In the midst of the invisibles

Statelessness of Machhar colony remains out of sight of local authorities and out of mind from the rest of us


Muhammad Hamid Zaman November 29, 2022
The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of Biomedical Engineering, International Health and Medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

On a crisp day nearly two weeks ago in Karachi, two worlds far apart, came together. One of the worlds was of privilege and control, the other of misery and injustice. The head of NADRA, Mr Tariq Malik, showed up in one of the largest slums in the city and the country: Machhar Colony. A large number of the residents in the colony are ethnically Bengali, and many have been living in the permanent state of statelessness. Children born in the community inherit the anxieties and fears of their parents. They inherit the poverty and injustice of the world around them. And of course, they inherit the statelessness of their parents.

Despite the unambiguous law of the land that grants them citizenship, and the clear directions of various courts, the statelessness of Machhar colony remains out of sight of the local authorities, and out of mind from the rest of us. Without having a national ID card, the residents are formally and deliberately excluded from national services and programmes. The children cannot study in public schools, the youth cannot work in most sectors, and the sick cannot get the help they need and deserve. Even when the brilliant athletes from the colony win accolades for the country, as they did during the pandemic, the state looks the other way and even refuses to pat them on the back. Those who do not count, do not matter. The state refuses to count the Bengalis of Machhar colony among its own. Misery is perhaps too limited a word to describe the lived experience of millions marked by state-supported xenophobia, hostility, racism, harassment and disdain for the poor.

Yet, something changed on November 16th 2022, when Mr Malik, the head of NADRA, the organisation that is in charge of national ID cards, biometric systems, the famous ‘B-forms’ and so much more, showed up at the colony. While the small steps that the contingent from NADRA took were giant leaps for those who have been waiting for well over five decades, little changed in the world of news and media that was fixed only on the sound bites from Zaman Park, Rawalpindi and Islamabad.

Despite the fact that it barely made the news (except a story or two that was buried deep inside the papers, and a few tweets), this is a major development on the road to equality, dignity and fairness. Of course, a single visit by the head of NADRA does not grant citizenship to those who have a rightful claim, nor does it solve the problems of injustice overnight, but there is a tiny ray of hope today that did not exist a few weeks ago. The interaction of the NADRA head with the community, and in particular the children for whom Pakistan is the only home, can be a catalyst to stop the continued injustice that dates back over five decades of suffering for the Bengali community. The credit goes to the individuals and organisations, who despite minimal funds and resources, against the popular sentiments of racism, xenophobia or apathy, have stood their ground in Machhar colony, in federal and provincial offices and in the highest courts of the land. The tacit recognition by NADRA that we need to change course was long overdue and, one hopes, is the beginning of a new journey.

The success of this new journey, however, depends on us. Those of us who talk the big talk on inclusion, respect, fairness and justice in our tweets and seminars can
no longer remain on the sidelines and choose our values on political convenience. We may never be able to undo the harm done over several decades, but we must no longer be a party to continued injustice.

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