In-Depth Arena

Closing the gates of Lahore

Updated Aug 18, 2016 09:09am

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Illustration by Zehra Nawab
Illustration by Zehra Nawab

A crowd gathers inside a cool and dark alleyway and a conversation begins to brew in Pashto. Lahore’s Shah Alam Market is a spirited commercial centre and its shopkeepers, selling a panoply of materials and small-scale commodities, seldom have time to gather for idle chitchat. What has brought this group together is the distraught young man at its centre, gesticulating wildly, his national identity card clenched in his fist.

“This card doesn’t say that I am a citizen of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa,” rages Javed Mohmand. “It says that I am a citizen of Pakistan. So why is it that when I went to the bank today, they refused to let me open an account because I am Pathan?”

Mohmand moved to Lahore from Mohmand Agency seven years ago. His family ran a business in Peshawar but shifted to Lahore, hoping to avail a healthier economic climate. He has registered with the local thanas (police stations) three times — every time he switched residence. But this didn’t stop authorities from raiding his Gawalmandi apartment on three separate occasions. Once, a raiding officer insinuated that it was being used for soirees with young men, perpetuating a long-standing ethnic stereotype.

Spurred by the Army Public School massacre and the resulting National Action Plan, police in Lahore have conducted 991 search operations in the city between December 17, 2014 and February 18, 2015; more than 120,000 people have been questioned and 124 cases have been registered, 45 of them under the 1946 Foreigners Act.

But ethnic Pakhtuns and Afghans complain that they have borne the brunt of this newfound vigilance, and unfairly so.

In a recent news report published in Urdu daily Dunya, Lahore’s chief traffic officer Hafiz Cheema was cited as identifying 36 areas deemed high risk for terrorism. Shah Alam Market, Sheranwala Gate, Landa Bazaar and other Pakhtun-dominated areas were all on the list.

“We are targeted because we are Pathan — the state deems all Pathans to be terrorists. If by speaking Pashto one becomes a terrorist, then I, too, am a terrorist,” says Mohmand angrily.

An Afghan girl sorts papers before they are taken to a recycling factory in Lahore | Reuters
An Afghan girl sorts papers before they are taken to a recycling factory in Lahore | Reuters

Pakhtuns arrived in Lahore in various rounds of migration. Some, such as the forefathers of Zimal Khan, a reporter with Khyber TV, migrated before Partition; others moved to the city in wake of the Afghan War in the 1980s. After the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, most Pakhtun refugees opted for cities such as Quetta and Peshawar. Zimal Khan estimates that only between 10 per cent and 15 per cent of Lahore’s Pakhtun migrants arrived during this time. Most live in katchi abaadis near Bund Road and the city’s peripheral areas.

In Landa Bazaar, situated just outside the Lahore railway station, the traders are mostly Afghan, selling shoes, pampers and crockery, as well as anything electronic. Because they give these commodities on credit, they are popular among customers. But the recent crackdown has affected business: Waris Shah, a small business owner, says that he shut down his chappal manufacturing unit only a few weeks ago because of repeated harassment by the police — officials would periodically swoop in, pick up his workers and take them in for questioning.

As Shah relates his travails with the police, his brother Amanullah interjects angrily: “It’s one of those decisions that you come to regret. We had the choice to become Pakistani or remain Afghan and we chose the latter. What a mistake that was!” Their extended family resides in a refugee camp in Nowshera, but Amanullah himself was born in Shahdara, Lahore. “So how can you ask us to go back to Afghanistan now?”

When contacted, Superintendent Police Liaquat Malik tried to downplay the ethnic dimension of the issue. “Look, the Afghans have become a necessary part of our society. If you were to remove them all, some 75 per cent of Lahore’s businesses would disappear. But there are several Afghan bastis (settlements) in Lahore and 28 of them have been marked as sensitive by intelligence agencies. There was no mechanism for data collection for these Afghans, so we don’t really know how many people are living in these areas. It can become an easy sanctuary for terrorists.”

A young boy poses in a slum, in Lahore, inhabited by Afghan refugees | Reuters
A young boy poses in a slum, in Lahore, inhabited by Afghan refugees | Reuters

Human rights activists claim that the attitude towards the Afghans – and to some extent, all Pakhtun migrants in general – has deeper and more entrenched roots. “There is a word in the dictionary to describe our treatment of Afghan refugees, and that word is ‘xenophobia’,” says Najmuddin of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. “The local population complains that these people take their jobs — if they weren’t around, there would be no unemployment.”

“There are local stakeholders who wish to exploit the situation,” he adds. Indeed, when Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan announced a crackdown on the Afghan basti in Islamabad’s I-11 sector, claiming that it had become a safe haven for terrorists, many alleged that not only was it based on ethnic bias, several local commercial groups also had an interest in its clearing.

It is worth pointing out that in the report on the National Action Plan submitted to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in early February this year, 3,416 Afghans were said to have been deported to their ‘country of origin’. Among these, 2,844 were settled in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, 376 in the tribal areas, 195 in Balochistan and one in Islamabad.

According to official figures, therefore, no Afghan based in Punjab has been deported so far. But that hasn’t helped ease the sense of foreboding within the Afghan and the wider Pakhtun community based in Lahore. “There are increasing tensions between the Punjabi traders and Pathan workers,” says Ajmal Khan, head of the Pakhtun Qaumi Ittehad chapter in Shah Alam Market, one of the few representative bodies in Punjab that attempts to address the grievances of Pakhtuns in the province. The emphasis of the group is less on political mobilisation and more on tackling routine issues such as labour disputes and assisting with hospital and funeral bills and registration with local police stations.

“We are still afraid of going to the local thana,” he says, referring to the discriminatory attitude meted out by officials. “But we are increasingly trying to address concerns regarding the treatment of Pathan workers. Our goal is to work with the authorities and ensure that tensions don’t rise further.”

“Pathans in Punjab are like a flock of sheep,” says reporter Zimal Khan. “I get calls in the middle of the night from people asking for help because the authorities have picked up their boys. They spend a great deal of time paying fines and dealing with local officials — but now they are looking to leave. We did an interview the other day with a Pathan businessman who had shifted his business to Turkey. He said Turkey doesn’t treat us as badly as Pakistan does.”

This was originally published in Herald's March 2015 issue. Subscribe to Herald in print.