WASHINGTON – Religious minorities in Pakistan claim the country’s long-delayed census, released by the government in May, appears to have undercounted them.
Although the sixth Population and Housing Census was completed in 2017, the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics published the data on May 19. The previous census had been conducted in 1998.
The 2017 census began under former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who hailed from Punjab, Pakistan’s most prosperous province. However, its results were delayed after the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Baluchistan, and Sindh provinces complained that that their populations were undercounted.
On April 12, the Council of Common Interests (CCI), a constitutional body that resolves power-sharing disputes between the federal government and the provinces, met under Prime Minister Imran Khan and approved release of the most recent data.
While the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan governments, both allies of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government, dropped their objections, Sindh, under the Pakistan Peoples Party, insisted the CCI decision would lead to unfair distribution of federal resources.
Growing Muslim majority
Pakistan’s 1998 census recorded 132.3 million people, while its newly released 2017 data show the population has grown to 207.68 million — excluding Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
The data showed that Muslims grew to 96.47% of the population, while religious minorities shrank or grew only minimally. Hindus accounted for 1.73% of the population; Christians, 1.27%; Ahmadiyya, 0.09%; scheduled caste, 0.41%; and others, 0.02%.
Peter Jacob, director of the Center for Social Justice in Lahore, told VOA that the number of Christians decreased 0.32% from the last census and now total about 2.5 million.
“Even though Christians have migrated overseas and converted to Islam, our church records make us suspect that Christians may have been undercounted by at least half a million,” he said.
“We’re struggling to find accurate data, and somehow the government is not helping. It is not investigating,” he said.
Pakistan Central Secretary for Information Ahmad Jawad told VOA that the Sharif government began the 2017 census and the PTI government followed it up.
According to Jawad, the federal government’s ethnic-based political partner in Sindh, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, had been the most vocal in its opposition to the census results. He said that any group objecting to the results should seek recourse in parliament.
“The parliament is the best forum to present these concerns. Let’s deliberate whether we need to hold a census again, when we need to hold it, so that next time we don’t have objections.”
Admitting that the system had flaws, Jawad said Pakistan needed to rely on its National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) and improve data collection to address objections in the future.
“We are also willing to consider the objections raised by religious minorities for the next census,” he added.
The PTI government plans to begin the next census in October. However, the Sindh government and its Hindu religious minority support calling a joint session of Parliament to record their objections.
Religious minorities say that despite emigration and forced conversions to Islam, the recent census count of their populations was lower than expected.
Neel Keshav, a Supreme Court lawyer from Karachi, said the 1998 census data showed a Hindu population of nearly near 2 million. Yet the new census showed it had grown only to 3.5 million in 20 years.
Keshav estimates higher numbers, given that Hindus live in rural areas and have generally high fertility rates.
He suspects that migrations do not explain the low population growth and that undercounting may have occurred — as Jacob suspected concerning the Christian population.
He quoted an estimate by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan: that only 8,000 people emigrated to India over the past six years.
According to media reports, hundreds of Pakistani Hindus took up a 2019 offer by India’s nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party government to grant them visas and a path to Indian citizenship. However, many of them have since returned to Sindh, where they have lived for generations.
Religious minorities claim that prior governments also tended to undercount them because it allowed Islamabad to draw smaller constituencies and apportion fewer seats in the assemblies and the Senate.
Currently, religious minorities may contest only 33 reserved seats in the assemblies and four seats in the Senate.
“We have created reserved seats for religious minorities to enable any minority legislator elected across the country to raise their rights in Parliament,” Jawad told VOA.
But Hindu community lawyer Keshav said, “Reserved seats give political parties the power to select candidates who are mere tokens and do not represent the grassroots community.”
Jacob noted that while Islamic fundamentalist parties gained visibility, “no Christians were inducted into the federal Cabinet.”
The minorities say the government’s award of seats to non-Muslims — such as to a member of the tiny polytheistic Kalash community and to a Sikh senator — are merely meant to boost Pakistan’s image as a diverse and tourism-friendly country.
Sikhs were also disappointed that despite their lobbying efforts, the government did not create a religious column for them in the 2017 census. Instead, it lumped them in among “others.”
Prior to the 2017 census, Pakistan Sikh Council leader Sardar Ramesh Singh said in a statement that the government’s failure to list the Sikhs showed “total disrespect to the community.”
Pakistan’s NADRA records show 6,146 registered Sikhs, down from an estimated 2 million at the time of partition in 1947.
Rights activists say that many Sikhs, who primarily live in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab, have left Pakistan to escape Islamist militant attacks and institutional discrimination.
As a sign of goodwill to the Sikh community, Pakistan inaugurated in 2019 the Kartarpur Corridor, a visa-free pathway that allows India-based Sikhs access to pilgrimage sites in Pakistani Punjab.
Some Ahmadi community leaders say that the census may have undercounted them since many hide their religious identity.
The Ahmadis were declared non-Muslims by Pakistan in 1974 and forbidden from publicly practicing Islam.
“Ahmadis are banned from declaring or propagating their faith publicly, building mosques, or making the Muslim call for prayer,” says Human Rights Watch.
Qamar Suleman, a leader of the Ahmadi Jamaat in Punjab, told VOA: “We cannot keep a copy of the holy Quran. We cannot translate or print it. All the books written by our founder (Mirza Ghulam Ahmad) are banned as ‘hate material,’ and six members of our group are in prison for trying to teach the Quran.”
Suleman said that restricted freedoms and continued religious discrimination have driven Ahmadis to migrate to Germany, Canada and the United Kingdom.
Suleman called for “fundamental change” to address the minorities’ concerns, adding, “The citizens of Pakistan should not be judged on religion — and the ‘majority minority’ point of view must be ended.”