PESHAWAR: As state authorities step up a crackdown on millions of undocumented immigrants residing in the country, Afghan artists, folk singers, and musicians said their expulsion to their home country ruled by the Taliban would be akin to sending them to their deaths.

According to sources, most of the folk artists and musicians obtained ‘token numbers’ issued by the UNHCR on their arrival in Pakistan following the fall of Kabul in Aug 2021.

Folk singer Hashmatullah Omid told Dawn that under the ultra-conservative Taliban regime in Kabul, “art and music have no future”.

“The artists and performers who had migrated to Quetta and Peshawar obtained ‘token numbers’ from UNCHR [upon their arrival]. We don’t want to return to our country under these unfavourable circumstances, where a certain death is waiting for us,” he said, adding that his family as well as scores of other artists were under a great deal of mental stress due to the fear of deportation.

At least 141 Afghan artists residing in Peshawar have already moved the Peshawar High Court against the decision of the federal government regarding the expulsion of undocumented refugees. Being a peaceful community, they should be exempted from the list of deportees, they had requested.

Going back to Kabul means ‘certain death’, folk singer fears

Similarly, the local artist community and rights activists also requested the authorities to reconsider the deportation of Afghan artists, as sending them back to their country would expose them to multi-pronged threats.

After coming to power in 2021, the Afghan Taliban imposed a ban on all types of cultural activities, especially music. Music academies were burnt down, forcing a large number of artists to flee to foreign countries. Due to this crackdown, over 200 artists crossed over to Pakistan to save their lives.

Faqir Muhammad Niazi, a popular Afghan tabla player, compared the deportation of Afghan artists and folk singers to sending them to the ‘valley of death’. Mr Niazi said he used to work as a senior artist and a manager at a private channel in Kabul before the Taliban came to power. He said he fled to Peshawar along with his family to save their lives.

“Most Afghan artists and performers have been living their lives [in Pakistan] on borrowed time and the recent deportation announcement aggravated their anxieties. We cannot afford another ordeal; please save our lives,” he expressed with tears in his eyes.

Dr Karan Khan, a Pakistani artist with a large following in Pakistan and Afghanistan, told Dawn the artist community had approached the authorities soon after the decision to deport the refugees.

“Afghan artists are among the most vulnerable communities even in Peshawar, because they are being harassed on small pretexts during their movements for participating in musical concerts,” said Dr Khan.

In a recent letter, he said, “…Afghanistan has a rich and diverse musical heritage, with talented musicians … However, recent developments in Afghanistan have led to a situation where Afghan musicians, artists, and cultural figures are facing unprecedented challenges and threats to their safety and well-being.”

Dr Khan added that Pakistan’s support for Afghan musicians would significantly contribute to “projecting Pakistan’s soft power on the international stage”.

He argued it would also showcase “our commitment to promoting cultural diversity, tolerance, and artistic expression, which are essential elements of a progressive and inclusive society”.

Published in Dawn, October 27th, 2023

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