Scapegoating the refugee

Published November 18, 2023
The author is an Islamabad-based physicist and writer
The author is an Islamabad-based physicist and writer

HERDED like cattle, over 1,700,000 Muslim refugees — more than twice the number of Palestinians evicted in 1948 by Zionist Israel — are presently being expelled from the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. A compliant caretaker government wants all undocumented Afghans booted out of the country.

Taking this a step further, the Balochistan caretaker information minister declared earlier this week that, in line with the state’s decision, even those Afghans with legal documents would be expelled. Who runs the state is clear.

Once these unfortunates cross the Torkham border, hell awaits them. Large numbers have never visited, much less known, the famine-stricken land to which they allegedly belong. Hundreds of thousands were born on Pakistani soil but could never acquire documents.

Pakistani authorities gave but 30 short days to sell off possessions acquired over a lifetime, decreed that only Rs50,000 per family could be carried in cash, and forbade evictees from taking along their livestock. Who could be more heartless? Zionists?

The story of loss and displacement doesn’t end here. After enduring extortion by Pakistani border guards, they will enter a country run by a primitive, murderous and misogynist militia that hates all forms of modernity except its guns. No girl may go to school, no woman may work, music and art are forbidden, limb-chopping and stoning to death are back in vogue.

In 1996, Pakistan was the first of three countries to recognise the Taliban as Afghanistan’s lawful government. They committed hideous crimes but Pakistan’s high-placed duffers — as the inimitable Asma Jahangir famously called them — carefully explained away their savagery. For decades Pakistan remained the Taliban’s chief champion and loudspeaker to the world.

Failure of Pakistan’s strategic depth doctrine is why Afghan refugees are being victimised.

When the Ashraf Ghani government fell in 2021, there was glee all around. Then-ISI chief Gen Faiz Hameed preened before television cameras in Kabul as though celebrating his personal victory, while then-PM Imran Khan famously proclaimed Afghans had “broken the shackles of slavery”.

Things have changed dramatically since then and we know exactly why. After a victory, the force of fanaticism does not diminish — it grows. Backed by the government in Kabul, TTP now savagely attacks Pakistan’s army and police almost daily.

Worried Pakistani rulers tried persuading Afghanistan’s rulers to denounce these terrorist acts but met a brick wall. Why expect otherwise? Both the TTP and Afghan Taliban carry the same mindset and have the same goals.

Although many Afghans fled to Pakistan after the 2021 Taliban victory, they are now being falsely accused of providing TTP terrorists a base. In fact the TTP was born in Swat under the nose of our security forces. Had there been a will, Maulana Fazlullah — aka Mullah Radio — could have been instantly neutralised in 2006-2007.

To cover up the establishment’s past incompetence and complicity, hapless refugees are now being scapegoated. They are victims of Pakistan’s bungled foreign policy and its delusionary pursuit of strategic depth. The days of dollar-fuelled ‘jihad’ being over, these penniless people are no longer useful as cannon fodder. Rich Afghans, of course, may stay.

Had Pakistan ever been serious about wanting to destroy TTP’s ideologically charged terrorism, it would have looked for places where the call to ‘jihad’ is loud and strident.

All across the Muslim world the mullah has been tamed by the state. Yet there’s little chance that Pakistani madressahs preaching violence will be investigated. Maulana Abdul Aziz, leader of the Lal Masjid insurrection that killed well over 200, supports the TTP but struts around Islamabad with armed escort.

Those who ordered the sudden deportations claim to defend Pakistan’s ideological frontiers. But unknowingly they are hollowing out the Islamic premise upon which Pakistan was founded.

To understand this, let’s wind back to the mid 1940s when the secular Indian National Congress was in power in NWFP and Dr Khan Sahib, brother of Bacha Khan, was chief minister. The All-India Muslim League was rising but still on the back foot.

To woo the Pakhtuns and counter the Khan brothers’ popularity, Mr Jinnah insisted that Islamic unity must trump ethnicity. As recorded in the Jinnah Papers, on June 29, 1947, he declared, “I want the Muslims of the Frontier to understand that they are Muslims first and Pathans afterwards”.

With closely knitted Pakhtun families living on either side of the Durand Line — a British construct designed to demarcate British from Russian spheres of influence — Jinnah never suggested Pakhtuns would ever be prevented from freely crossing over.

How could a Muslim from Uttar Pradesh become a Pakistani but not another Muslim living right across an arbitrarily drawn line? It made no sense. Jinnah thus won over the Pakhtuns.

The Afghan refugee issue starkly exposes the inherent contradictions within a state created on the basis of religious identity. Still, in my opinion, Pakistan cannot and should not allow every Muslim from anywhere to migrate to the country. While the mass deportation ordered by the government is wrong and has been widely condemned, the wishes of the majority must be kept in mind.

We know, for example, that tensions exist in interior Sindh between the indigenous Sindhi population and the newly arrived Afghans, the latter tending to be socially conservative but also ready to work harder. Such tensions bring to mind Pakistani migrants in Europe who bring along with them their conservative culture plus a host of other problems, particularly crime.

Still, mass deportations of Pakistanis from Europe similar to what Pakistan is doing to Afghans would be wrong and immoral. Migration across borders is now a universal feature of humankind for which there are no absolutes and no clear answers. Open borders are still a distant dream for humanity. For now, sensitive, scientific management is needed. Europe is only halfway up the learning curve.

Afghans in Pakistan must be dealt with as per universal norms that respect human rights and dignity. At a very minimum, those born in Pakistan must be declared Pakistani citizens with rights equal to the rest.

For this, the documentation process must be simplified. Girls and women must not be forced back to suffer at the hands of misogynist rulers. Individuals at high risk must be given asylum, not deported. Nothing less is acceptable.

The author is an Islamabad-based physicist and writer.

Published in Dawn, November 18th, 2023

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