karachi, and all this in the name of religion.
Killing of candidates and workers apart, there is a serious danger that many candidates will not be able to contact their electorate and, more significantly, a large body of voters might not go to polling stations at all. Quite obviously those who get elected in this situation will not be representatives of the people as much as they will be the favourites of religious extremists.
Even where belief-related violence is not taking place the impact of religious extremism is visible in more forms than one. Slogans calling for voting by considerations of belief can be seen written on walls in Karachi and other cities. If a party/candidate displays pictures of holy monuments at an election rally, does it not amount to exploiting the people’s religious sentiments for electoral gain? One is surprised that nobody has questioned the propriety of allowing the inscription of the Kalima, in part or as a whole, on party flags. The fact is that both the authorities and the people are too afraid of the exploiters of religion to call them to account. The effect on the election process is not difficult to imagine.
Besides, the religio-political parties are finding the environment of fear that elections could be disrupted by militant extremists conducive to an upsurge in their ambitions. These parties are putting up more candidates than ever in the hope that a low turn-out and the fact that their candidates and cadres are safe from militants’ attacks will help them win more seats than they could get under normal, peaceful voting.
That explains Maulana Fazlur Rahman’s ability to make his customarily authoritative declarations even more authoritative. Buoyed by the discomfiture of the incumbents in KP and Balochistan, his party held a huge public meeting in Lahore, as a clear challenge to Mian Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N and Imran Khan’s PTI.
An even more ambitious course has been followed by Jamaat-i-Islami. It began by spurning an invitation to join a new edition of Muttahida Mahaz-i-Amal (MMA), a wholly quasi-religious outfit, and went back to the strategy of riding to power on the back of non-denominational parties that it had tried many years ago. It offered its patronage not only to PML-N and PTI but also to whoever was angry with the outgoing coalition in Sindh or Balochistan. These overtures did not bear fruit because, among other things, the Jamaat wanted to be allowed more seats than any prospective ally could concede. The calculations of both JUI-F and JI as well as other denominational groups are that appeal to belief, sectarian differences and even the desire to escape the militants’ violence will drive the mainstream parties to make concessions in the electoral discourse to theocratic elements — that is, they will decide to play on the professional clerics’ wicket. Other developments, such as General Kayani’s rhetoric about the place of religion in politics could help these parties.
All this could be part of a grand design to queer the pitch for transfer of power to a party or combination of parties that will be friendly to the Taliban and follow the call of jihad not only in Afghanistan and South Asia but across the oceans. That is what is meant by manipulating an election to suppress the will of the people, instead of allowing it to prevail.
Mr. I.A. Rehman is a writer and activist living in Pakistan. He is the secretary general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan Secretariat.