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The stateless Bangalis of Karachi

  • Published at 08:36 pm June 12th, 2017
  • Last updated at 08:22 am June 18th, 2017
The stateless Bangalis of Karachi
A few days ago, Khairuddin was carrying fish from a local jetty to his house in a part of Ibrahim Hyderi in Karachi called Sau Quarters (hundred quarters) where fishermen – mostly of Bangali origin – reside with their families. Some policemen stopped him on his way and asked him to produce his Computerised National Identity Card (CNIC). Khairuddin did not have a valid one. He claims the policemen offered to let him go if he gave them some money. He refused, he says. The policemen took him to the lock-up of a police station nearby. By the time they set him free the next morning, his fish had gone rotten. He claims he incurred a loss of Rs 100,000 that has landed him in heavy debt. Khairuddin once had a valid CNIC but it expired in 2013. He still carries it with him. When he approached the National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra), that issues and renews CNICs, he was told to show his parents’ identity documents and their marriage certificate to prove that they were residing in the then West Pakistan before the secession of Bangladesh in 1971. He produced those documents, issued during Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government in the 1970s. NADRA officials still refused to renew his card. They told him, he was not a Pakistani but a Bangladeshi. “I was born in Pakistan and have lived all my life here. My parents used to live in Pakistan too. We have no connection with Bangladesh,” protests Khairuddin. He cites many other cases from his community of Bangali fishermen to allege that only those who bribe Nadra officials can get their CNICs renewed. The going rates vary widely – anywhere between 5,000 rupees at the lower end of the spectrum and 30,000 rupees at the higher end, say welfare activists working with Bangalis living in different parts of Karachi. [caption id="attachment_68740" align="aligncenter" width="800"]A fishing boat in Karachi, Sindh, Pakistan Bigstock A fishing boat in Karachi, Sindh, Pakistan Bigstock[/caption]

The fisherwomen’s plight

Machar Colony (fishermen’s colony in English) is one of the largest, and also one of the most unkempt slums of Karachi. Fenced between a rail track and Mauripur Road to the north and the Arabian Sea to the south, it has an approximate population of 85,000, according to the Pakistani Bangalis Action Committee, a community mobilisation group. Around 75% of its residents are believed to be Bangali, the committee says. Uneven, dirt-filled streets wind along tiny houses in Machar Colony. Heaps of rubbish are strewn everywhere. A horrible stench– the combination of moist sea wind, rotting fish, sewage flowing through open drains and occasional smoke emitting from smouldering mounds of trash– engulfs the neighbourhood. On a Saturday last month, about 15 women are gathered in a compound inside Machar Colony. Each of them is accompanied by her children, some as young as four years of age. Heaps of shrimp, interspersed with layers of ice to protect them from rotting, are placed in front of each family. Fatima, a middle-aged Bangali woman, sits on a wooden plank inside the hut, cutting and peeling shrimp with help from her three small children. They all work with clockwork regularity. A small bowl beside her carries tokens resembling poker chips. These tokens bear the name of a local fish processing company that she works for. The company gives her one token worth 50 rupees for every bucket full of shrimp (weighing about 15 kg) that she and her children peel. At the end of the day, she collects all the tokens, receives their collective worth in rupees and goes home: with a paltry sum of Rs400-500 to show for her family’s hard day at work – but enough to put food on the table. Working on ice-cold shrimp has made skin on Fatima’s fingers shrivelled and soggy. Every day after she gets back home, she dips her hands in alum water to get rid of the stench, massages her fingers with coconut oil and warms them for several minutes. She could have avoided this, at least partially, if her husband had been working. When he could, he would go out to sea to catch fish and earn enough money to help his wife do only half as much shrimp-peeling as she has to do now. Their children also attended school then. But now that the maritime officials are checking CNICs rigorously, he does not venture out to sea, fearing arrest for being a Bangladeshi living in Karachi illegally. “He has been unable to fish for the last six months or so,” Fatima says. She has stopped sending her children to school so that they can work with her full time. Many other families in Machar Colony have similar stories. [caption id="attachment_68741" align="aligncenter" width="800"]A fisherman cleans a portion of a boat anchored at Ibrahim Hyderi, on the outskirts of Karachi, Pakistan on June 1, 2017 Reuters A fisherman cleans a portion of a boat anchored at Ibrahim Hyderi, on the outskirts of Karachi, Pakistan on June 1, 2017 Reuters[/caption]

