People & Society

The woes of Bengalis, Burmese and Iranians of Karachi

Updated 14 Sep, 2017 02:50pm
Photo by Mohammad Ali, White Star
Photo by Mohammad Ali, White Star

Even on a Sunday morning, Ibrahim Hyderi is abuzz with activity. Bazaars are brimming with motorcycles, cars, autorickshaws. Buyers and sellers are trading all kinds of household goods and fishing equipment.

Khairuddin, a middle-aged man with dishevelled hair and a thin moustache, is sitting outside a tea shop amid the bustle of this large settlement of fishermen in southeastern Karachi. He looks nervous as he speaks. From the side of his eyes, he is looking warily at a couple of policemen roaming nearby on a van.

The policemen stop next to the tea shop. They try to pick up his words and ask people standing on the road about him. But then they drive away without taking any action.

There is history to this mutual wariness.

A few days ago, Khairuddin was carrying fish from a local jetty to his house in a part of Ibrahim Hyderi called Sau Quarters (hundred quarters) where fishermen – mostly of Bengali 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 100,000 rupees 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 Bengali 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 Bengalis living in different parts of Karachi.

Those who cannot afford to pay the bribes are turned away, a local man in his thirties says as he listens intently to Khairuddin’s plaints.

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 Bengalis Action Committee, a community mobilisation group. Around 75 per cent of its residents are believed to be Bengali, 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.

Working under a hutment made of discarded wood and dried plants, they are peeling the skin off shrimp and putting them in baskets lying next to them. The compound’s floor is wet. Water, poured over shrimp to wash them, and ice melt have mixed with dirt to produce a smelly slush.

Fatima, a middle-aged Bengali woman, is sitting 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 kilogrammes) that she and her children peel.

Bengali woman in Machar Colony peeling shrimps | Bilal Karim Mughal
Bengali woman in Machar Colony peeling shrimps | Bilal Karim Mughal

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 400-500 rupees 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.

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.

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 Bengalis 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, that is active among Karachi’s Bengali 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 Bengalis 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 Bengalis 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 Bengali 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.

Almost every Bengali 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 Bengalis into Pakistani citizens. This is exactly what they did in the previous census in 1998, according to Sheikh Muhammad Siraj, president of the Pakistani Bengalis Action Committee, but their citizenship woes continued even after that. If anything, these woes have become worse of late.

Fatima picks up tokens that can be redeemed for cash | Bilal Karim Mughal
Fatima picks up tokens that can be redeemed for cash | Bilal Karim Mughal

The other measure that many Bengalis 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.

But over the last few years, the government has started a campaign to separate legitimate Pakistani Bengalis 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 Bengalis 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 Bengali rickshaw driver residing in Rehmatiya Colony near Gulshan-e-Iqbal, spends his spare time at the Sindh High Court, assisting Bengalis 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.”

Bengalis 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.

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 one per cent of all the cases concerning Bengalis in Karachi.

Arakanabad is home to a large number of people of Burmese origin who have named the neighbourhood after the area in Burma that they have migrated from. It is located at the end of a stony path that leads down a slope from Ibrahim Hyderi into Korangi area. Streets here are unpaved but fairly wide; houses vary in size but none of them stands out for its architecture.

Shaista*, who appears to be in her thirties, speaks from behind a metallic door of her two-room house in Arakanabad. Her parents sit outside the house on two benches in a makeshift room — it has no walls; instead, bamboo scaffolding supports a roof thatched with dried tree leaves and branches.

Depictions of Sufi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar look at visitors from various parts of this ramshackle structure; a bright-coloured flag adorns one of its corners. It is obvious the family does not have much solace beyond spirituality to get by.

Like almost everyone in Arakanabad, Shaista wants to become a legal citizen of Pakistan, hoping that citizenship will improve her economic conditions or at least help her get much-needed healthcare for herself and education for her three children.

Last year, she needed treatment for a gynaecological condition but officials at the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre refused to treat her because she did not have a CNIC. She also cannot get her three children admitted to any school because they do not have officially accepted birth certificates.

Fisheries harbour at Machar Colony, Karachi | Bilal Karim Mughal
Fisheries harbour at Machar Colony, Karachi | Bilal Karim Mughal

Baby, another 30-something resident of Arakanabad, has a similar problem. She makes her living working as a maid in bungalows near Ibrahim Hyderi and wants her three children, all under the ages of 10, to get an education so that they can have a life better than hers — a wish that cannot come true unless she gets a CNIC for herself.

