Islamabad, Pakistan – Amir Mahmood remembers a meeting between his Ahmadi community and top officials of Pakistan’s government last September. He can’t forget how the community, for long a victim of persecution in the country, saw a decline in attacks on its graves and shrines in the days after that meeting.
But that respite did not last.
As the world’s fifth-most populous nation prepares to vote on February 8, its half-million-strong Ahmadi community will boycott the election, after a spike in attacks on its members, institutions and even burial sites in the weeks leading up to the vote. For many Ahmadis, like Mahmood, the brief decline in attacks following the September meeting was proof of what could happen — if the country’s leaders wanted it.
“What the decline in attacks told us that if the state wishes, it can easily control the violence against us but unfortunately, the impression we get is that either some government is not clear-minded about its action, or is unwilling to help,” he said.
It is a sentiment driven by decades of entrenched discrimination, including in the electoral system. And it has led the community to boycott the elections. In a statement last week, the community’s leaders announced their “disassociation” from the vote. “Although the elections are ostensibly being held under a joint electorate, there is, however, a separate voter list prepared only for Ahmadi citizens due to their faith,” said a statement released by an organisation representing the community on Wednesday.
“This discriminatory treatment based on religion is a deliberate attempt to disenfranchise Ahmadi citizens from the electoral process for all intents and purposes and thus denying them their right to vote,” it added.
While the community has been avoiding participation in elections for nearly four decades, the latest boycott announcement came after three different incidents of Ahmadi grave desecration in the last two weeks, in different towns in Punjab province.
Mahmood, also a community spokesperson, said data showed that there were attacks on 42 Ahmadi places of worship across the country last year, as well as desecration of more than 100 graves in just the state of Punjab. The year 2022 also saw at least 14 mosques and 197 graves belonging to the community desecrated last year, according to the community’s statistics. At least three members of the community were gunned down in 2022, allegedly due to their religious affiliation.
‘No sense of belonging’
The Ahmadi sect considers itself Muslim. But they were declared “non-Muslims” in 1974 under Pakistan’s constitution. In the decades since the 1970s, hundreds of attacks, including murders and desecrations of their religious places and graveyards, have been reported in Pakistan.
Community members were active participants in the electoral process until and including in the 1977 elections, before then-army chief General Zia ul-Haq imposed martial law.
The military strongman passed a ruling in 1984 which restricted the community from practising Islamic rituals or publicly displaying any symbol that identifies them as Muslims, including building minarets or domes on mosques, or publicly writing verses from the Quran.
In the elections that were conducted in 1985, he introduced separate voter lists for different religious groups in the country, after which the community began their boycott of the polls. The system of separate voter lists lasted until the 1997 elections, after which it was unified again for the 2002 elections under military ruler General Pervez Musharraf.
Under the revised joint list, all Pakistanis regardless of their religious affiliation were combined in a single voter list — except Ahmadis. They were instead put in a separate “supplementary” list, where they are identified as “Qadianis”, a term that refers to the town in Indian Punjab where the Ahmadi tradition took root. The community considers the term derogatory.
“If there can be one voter list which has the rest of the citizens of Pakistan, regardless of their caste, ethnicity, and faith, what is stopping them from adding Ahmadis to that list? Why single us out?” Mahmood asked.
Other members of the community say the discrimination in the electoral lists is in keeping with the bias they confront in everyday life.
“I moved to Pakistan two decades ago from the United Kingdom after getting married,” Fatima*, a 47-year-old homemaker, told Al Jazeera. “I am human, of course. I also get frustrated a lot, because I am a citizen of Pakistan and I want to be able to vote,” she said.
“I have voted in the UK in the past when I was young, and it has really given me this sense of pride and achievement, that I can contribute in a small way to my country. But in Pakistan, that sense of belonging has been stolen from me, on account of my faith,” she added.
Akbar*, a 22-year-old student in Islamabad, says that while he is politically aware and would have liked to vote if there was a unified voter list, candidates of mainstream parties often resorted to inflammatory comments against his community.
“It is something very commonly seen in Pakistani election campaigns that bigotry, against our community is very evident. Candidates use inflammatory comments to garner votes while putting our lives at risk,” he tells Al Jazeera.
“There is a clear sense of alienation in the community. If all the mainstream parties are thinking along such lines, how can we even think about voting, especially when the list wants us to renounce our faith and call ourselves non-Muslims?” Akbar added.
Political analyst Tahir Mehdi said that for Pakistan’s religious conservatives, the decision to get Ahmadis declared non-Muslims through the constitutional amendment of 1974 remains a major achievement.
“This is a subject on which there will be no compromise, and they want to protect this victory at any cost,” he said.
Mehdi added that with because the community’s population in Pakistan is relatively small, it is not a significant enough voting constituency to woo for parties. “Their lack of numbers means a limited way to influence polling results, thus leaving no incentive for the state, or even political parties, to change their policies.”
Fatima, the housewife, said that the persecution against the community goes much beyond attacks or the separate voter list.
“We have so many restrictions and limitations in our day-to-day lives. Something as simple as ordering something online, the vendor will refuse to deliver the moment they see the name of Rabwah city as the address of delivery,” she said. Rabwah is a small city in Punjab province, situated roughly 177km (110 miles) west of Lahore. The city houses close to 80,000 people, with over 90 percent of the population belonging to Ahmadi community. The government officially renamed the city Chenab Nagar in the late 1990s but the name has not stuck.
“I have experienced this multiple times myself, that a vendor would point out to my city, and say you live in Chenab Nagar, you must be a Qadiani [a derogatory term for Ahmadis], and they point-blank refuse to deliver,” she said.
Yet, she said, that has not weakened her spirit — or her faith.
“We are not going to give up on our faith. We are never going to renounce it, even if it means not being able to vote. The state is trying to control us, but they won’t succeed,” she said.
That is also why Akbar, the student in Islamabad, refuses to participate in the elections.
“Just by participating in a system like this, it feels like you’re endorsing something that is working towards eliminating you from it. It will be a betrayal to myself and to my community to participate in this apartheid system of dual [voter’s] list singling out me out for my faith.”
*Names changed to protect the individuals.