Education denied

Ghulam Hussain, a tall, 19-year-old resident of the neighbourhood, may not be able to continue his education because he does not have a CNIC. Wearing an old brown T-shirt with a famous brand’s logo on it, he looks older than he is – that is, if one can ignore the nascent growth of his facial hair.
I want to study, not run a shop
Hussain’s conversation is peppered with English phrases and occasional references to current affairs. He is studying privately for his intermediate exam which he will take showing a B-Form, a proof of his birth and parentage, to education authorities but he will need a CNIC if and when he wants to get into a college or a university. Hussain did apply for a CNIC recently. He was asked to prove that his parents were Pakistani citizens so he presented some of his father’s documents: a non-computerised identity card, a domicile certificate and a letter from the Election Commission of Pakistan showing his name on an electoral list. Officials at the Nadra office still rejected his application, he says. They told him he was a Bangladeshi. Hussain works with his 58-year-old father at their sweet shop in Machar Colony but he does not like the work. “I want to study, not run a shop.” Around 300,000 Bangalis were residing in Karachi in the years immediately after the Partition. Most of them worked in garments factories or as domestic workers and chauffeurs, says Khwaja Salman Khairuddin who heads a political party, Pak Muslim Alliance, which is active among Karachi’s Bangali community. His father, Khwaja Khairuddin, was one of the main leaders of the movement for the creation of Pakistan and was a mayor of Dhaka in the 1960s when the city was the capital of East Pakistan. Thousands of these Bangalis moved to Bangladesh after it seceded from Pakistan in 1971 but most continued to stay here, says Khwaja. Many others arrived in Karachi in small groups after 1971 because Bangladesh’s economy at the time was not doing as well as Pakistan’s, he says. These migrants are estimated to be around 200,000 today. The total number of Bangalis currently living and working in Karachi, according to an informal survey carried out by his party, is around two million. They are scattered in about 105 settlements across the city, including Orangi Town (in district west), Ibrahim Hyderi and Bilal Colony (in Malir district), Ziaul Haq Colony and Moosa Colony (in district central), Machar Colony and Lyari’s Bangali Para (in district south). These settlements are generally located either close to the sea or next to industrial areas since most of their residents work in fishing-related businesses or as labourers in factories. [caption id="attachment_68742" align="aligncenter" width="800"]A man takes a bath, with water from a street tap, to cool off during a hot and humid day in Karachi, Pakistan on June 8, 2017 Reuters A man takes a bath, with water from a street tap, to cool off during a hot and humid day in Karachi, Pakistan on June 8, 2017 Reuters[/caption]

Less than second-class citizens

Almost every Bangali living in Karachi demands to be recognised as a Pakistani. As a way to ensure that, they have adopted a collective strategy in the ongoing national census. When official enumerators approach them, they register themselves as speakers of none of the nine languages listed in the census forms. Instead, they list their mother language as “others” since the option of choosing Benagli is not there. And, more importantly, they list their nationality as Pakistani. Census takers do not accept their claims about nationality at face value. They accept them only after checking documents such as CNICs, marriage certificates (or nikah namas) or any other proofs of citizenship, says Khwaja. But registering themselves as Pakistanis in the census may not automatically turn Bangalis into Pakistani citizens. This is exactly what they did in the previous census in 1998, according to Sheikh Muhammad Siraj, president of the Pakistani Bangalis Action Committee, but their citizenship woes continued even after that. If anything, these woes have become worse of late. The other measure that many Bangalis adopted was to get Pakistan identity documents by any means possible, legal or illegal. A vast majority of them were successful in the endeavour when identity cards were made manually. Almost all of them succeeded in transferring those cards into CNICs when the government started issuing digital cards in the early 2000s.
We are not Bangladeshis, why should we accept an alien registration card or any other temporary identity
But over the last few years, the government has started a campaign to separate legitimate Pakistani Bangalis from illegal migrants from Bangladesh. Siraj himself is one of the people being scrutinised. He came to Pakistan from Bangladesh in 1980 and, like many others in his community, possessed a CNIC until it expired in 2014. The government has rejected his application for the renewal of his card. Activists allege the authorities are forcing many legitimate Pakistani Bangalis to register as foreigners. Siraj’s own son, Muhammad Hanif, was registered as an alien in 2005 even though he was born in Pakistan in 1988 and has a birth certificate issued by the Sindh government. His alien registration card shows his place of origin as Bangladesh and his nationality as Bangladeshi. This seems to go against the Pakistani Citizenship Act 1951 that states that “every person born in Pakistan after the commencement of this Act shall be a citizen of Pakistan by birth.” The only way to deny Hanif Pakistani citizenship, under the Act, is to prove that he is the offspring of either a foreign diplomat or an enemy alien. Mohammad Alam, a Bangali rickshaw driver residing in Rehmatiya Colony near Gulshan-e-Iqbal, spends his spare time at the Sindh high court, assisting Bangalis registered as aliens to move court for their cause. “We are not Bangladeshis,” he insists. “Why should we accept an alien registration card or any other temporary identity,” he asks. “That is tantamount to accepting that we are foreigners.” Bangalis of Karachi have had their names on electoral rolls since the 1998 national census. Those who had valid CNICs at the time of elections in 2008 and 2013 would have also voted. Khwaja’s Pak Muslim Alliance, indeed, fielded three candidates in 2008 election – one for the national assembly and two for Sindh assembly (none of them polled more than a few hundred votes). In the 2013 election, the number of the party’s candidates for Sindh assembly rose to six (though the votes they polled remained negligible). These candidates could not have contested the election without valid proofs of being Pakistani citizens. “Our case is simple. If we are not Pakistanis then we should not have been counted as such in 1998. And if we were counted as Pakistanis back then, why don’t we have the right to citizenship now?” says Siraj. He also lists other characteristics of his community that, in his opinion, qualify them to be Pakistanis. “If we are living here, earning our livelihood here and not sending money to any other country, why can’t the government issue us CNICs?” He has put together a huge pile of documents – newspaper clippings and letters addressed to different political leaders, government officials, state institutions, etc. He and his associates also met with Sindh governor Muhammad Zubair on March 24, 2017. “[The governor] has promised to take our case to the prime minister,” says Siraj.