Like the thousands of Burmese living in Karachi, the only option the two women have is to bribe some NADRA official and get a CNIC made. Shaista’s mother did exactly that after her original CNIC, made in the early 2000s, expired and the NADRA officials refused to renew it — saying she was not a Pakistani citizen. But she paid an agent 8,000 rupees and had her CNIC renewed. “These agents can be spotted outside the NADRA offices all the time,” says Shaista’s mother.

Both Shaista and Baby are members of the Rohingya Muslim community who came to Karachi from Arakan, officially known as Rakhine state in Burma — or Myanmar. The area has been in turmoil since World War II. Rohingya Muslims have suffered immensely at the hands of Buddhists who are in majority in both Rakhine and other parts of Myanmar. They claim that Rohingya Muslims are actually Bengalis, not Burmese.

Many Rohingya Muslims first travelled to East Pakistan in and immediately after 1947 due to its proximity with Arakan. Over time, they started to migrate to West Pakistan, especially Karachi. During General Ayub Khan’s regime, the Pakistani state welcomed them to save them from persecution in Myanmar.

They continued migrating to Karachi in small numbers till the end of General Ziaul Haq’s military government.

Today, according to Khwaja, between 200,000 and 300,000 Burmese are living in Karachi. “They have been living here for decades, mostly without proper identification,” he says.

The government is not sure what to do about them. They do not qualify for citizenship under the 1951 Act that (at least on paper) automatically granted citizenship to everyone who was born in the Subcontinent but was living in Pakistan at the time the law was enacted. Since Burma was separated from the Subcontinent under the Government of India Act 1935, Rohingya Muslims are ineligible from becoming Pakistani citizens under that provision.

“They have mostly assimilated themselves within the Bengali community in Karachi,” says Khwaja. “They don’t call themselves Burmese anymore. Otherwise they don’t have any chance of becoming legal [citizens of Pakistan].” They are, therefore, registering themselves as Pakistani Bengalis in the ongoing census, he adds.

The assimilation has not been difficult since people from Arakan and Benaglis have similar features. That, however, has not provided Rohingya Muslims with a guaranteed path to citizenship since hundreds of thousands of Bengalis themselves are struggling to get just that.

The other option for Rohingya Muslims is to apply for a refugee status. If granted that status, Baby and Shaista will be able to get at least medical care for themselves and schooling for their children through international humanitarian organisations.

But Pakistan is not a signatory to the United Nations convention on refugees and, therefore, does not have any obligation under international law to take in any refugees. Additionally, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) recognises only Afghans as being eligible for the status of refugees within Pakistan.


Maula Bukhsh, a 56-year-old resident of Nawa Lane neighbourhood in Karachi’s Lyari area, is reluctant to talk to journalists. During an interview, he repeatedly asks about the confidentiality of the information he is sharing. He is worried that it may be used against him if government officials come to know about it.

Two other people in the local Iranian community flatly refuse to be interviewed for the same reason. They fear the government will deport them to Iran if their ethnic identity gets revealed or, worse, they may face accusations of spying for Iran and facilitating acts of sabotage.

Their fear is not without reason. Only days earlier, a confessional statement by Uzair Baloch, an alleged gang leader from Lyari, became public in which he admitted to being a dual national – of both Iran and Pakistan – and his association with Iranian intelligence officials. The statement was splashed in the media on April 24, 2016, when news came that Baloch was to be tried by a military court for spying on senior security officials and sensitive installations in Karachi.

About 150 families of Iranian origin are living in Lyari in localities such as Kumharwara, Chakiwara and Mira Naka. It is an open secret that they share familial and business links with Iran.

Members of these families have been travelling between Iran and Karachi, in some cases even before Pakistan came into being. Many of them are involved in exporting bedspreads, draperies, rice, lentils and vegetables from Pakistan to Iran and importing dry fruits, sweets, pickles and carpets from Iran to Pakistan — all through legal channels. Some others smuggle petroleum products from Iran into Pakistan and illegal migrants from Pakistan into Iran.

Ghulam Hussain shows his father's old National Identity Card | Bilal Karim Mughal
Ghulam Hussain shows his father's old National Identity Card | Bilal Karim Mughal

Among them is the family of Muhammad Hussain who, in his spare time, works as a coordinator for Jamaat-e-Islami’s welfare wing Al-Khidmat Foundation in Lyari. His grandparents were from Iran’s Sarbaz district and he first came to Lyari in the 1950s as a child.

