It is wondrous to think what Pakistan represented to the six and a half million people who migrated from India to what was then a newly-formed West Pakistan. As they left all their belongings, homes, families and legacies, and started off on a journey of thousands of miles on overladen oxcarts, trains filled with corpses, and on foot, they buried their children who died of the exhausting journey, and continued westwards. They left their safe spaces and headed west into an orgy of communal violence that would leave two million people dead.
Around one in every five Pakistanis then was a refugee.
Recently, at a fundraiser attended by the who’s who of Karachi, Prime Minister Imran Khan brought up a rather odd topic. In the midst of Karachi’s elite, Imran spoke of the Bengali and Afghan refugees in Karachi. Both Bengali and Afghan refugees have been in Karachi for decades, both immigrants, refugees, illegal settlers, whatever you may call them. Both are also tragically disenfranchised. Afghan and Bengali refugees who have lived in Pakistan for decades cannot have Pakistani passports or ID cards, which in turn means, they don’t have access to any sort of social security, they are not able to move freely, they don’t enjoy any of the rights conferred to citizens by the Constitution of Pakistan, and they find it incredibly hard to find work. When they do find work, they are usually paid half of already criminally low minimum wages. These refugees have lived in Pakistan long enough to have their children grow up to have children of their own, yet even the third generation is as disenfranchised as the first. They’re refugees, they have been so for the last multiple decades, they have been born refugees, will live as refugees and then die as refugees, and before that they will give birth to more refugees, Bengali and Afghan, never Pakistani.
The mentioning of these refugees at the fundraiser was not out of context. The prime minister was speaking to a crowd wary of Karachi’s “street crime” epidemic. The prime minister of course had taken notice, and tried to explain the existence of this “street crime” as a result of the disenfranchisement of the aforementioned Afghan and Bengali refugees. He reasoned that their disenfranchisement led to poverty which led them resorting to crime, and that ending this disenfranchisement should end or lessen “street crime.” So he had packaged it as a palatable solution to Karachi’s powerful, but then he went further. “They are humans. How come we have deprived them?” Now maybe this was an inadvertent mistake, maybe it was just another “gimmick,” maybe it was just a fleeting thought that he continued to articulate because it was awkward to stop abruptly. I think it was none of those, in fact it was a mistake, surely, but never inadvertent. It was a mistake because the prime minister spoke his mind, and I believe he spoke from his heart, for an issue that offers him no political capital, for a people that have no vote to give. But it wasn’t inadvertent because when Imran Khan speaks his heart, he does so deliberately.
There has been vehement opposition to the prime minister’s plea, forcing the prime minister into a corner and compelling him to take opposing political forces on board. But as we see growing opposition to the prime minister’s earnest and most-needed suggestion, we need to consider the men and women who laid their lives to cross one patch of dirt for another, since the latter offered them refuge; refuge from persecution, from bigotry and hatred and from disenfranchisement. We, Pakistanis, were all refugees then. Pakistan, then, was a dream, as fickle as they come, the sweetest dream ever dreamt, and a dream forgotten as soon quickly as the nation opened its eyes. More than seven decades later Pakistan struggles to remind itself of that half remembered dream. It’s unnatural for a country that came into existence to give refuge to the persecuted and disenfranchised, to now banish those seeking refuge into persecution and misery, and oblivion.
In all the gloom, despair, and tragedy we see, and all that we don’t, in and around us here in the streets of Pakistan, and even more across the world, as hatred and bigotry piggybacks populist politics across the globe, it’s increasingly hard to find the silver lining. There aren’t too many feel-good stories to go around in the world, or even in the land of the pure, except when the prime minister stands up defiantly for the rights of politically toxic refugees.
Pakistan was, is and should continue to be home to refugees, to the persecuted and disenfranchised. We are all walking on, seeking refuge in the original dream that was Pakistan, we are all refugees until that dream is realised. So let the refugees stay.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 21st, 2018.