On 14 December 2013, the Wolesi Jirga (WJ), the lower house of the Afghan parliament, rejected the presidential decree adding a reserved seat among its ranks for the Hindu and Sikh minorities. The debate showed a divided house, but the vote rewarded those pitted against this facilitation for the tiny minority. However, the tone and arguments used to justify this choice fell within the themes of legality and respect for the constitution, fortunately avoiding any divisive comments about communalism and sectarianism, AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini reports (with input from Ehsan Qaane).
The issue of how to deal with the presidential decree of 3 September 2013, that guaranteed a reserved joint seat to the Hindu and Sikh minorities (read a previous AAN dispatch here), had been lingering on the WJ agenda for two weeks before the house, distracted by more important items, found the time to discuss it. It was only on Saturday 14 December 2013 that the Legislative Committee of the WJ, who had discussed the issue during the past week, could raise it. In fact, the committee presented it in the general session through two MPs (both from Herat); its head, Qazi Nazir Ahmad Hanafi, who was thoroughly contrary to its acceptance; and another member, Ahmad Behzad, who was in favour of it.
The house started debating the issue, and two opposite camps were clearly delineated. MPs like Behzad, Naqibullah Fayeq (Faryab), Ramazan Bashardost (Kabul), Shukria Barakzai (Kabul), Gulalay Nur Safi (Balkh) and Humaira Ayyubi (Farah) supported the allocation of one seat for Afghanistan’s only religious minority (Afghanistan’s Hindus and Sikhs are often put together in the general perception as Ahl-e Hunud); while Hanafi, Abdul Sattar Khawasi (Parwan), Khalil Ahmad Shahidzada (Herat), Nazifa Zaki (Kabul) and Ghulam Faruq Majruh (Herat) strongly opposed it.
The latter group’s reasons were apparently not occasioned by a disagreement over the status of Afghanistan’s only religious minority. All the arguments were couched in terms of respect for the provisions of the constitution, namely that the addition of a seat specifically dedicated to a certain group among the Afghan population went against Article 22 of the constitution (read also here), which prohibits any kind of discrimination and privilege among the citizens of Afghanistan.
However, some MPs took issue with Hanafi referring to the Hindus and Sikhs as “our hamsaya” (meaning “neighbours” but often implying a dependent position)(1). Some asked if he meant that they were not full Afghan citizens or coming from another country, and the head of the Legislative Committee had to explain that he did so out of affection and without any pejorative meaning. He also argued that the committee had asked the Ministry of Interior how many Hindus and Sikhs currently lived in Afghanistan, but the ministry, because of the refugees who had left the country during the various stages of the war, could not give clear figures, at least not before the new identity cards have been distributed. Hanafi then related how the committee further requested information from the lone Sikh member of the Meshrano Jirga (MJ), Anarkali Honaryar, who, according to Hanafi, put their numbers at 7,000 – an estimated 2,000 of whom are breadwinners who have sent their families abroad out of fear or insecurity.
Therefore, Hanafi argued that they could not reserve a seat for this small number of Hindus and Sikhs, considering Article 83 of the constitution, Afghanistan’s overall population and of the presence of other, bigger minority communities who do not have a seat.(2)
Article 83, when fixing the maximum number of WJ seats at 250 (which would have allowed for the debated addition, as the current number is 249), states that this should be proportioned to the population of each constituency (thus a province, except for the Kuchis). The required minimum size for constituencies other than provinces is not specified, although, following the provincial breakdown of seats, each WJ seat appears to be linked to 100,000 inhabitants, according to a very rough and probably outdated estimate of 25 million Afghans at the time of the drafting of the constitution. Actually the same article also states that the electoral law must make provisions to ensure that the electoral system guarantees a general and just representation to all the people of the country, something that can be easily interpreted in favour of the seat for the Hindus and Sikhs. Hanafi’s reasoning, however, seems to have been that – even if endowed with a separate constituency – they are not numerous enough to deserve a seat.
Again, some MPs were not satisfied. They criticised this assessment on the basis of the numbers registered during Daud’s presidency (1973–78) indicating that 17,000 Hindu and Sikh families were living in Afghanistan, and their population could not have decreased since then. Humaira Ayyubi suggested taking into account the overall number of families in Afghanistan during those years to calculate the current number of Hindus and Sikhs according to the national growth rate recorded since then. She added that, no matter how many of the existing Afghan Hindus and Sikhs were currently living in Afghanistan, Afghan refugees abroad must also be counted and represented in the WJ.
Other MPs adopted a more nuanced approach. Shahidzada agreed that all MPs cared for their Hindu and Sikh brethren, but that they could not deal with their problems in ways that went against the law. Instead, he suggested, the president could maybe make up for the lost seat in the WJ by appointing another Hindu or Sikh to the Meshrano Jirga or as one of his advisors. Khawasi more decidedly drew upon the constitution and recalled the presence of other minorities mentioned there apart from the Hindus and Sikhs, saying that if a seat was allocated for the latter, the others should be considered, too.