After completing his graduation, he went to Sarbaz as a 19-year-old to get married to his cousin. He still has many members of his extended family living in various districts and towns of Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan province. Two of his children – a daughter and a son – are also married in Iran.

Members of these families, including those of Bukhsh and Hussain, sat up and listened as television screens flashed the details of Baloch’s confession. His arrest is confusing, says Bukhsh, because “the charge against him is of spying for a country considered friendly [towards Pakistan]”. This, he says, “makes the situation uncertain for all of us who have families on both sides of the [Pakistan-Iran] border.”

Bukhsh’s father Mohammad Ali moved from Si stan and Baluchestan province of Iran to Nawa Lane in the late 1970s. Before he passed away, he got Pakistani identity cards made for four of his seven children.

“Three of my siblings moved to Bahrain in the 1990s and settled there,” says Bukhsh.

Back then, he never thought that he might someday have to weigh his options as far as his citizenship is concerned. “There was no urgent need to migrate then.” But that need is now developing rapidly, Bukhsh says.

That is because both Iran and Pakistan have started tightening border controls and citizenship rules. Bukhsh has seen restrictions on movement between the two countries only intensify over the last three years or so.

Travel permit to Iran (known as rahdari) is now valid only for a 15-day stay, according to Bukhsh. “Previously, we could stay in Iran for about two months,” he says. Iranian government now charges 30,000 Iranian toman (about 1,000 rupees) if anyone overstays the time limit allowed by the permit, he adds. Even families with valid travel documents are often denied entry into Iran these days, he points out.

These restrictions have come about in the wake of Iranian suspicion that anti-Tehran militants sneak into Iran through Pakistan. Only on April 26 this year, 10 Iranian guards were killed in Sistan and Baluchestan province in an attack alleged by Iran to have been carried out by terrorists based in Pakistan. Similar attacks on Iranian border guards have taken place in April 2015 and October 2013 as well.

On the Pakistani side, Iranians living in Lyari and in southern Balochistan – together numbering approximately 10,000 – did not experience any problems at the hands of the government authorities; that is, until recently. That has changed after an American drone strike killed Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour in Balochistan on May 21, 2016 as he was travelling from Iran into Pakistan.

At least one earlier incident might have also been the reason behind heightened Pakistani concerns about movement of people across border with Iran. Anti-human trafficking cell of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) arrested one Abdul Qadeer, a NADRA official hailing from Panjgur, on August 10, 2015 on the charge of helping foreigners register as Pakistanis.

He was allegedly providing Pakistani identity cards to Iranians looking to get medical treatment in Pakistan, says Hussain, and was charging 10,000 rupees per person in bribes. “Those who sought help from [Qadeer in their cross-border travels] now fear that the authorities may be coming after them,” he explains.

The arrest of an alleged Indian operative Kulbhushan Jhadav after he entered Pakistan from Iran, also last year, and Baloch’s confession have only increased official scrutiny.

The government has, indeed, cancelled CNICs of many people residing in Lyari since the revelation that Mansour was carrying a Pakistani passport and a Pakistani CNIC that identified him as Wali Mohammad. Most of the people with cancelled CNICs in the neighbourhood are of Iranian-Baloch descent, says Hussain.

He also suggests that about 40 per cent of Iranians living in Lyari and Balochistan’s Pasni and Panjgur areas may have just lost their Pakistani citizenship in the past year or so.

Since Pakistan does not have a dual nationality agreement with Iran, people whose fathers and grandfathers were born in Iran are now being asked to show documents that prove that they themselves were born here. Abu Bakr, a journalist from Lyari, mentions “a long queue outside the NADRA office” in his neighbourhood. Most of the people in the queue are there to submit documents that prove their credentials as Pakistani citizens, he says.


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.

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 Bengalis, 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.

Vendors in a market in Sau Quarters, Ibrahim Hyderi | Mohammad Ali, White Star
Vendors in a market in Sau Quarters, Ibrahim Hyderi | Mohammad Ali, White Star

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 Bengalis 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 Bengalis and Bangladeshis. “Being a Bengali [in Pakistan] is not a crime, being a Bangladeshi [and illegally residing in the country] is,” he says.

Names have been changed to protect identity

This article was originally published in the Herald's May 2017 issue under the headline "Strangers in the house". To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.