"There is a danger that minorities won't have any of their representatives in parliament for a period of four years, i.e., the tenure of the assembly," warned M Prakash, an advocate who lives and works in Hyderabad. "In that case we might become fourth-rate citizens, from our current status as second-class citizens."
Mr. Prakash called upon all minority organizations to lobby hard for the allotment of party tickets to Christian or Hindu representatives. "We want true representation, not symbolic representation," he said.
Michael Javed, a four- time winner of a provincial assembly seat, said the minorities shouldn't be content with the mere granting of their joint electorate demand, but maintain the momentum of their campaign for equality and social justice. "We must remember that the man who granted us that right, Pervez Musharraf, isn't going to be there forever," said Mr. Javed at a conference organized by Idara-e-Amn-o-Insaf (Committee for Justice and Peace) on the issue of reserved seats for religious minorities in parliament. He claimed that international pressure had earned the religious minorities the right to contest polls on the basis of a joint electorate, though a majority of leaders said it was achieved through intense local lobbying. "Yet we must not forget those who suffer daily because of discriminatory laws," Mr. Javed said, adding that it would probably take years to dismantle the legal instruments of torture against minorities.
"Which political party is ready to grant us tickets? And how many Muslims will vote for our candidates?" Mr. Javed asked delegates at the conference. "We must campaign for the right of a dual vote, along with the passing of an ordinance, forcing political parties to keep seats for us." He also expressed support for the latest minorities demand of reserved seats.
The former provincial deputy claimed to have obtained a copy of a classified document in which census officials were allegedly ordered not to declare the population of the minorities. "This was done presumably to keep minorities from asking for additional seats in parliament, based on their increasing population," Mr. Javed remarked.
Saleem Khurshid Khokhar, a former deputy of the Sindh Assembly, voiced strong support for special minority seats in his conference address." Our churches, mandirs and institutions are under constant attack. There is religious bias that divides people. Under these conditions we need reserved seats."
But Khokhar, who together with other minority representatives formed the All-Pakistan Minority Alliance in Islamabad last week, said minority groups must align themselves with political parties for the purpose. The other speakers--Idara director Zafar Iqbal and minority leaders S.L Ahuja and Cecil Chaudhry--endorsed the demand for reserved seats.
However, two voices of dissent were heard at the Hyderabad conference. Peter Jacob, executive secretary of the National Commission for Justice and Peace, gave the proposal for special seats thumbs down. "If minority members are elected on reserved seats, they will again be cut off from the people in their constituencies," Mr. Jacob argued. "They won't be able to adequately challenge any anti-minority legislation in parliament, because their loyalties would lie primarily with the government," he explained. Instead, he said, minority representatives should seek party tickets from major political groupings. "Mere seats can't resolve problems. We have not as yet reached the end of the road to discrimination."
Human rights advocate Rochi Ram also questioned the wisdom behind the move to demand special seats. "Such talk will identify us with Muslim religious parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami who want to limit the role of minorities in the country," Mr. Ram said. "Now is the time to identify us as equal Pakistanis, not as Muslim, Christian, Hindu or Parsi," he added.