By saying that election campaigns could not be run on a sectarian basis, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) may have made an important point, but in saying that seeking votes in the name of religion is a crime, it may well have gone too far. The ECP should not forget that Pakistan itself was created in the name of religion, and the ideology of Pakistan is based on Islam and Hinduism being two different religions, a difference which had political implications. It is true that recent sectarian violence, especially in Quetta and Karachi, has made the issue current. However, none of this justifies sectarianism, which only serves to divide the nation, even though the nation itself was created because of the overwhelming support for the demand for a separate homeland for the Muslims of the subcontinent.

The ECP should not forget that it itself registered sectarian parties, and should have taken notice of any illegality then. It is also worth noting that it has not taken notice of other appeals made by candidates. For example, while this appeal to a common religious sentiment is accounted so reprehensible, there seems to be no notice taken of the much more common appeal made to a common caste. It should be noted that a person’s religion is as much an indication of the beliefs he holds, and the politics he is likely to practise as the biradari he belongs to, which merely means the descent group he comes from, and says nothing about what he believes. The directions to the candidates and political parties, issued by the ECP on Sunday, do not appear to be as well thought through as its previous directions. The conflation of religion and sectarianism, which the ECP has carried out, will only serve to create confusion, and introduce a confusion in the reaction it will provoke.

It would be noticed that the only criticism of this decision has been voiced by the JUI-F, a party descended from the old Jamiatul Ulema Hind, a religious party which allowed its anti-Muslim League sentiments carry it to the extent of opposing the creation of Pakistan, and throwing its weight behind the Congress Party. The JUI-F has nonetheless an old registration from the ECP, and its chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s late father, Mufti Mahmood, not only was a former Chief Minister of NWFP, but also Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly, both positions being reached on the basis of votes obtained on the basis of appeals to religious sentiment. The ECP must make it clear that it distinguishes between sectarianism, which is divisive of the nation, and religion, the basis on which it was created, and must not make any distinctions which run counter to the sentiments of the people.