Aliens in their homeland

A high-ranking official of the now defunct National Alien Registration Authority (established in 2000 but merged with Nadra in 2015-2016) says the government never cancels anyone’s citizenship merely on the basis of the language they speak. “We asked people to bring proofs of their Pakistani citizenship – anything that could prove that they fulfilled the criteria as per the Pakistan Citizenship Act 1951. If they failed to do so, what else could we do if not cancel their citizenship,” he says, without wanting to be quoted by name because he works at a post in Nadra that does not authorise him to speak to journalists. The official concedes there could have been some mistakes and some legitimate citizens might have been wrongfully put in the “foreigners” list. But, he adds, these mistakes account for just 1% of all the cases concerning Bangalis in Karachi. Federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan addressed a press conference in Islamabad on April 15 this year. The main thrust of his conversation at the event was citizenships. He said the government had cancelled 174,184 CNICs because they belonged to people confirmed to be non-Pakistanis. Without specifying how many of these were possessed by the citizens of which country, he said that 3,641 foreigners had voluntarily retuned their Pakistani CNICs. These included Indians, Bangladeshis, Afghans and Iraqis.
Being a Bangali (in Pakistan) is not a crime, being a Bangladeshi (and illegally residing in the country) is
Khan also said the government had blocked a little over 350,000 CNICs in total. Out of these, he said, 125,000 were held by non-Afghans – suggesting that some of them might have been held by Bangalis, Burmese and Iranians living in Karachi. Other than the cancelled cards, the minister said, the remaining blocked cards were being unlocked for a period of 60 days during which time their holders could prove their citizenship. If they failed to do so they will be deemed as foreigners and their CNICs will be cancelled. The minister then listed documents that people can show to prove their citizenship – an attested document showing the purchase or ownership of a piece of land, no matter how small; a domicile certificate; an attested family tree issued by the revenue department; educational certificates; passport or identity card; arms license; or any other government-issued document, verified by the respective issuing authority. There is only one condition for the validity of these documents: they should have been issued before 1978. Back in Karachi, activists complain that an unknown number of cards remain blocked even when their holders have produced verified proofs of their Pakistani citizenship– as per the minister’s directions. Blocking and cancelling CNICs cannot rid the government of foreigners living in Pakistan, particularly Bangalis and Burmese in Karachi, says Rana Asif Habib, a Sindh High Court lawyer who also heads a Karachi-based non-profit organisation, the Initiator Human Development Foundation. These communities are present in the city in such large numbers that it is impossible to deport them all, he says. Pakistan, in fact, did try to deport thousands of people to Bangladesh in 1995-1996 but Bangladesh refused to take them back. Religious parties within Pakistan also strongly opposed the deportation. Habib, who also appears at the high court on behalf of individuals fighting citizenship cases, believes the government will sooner or later have to form a policy for accepting them as citizens of Pakistan. That policy should make a distinction between Bangalis and Bangladeshis. “Being a Bangali (in Pakistan) is not a crime, being a Bangladeshi (and illegally residing in the country) is,” he says.

The post has been amended from the original article published in the Dawn Herald's May 2017 issue under the headline Strangers in the house