Ramazan Bashardost was among the fieriest speakers in defence of the Hindu-Sikh seat. He maintained that the MPs should not use strict adherence to the constitution only to withhold help that was meant to assist the weakest groups. He then lashed out at the somewhat hypocritical approach to the issue of identity, arguing that, for example, the constitution contains nothing that states that the president must necessarily be a Pashtun, the first deputy a Tajik and the second deputy a Hazara, but that this is very much the common wisdom about the highest organs of the state. He added that even the WJ selected its speaker because of his being Uzbek (read an AAN dispatch here), while now MPs were denying the Hindus’ and Sikhs’ right to a separate seat on the basis of a “we’re all equal” approach.
Shukria Barakzai defended Karzai’s decree as not anti-constitutional. She said that the president took into consideration specific social problems before opting for this addition and also did not try to add somebody to the WJ arbitrarily, but to have him/her elected through a by-election. She added that some fellow MPs who now reject this opportunity had a very different attitude when the issue arose about the right of other minorities to a reserved quota (in reference to the ten seats allocated for Kuchis – see here – and to the support that, for example, Khawasi gave to that proposal in the first parliament, which was quite apparent to everybody).
Behzad reasoned that giving a seat to the Hindus and Sikhs was indeed tantamount to going against the constitution, but that there were other examples in the Afghan constitution and internationally, showing that to support disadvantaged minorities is correct. He also mentioned other changes brought by the WJ in this sphere – for example, the quota for women in the provincial council, recently diminished from 25 per cent to 20 per cent (read a previous AAN dispatch here).
From both sides, some MPs wanted to refer the matter to the Supreme Court, while others opted for the Commission for Oversight and Implementation of the Constitution. The house started to argue over who had the prerogative to interpret the constitution and if the WJ had the authority to refer a matter to the Supreme Court (apparently not, the constitution implies that only the government or the judiciary can do that). On the other hand, Hanafi said that the letter the Legislative Committee sent to the Constitutional Commission had not received any answer yet. He proceeded to read bits of a previous letter from the Constitutional Commission (sent earlier this year, during the debate on the electoral law), which sounded as if it had been opposed to the idea of reserved quotas altogether (arguably, women and Kuchis included). Behzad objected to this, saying that the whole letter originally had a different tone, but that now some parts were missing. Humaira Ayyubi also objected and quite openly accused Hanafi of having manipulated the document, as pages do not usually disappear by themselves.
In the end, the 132 MPs present abandoned the idea of referring the matter to other bodies and went instead for a vote. This sealed the fate of the Hindu-Sikh quota, with 73 votes against the seat allocation, 51 in favour and 7 blank. MJ member Anarkali Honaryar, when interviewed by AAN, stated her belief that many MPs might have voted against the allocation of a new seat because of the fear/misconception that it would become a prerogative of the president to appoint one person of his choice to the seat or because of their opposition to a presidential decree based on political reasons, rather than out of hostility to the Hindus and Sikhs.
Altogether, this looks like a lost occasion for the Afghan parliament to uphold values of tolerance and attention to the country’s minorities that were once a very appealing face of the new Afghan institutions. Still, the fact that the debate was couched in terms of legality rather than in those of communalism or sectarianism makes its outcome much more acceptable. In particular, given the tense situation of these days with the debate about whether or not to include “nationality” (ie, the ethnic background) on the new ID cards to be issued, things could have taken a much worse course even inside the WJ. On the very day of the WJ vote, a street manifestation on the ID card issue took place, with protesters gathering on Kabul’s Jalalabad Road and then moving in front of the Supreme Court, where a peaceful sit-in continued until early afternoon.
What now? In 20 days the senate must also discuss the matter. They can approve the WJ decision or reject it, in which case a joint commission of the two houses will be arranged to discuss it, or they could just refer the issue to the Commission for Oversight and Implementation of the Constitution and hope for a decisive answer. The representative of the Hindus and Sikhs in the upper house, Anarkali Honaryar, has expressed to AAN her determination to reverse the decision of the WJ and is confident that a majority of her colleagues in the senate support her views.
It is also time for the Afghan Hindus and Sikhs to assess their position, to try to play their cards (they already had appealed to the president, resulting in his now rejected decree), if any cards are left, and hopefully not pack up and leave the country as they have threatened. The Afghan parliament can maybe afford to temporarily lose a battle waged in defence of the country’s multiculturalism – provided it is fought according to the law and without resort to divisive communalism – but Afghanistan can hardly spare any productive and peaceful members of its society at this stage.
(1) Historically, the term hamsaya, “sharer of the shadow,” was used for smaller groups, sometimes of different tribal or even ethnic backgrounds, seeking the protection of a larger tribal group.
(2) It is actually not very common to find a community bigger than the Hindu-Sikh one without representation in the WJ. The issue is difficult to ascertain for groups who, although mentioned in the constitution, often lack a clear-cut identity with respect to their neighbours or are able to blend in up to some point, like the Brahui/Baluch, the Arabs or the Gujars. Only the inhabitants of the Pamir in Eastern Badakhshan province – both the Pamiri Ismailis and the Kirghiz – totally lack representatives. The Pamiri Ismailis, speaking various Eastern Iranian languages (Shughni, Zebaki, Ishkashimi, Wakhi and Munji) but largely sharing cultural and religious similarities, are indeed a big group amounting possibly to 100,000; they had managed to get an MP elected in 2005, but like the Hindu-Sikh group, failed to repeat the exploit in 2010. The Kirghiz, on the other hand, are a much smaller community than the Hindu-Sikhs, probably not numbering more than 2,000 (see an AAN dispatch here).
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020