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December '05: Equal citizens?

Equal citizens?
(December 2005)
This issue of individu-spotlight poses a fundamental question which is: are all citizens of Pakistan equal? In individualland's opinion, an eager YES is not true because Pakistanis who are not Muslims are discriminated against not only through social practices but also laws. It is not surprising that laws discriminate against the non Muslim Pakistanis because the mother of all laws, the Constitution also declares that only a Muslim can be a head of the state. Therefore denying non Muslim Pakistanis equal access to opportunities. During it's local elections monitoring, individualland also reported how non Muslim candidates were given socially degrading symbols of dogs, rats and snakes.Individualland in its December issue of the individu-spotlight attempts to bring this question to the forefront and tries to build the case for the need of a secular Pakistan.

A young Pakistani student belonging to the Christian faith has posed an interesting question through a petition in the Lahore High Court. The question is: Am I, a Pakistani Christian equal to a fellow citizen who is a Muslim ?For those of the readers who missed the news item reported by an English daily, this young student belongs to a low income group, is a practicing Christian and extremely bright. She has been competing to get into the King Edwards Medical College but was beaten on the list by 20 marks by a Muslim student who got the extra 20 marks for being Hafiz--e-Quran. So, now this young Christian girl has filed a plea in the Lahore Court declaring that she and the Muslim student had equal marks but the latter got the advantage of religion. The young Christian student claims that ``this is discrimination against religious minority students and a violation of fundamental rights granted by the Constitution of Pakistan." The petition admitted by the Lahore High Court demands that either the LHC should rule to abolish the policy or should declare that a parallel policy should be made to award twenty additional marks to religious minority students on the basis of their religious knowledge.

Fifty eight years after the creation of the country to ask such a question through the courts is both tragic and hopeful. Tragic because all over the world, each and every country clearly states in it's Constitution that all citizens are equal. The successive Constitutions of Pakistan have also stated that as has the Objective Resolution of 1949 which serves as the blue print for any Constitution of Pakistan. Not only have the framers of the Pakistani Constitution declared that all citizens are equal and therefore have equal rights but on paper it also states that special care would be taken to ensure that religious minorities living in Pakistan have their rights protected. Of course, one can say that if all citizens are equal then how could the framing fathers define them on the basis of religious majorities and minorities but that is another debate and one should not digress. This news of the young Pakistani Christian student, Ms. Qindeel posing this question is also tragic as it shows that even after fifty eight years of independence, Pakistani citizens do not have equal opportunities and that people belonging to a religious faith other than Islam are discriminated against. It is hopeful because at least the question is now being posed and taken up by the Court.

The premise of the petition filed in the Lahore High Court is based on two assumptions on the part of the young student. The first assumption is that Christians and other Pakistani citizens of different faiths are equal and therefore entitled to the same opportunities. The question to ask is that is that a correct assumption on the part of the young Christian student? In all these years of existence of Pakistan, have the Pakistani citizens who are not Muslims felt that they have equal opportunities? In a country whose Constitution states that the head of the state has to be a Muslim can the non- Muslim citizens actually feel that they have equal opportunities? Interestingly it is the same constitution that states that all citizens are equal. In a country where non- Muslim candidates for the local polls are allocated the election symbols of dog and rat , can the non- Muslim citizens say that they are treated with respect and equally? In a country, where the sword of the bhalsemphy law is used as a convenient tool to implicate non Muslims that one has a score to settle first, can the non- Muslim citizens honestly declare that they are not second class citizens?

The second assumption on which the petition is based upon is that all religious knowledge in Pakistan is respected. In other words, in this particular case that knowledge of Islam and Christianity should be treated at par and if learning the Quran by heart is awarded by 20 extra marks then the same courtesy should be extended to knowledge of Christianity. The young student declares that she has considerable knowledge of Christianity.

This second assumption is of course complicated and essentially underlines the need to rethink the question of awarding marks for religious knowledge. For instance if the Lahore Court decides that the girl student ,Ms. Qandeel should be awarded 20 marks if she has ``considerable knowledge of Christianity " then the question is : How will one define considerable knowledge for Christianity, for Hinduism and other faiths? Won't the Court be opening a Pandora's Box of problems and complications? And yet Ms. Qandeel has a genuine point of argument. Therefore, won't it be more prudent to abolish the awarding of twenty extra marks for Hifz?

Howsoever, the Lahore High Court decides the case; there is an important lesson for Pakistanis in this case. The lesson is that if we continue to favor one religious group over the other, the state is discriminating and denying citizens equal status leading to resentment and bitterness. Shouldn't this be a wake up call for us to think about having a system where religious beliefs of an individual do not play a role in having access to opportunities?

The Father of Nation in his maiden address to the First Constituent Assembly said `` The Roman Catholics and the Protestants in England persecuted each other. Even now there are some states in existence where there are discriminations made and bars imposed against a particular class. Thank God we are not starting in those days. We are starting in the days where there is no discrimination, no distinction between one caste and creed and another. We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State. " The Father of the Nation in this very speech on Aug 11th 1947 which was intended to be the articulation of the vision of the country also said, `` If we want to make this great state of Pakistan happy and prosperous we shall wholly and solely concentrate on the well being of the people. If we work together in a spirit that every one of us, no matter to what community he belongs, no matter what relations he had with you in the past, no matter what is his color, caste or creed is first, second and last a citizen of this State with equal rights, privileges and obligations, there will be no end to the progress you will make." He further went on to say, `` I cannot emphasize it too much. We should begin to work in that spirit and in course of time all these angularities of the majority and minority communities-the Hindu community and the Muslim community would vanish."

It is time that we pay heed to these words and let students compete on merit.
 

 

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