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Bengalis of Karachi demand urgent resolution to identity problem

Updated June 16, 2018

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MEMBERS of the Bengali community in Karachi, such as the residents of Machhar Colony seen here, say they face major obstacles without legal documents.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
MEMBERS of the Bengali community in Karachi, such as the residents of Machhar Colony seen here, say they face major obstacles without legal documents.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

KARACHI: An overwhelming number of Karachi’s Bengali community remains out of the finalised electoral rolls for the general elections because they do not possess a CNIC, a prerequisite for being on the electoral rolls as per Elections Act 2017.

The community, whose strength in Karachi is estimated to be around two million, has a sizable number of people who either do not possess a government-issued ID or their CNICs have been revoked on suspicion of being illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Social and political activists belonging to the Bengali community of Karachi estimate this number to be around 1.2m.

Three sisters — Ameena, Rukhsana, and Zareena — are among those of the Bengali community who remain without a CNIC despite their claimed eligibility.

Residents of Zaman Town in Korangi, the sisters say that they have not been issued CNICs despite filing applications several times at the local Nadra centre in Korangi-4.

“The officers there tell us that Bengalis cannot get a CNIC. They ask us to prove that we were born here, and that our parents had been living in what was then West Pakistan before 1971,” says Zareena, who then shows their father’s employment cards and documents which demonstrate that the family has been living and working in Karachi prior to Dec 16, 1971.

“We have provided all these documents but our identity card requests remain at a standstill,” she adds.

The Pakistan Citizenship Act 1951 stipulates that people who were residing in territories that now comprise Pakistan prior to Dec 16, 1971, would continue to be citizens of Pakistan, and their children would be considered citizens of Pakistan by virtue of their descent.

Call for issuance of CNICs

Also, Nadra’s own guidelines on the process of verifying and revoking CNICs state that the authority would accept a person to be a Pakistani citizen if the person can prove he/she has been residing in Pakistan prior to 1978 — providing an approximately seven-year extension to the date set in the citizenship act.

Apparently, the cut-off year is kept at 1978 to differentiate between Bengalis who are legally entitled to residence in Pakistan and those who emigrated from Bangladesh in search of a livelihood.

Social activists, however, estimate that over the years, economic migrants have mostly moved out because it is no longer profitable to work and earn in Pakistan due to the rupee being weaker than the Bangladeshi taka.

Many of the Bengali-speaking residents of Karachi who have been unable to obtain CNICs possess identification and other kinds of documents issued by Nadra and different wings of the government, proving that they qualify for a CNIC. Baqir Hussain is one such person.

A resident of Machhar Colony in Karachi, Baqir was issued a CNIC by Nadra in 2002. Prior to that, he had a B-Form of his own. He subsequently married, was issued a nikah certificate by the government of Sindh and his children were issued B-Forms by Nadra. In 2013, however, his CNIC was blocked by Nadra on pretext of being an alien. Since then, he has not been able to get his name removed from the so-called ‘foreigners’ list.

He questions the entire episode which has stripped him of his nationality.

“If I were an alien, and now I have been found to have illegally arrived in Pakistan, how and why was I issued a CNIC earlier?” he says, adding that he has legal proofs of being born in Pakistan but Nadra officials do not pay heed to it.

Baqir, who now holds an alien registration card issued by the National Aliens Registration Authority (Nara, now merged with Nadra) lists the consequences that follow after revocation of a CNIC.

“I won’t be able to vote in the elections for my favourite political party because I don’t have a CNIC. My children will be deprived of their right to education because they also will not be classified as Pakistani citizens now,” he complains.

Bengali community activists allege that Baqir’s case is not isolated, saying that scores of people from their community have had their CNICs revoked and were ‘forcefully issued’ alien registration cards classifying them as non-citizens.

A senior official of the now-defunct Nara, who is presently associated with Nadra, explains the reasoning behind it.

“Our body was formed with the purpose of registering aliens, and we did just that. There might have been isolated incidents of misjudgements, but Nadra verification boards are there for settling these disputed claims,” he says while requesting anonymity.

Shaikh Mohammad Siraj, a community advocate and the chairman of the Action Committee for Pakistani Bengalis, believes that the citizenship issues his community faces can be resolved through legislation.

In July 1999, a special committee was formed in the National Assembly to probe into allegations of harassment and discrimination faced by Bengali citizens of Pakistan. In February 2018, Siraj along with other community leaders met with former federal minister for law and justice Bashir Mehmood Virk and former MNA Qaisar Ahmed Shaikh, both belonging to the PML-N, who assured the community that they would do their best to resolve the matter. No progress was however seen on the matter.

Siraj further says, “The parliament mainstreamed the Federally Administered Tribal Areas but the plight of Pakistani Bengalis gets no serious consideration. We will have to make renewed efforts to bring our case to attention when the next parliament is sworn in.”

Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan’s spokesman Aminul Haq says the parliament should take necessary steps to mainstream the Bengali community. “Our party supports the idea of granting them citizenship,” he says.

Jamaat-i-Islami’s Karachi chief Hafiz Naeemur Rahman echoes his views.

“Successive governments and all major political parties have not paid attention to the Bengali community’s problem. The citizenship act should be amended as it is very hard for applicants to produce the proofs dating back to 1971 or 1978,” he says.

However Ayaz Latif Palijo, president of the Qaumi Awami Tehreek (QAT), says that the government, while deciding the citizenship cases of a community or a group of people, must keep in view the Liaquat-Nehru Pact of 1950 which provided for the legal movement of migrants between India and Pakistan only up to 1956.

“There may be legitimate cases of Bengalis who were residing in Pakistan before that, but we want the government to make sure that no one is granted citizenship in violation of the 1950 pact,” he says, adding that arbitrary time limits like that of 1978 were unacceptable and have no legal basis, whereas application of Pakistan Citizenship Act 1951 should also be done in accordance with the Liaquat-Nehru Pact.

He is not alone in having these views. On May 16, the Sindh Action Committee, an alliance of 10 nationalist parties, staged a protest demonstration at the Karachi Press Club, calling for stopping the issuance of CNICs to ‘foreigners’.

Published in Dawn, June 16th, 2018