Rule of the law and the equality in all spheres of life entails an important principle of equal status of citizenship in society. Liberal social contract theory envisions the intermingling of state and society on a reciprocal basis, which demands equality in both rights and obligations from both sides.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were unanimously adopted by the 193 member states of the United Nations (UN) including Pakistan in September 2015. The new aspiring 2030 agenda calls on countries to undertake concrete steps to achieve these goals over the next fifteen years through collective efforts to end poverty, injustices, inequalities and ensure prosperity for all. SDG 10 which aims at “leaving no one behind”, is specifically focused on reducing inequalities within and among the nations. Insistent inequalities hamper economic growth, fuel sense of deprivation, dissipate talent and human potential and suppress social mobility. The widening disparities and inequalities require the adoption of sound, implementable policies to empower the marginalised segments of society and promote their economic inclusion regardless of their religion, sex, race or ethnicity.

Pakistan was created as a separate federal country in 1947 on the basis of protecting the rights of Muslim minorities and rights of federating units in United India. The Founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah in his speech during the inaugural session of the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan presented his vision where the equality of all citizens was emphasized. He stated “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or any place of worship in this state of Pakistan.” This statement provides a complete framework of protecting the rights of all citizens of Pakistan without any discrimination of religion and race.

Pakistan’s early history reveals an effective pattern of representation of citizens of others faiths in the Constituent Assemblies and ministries as 15 of the 69 members of Pakistan‘s first Constituent Assembly (1947-54) were citizens of other faith. This trend of representation of minorities did not carry forward in subsequent years. The creation of Bangladesh greatly reduced the proportions of citizens of other faith as less than 5% of West Pakistan‘s population was non-Muslim. Eventually, the separate electorate was introduced during the regime of General Zia ul Haq, effectively limiting the representation of non-Muslims in the National Assembly to their reserved seats. The separate electorate system was finally abolished in favour of joint electorate system during General Pervez Musharraf ‘s rule in 2002. The issue of reserved seats for minorities has been a bone of contention during the recent years as the National Assembly has failed to pass several iterations of this bill despite an increase in the general seats in 2002.

The Constitution of Pakistan clearly stipulates that adequate provisions shall be made for the minorities to profess and practice freely their religions. Therein shall be guaranteed fundamental rights, including equality of status, of opportunity and before law, social, economic and political justice, and freedom of thought, expression, belief, faith, worship and association, subject to law and public morality. It further states that adequate provisions shall be made to safeguard the legitimate interests of minorities and backward and depressed classes. In addition, Articles No. 20, 21, 22, 25, 26, 27, 28 and 36 of the Constitution of Pakistan guarantee equal citizenship and protection of rights of minorities. According to 1998 census, the overwhelming majority of Pakistan i.e. 96.28% is Muslim while remaining 3.73% subscribe to other faiths. A close review of party manifestos reveals that all the major political parties of Pakistan have promised complete religious freedom and protection to citizens for practicing their respective religions.

In Pakistan, although various steps have been undertaken for protection of minorities including abolishment of separate electorate, reservation of separate seats in the legislative bodies both at provincial and central levels (four seats in Senate, ten seats in National Assembly), allocation of 5% quota, celebration of August 11 as Minorities Day and establishment of Federal Ministry of National Harmony in 2011. However, the bulk of these steps appear shallow in their letter and spirit. The 5% quota for minorities has not been successfully implemented. According to the Annual Statistical Bulletin of Federal Government Employees 2012-2013, statistics on the overall employment (BPS 1-22) of citizens of other faith by the federal government reveal a slightly decreasing trend 2.56% to 2.32% between the years 2011 and 2013. Similarly, Federal Ministry for National Harmony, which is clubbed with the Ministry of Religious Affairs, fails to implement any significant legislation.

According to the Charter of Demands developed by Centre for Civic Education Pakistan, a reputed research and development organisation, after an extensive countrywide consultative process, the challenges to equality of citizenship can be effectively addressed through review of the constitutional and legal instruments that put religious minorities in a disadvantageous position and vulnerable situations, adoption of ‘inclusive culture’ by the political parties at the federal, provincial and local levels, increase in the number of reserved seats in the National Assembly of Pakistan and all Provincial Assemblies, democratisation of the system of party lists for reserved seats and making it more transparent, undertaking affirmative actions to support and facilitate the religious minorities to directly contest constituencies in the elections for local, provincial and federal level democratic institutions, celebration of the August 11 as the day of ‘Equality of Citizenship’ instead of the Day of Minorities and taking concrete steps to ensure strict adherence to job quotas reserved for the religious minorities.

It is high time for meaningful reforms and concrete steps to improve the conditions of religious minorities in Pakistan through recognising their historic contributions in the creation of Pakistan, remembering the un-sung heroes of freedom struggle hailing from religious minorities, recalling the pledge of ‘equality based citizenship’ made by the founding father of Pakistan, Quaid-i-Azam, Muhammad Ali Jinnah and realising the need for political and electoral reforms to ensure effective and expanded participation of religious minorities.