An enumerator, escorted by security personnel, marks a house during the census in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa | Abdul Majeed Goraya, White Star
An enumerator, escorted by security personnel, marks a house during the census in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa | Abdul Majeed Goraya, White Star

Allahdad was woken up in the middle of the night by the thunder of shelling and what sounded like Kalashnikov fire. Half-asleep, he and his neighbours stumbled to the rooftops of their mud-brick homes in Chaman city to determine the source of the ominous sounds. A battle seemed to be taking place a couple of kilometres to the west, near a border crossing that links Chaman with the town of Wesh in Afghanistan.

Allahdad went back to sleep only to wake up again at 5:30 am. He was to report for duty in less than two hours as the member of a census-taking team in his native area. At 7:00 am, he arrived at a local base of the Frontier Corps (FC) about 2.5 kilometres from the Afghan border. The officers there told him that he and another enumerator were to conduct census in Roghani check post area behind Chaman’s Government Degree College. As soon as they left the base in an FC vehicle, they found that they were instead headed westwards. Allahdad was surprised. He asked the FC officials accompanying him why they were going towards the border where fighting was taking place. He received no answer.

Allahdad and his companion spent the next five hours within the battle zone, sandwiched between two militaries exchanging heavy fire. “We took cover behind a wall,” he says on the phone from Chaman weeks later. A tank was posted right behind them. It was firing shells inside Afghanistan. Carrying only green waistcoats that had ‘Pakistan Census 2017’ written on them and carrying stationary needed for census taking, they felt like sitting ducks. Allahdad says he repeatedly asked the FC soldiers to provid weapons to him and his two associates. “If you want us to fight for our country, then at least give us a weapon,” he said to the soldiers.

Allahdad, a school teacher with 20 years of experience, would later find out that firing from the Pakistani side on that day in early May this year was in retaliation to what a military spokesman called “unprovoked” hostility from the Afghan side towards census takers and the FC soldiers accompanying them. The number of people who lost their lives in the crossfire remains disputed — it could be anywhere between 15 and 50 depending on who is counting. The dead include Afghan soldiers, Pakistani security personnel and civilians from both sides.

Prior to the skirmish, tension had been building up for days between the border forces of the two countries over Pakistani efforts to conduct the census in two border villages — Killi Luqman and Killi Jahangir. Both Pakistan and Afghanistan claim that the villages are located on their side of the Durand Line, a 2,600-kilometre border that has been often contested since it was drawn to separate Afghan territories from British India in 1893.

Following the border clash, Allahdad took a break for a few days before returning to his census duty, but he was still wondering why he and the other enumerator were taken right into the middle of the battle. Such scepticism towards the state in general and security forces in particular is not uncommon in his native Balochistan — a province where the army and other paramilitary forces are not always treated with love and respect.

This perception of the security forces could have had serious implications for a task recently assigned to the army: to accompany census teams and note down and verify demographic information about the occupants of households — in addition to the documentation done by civilian enumerators. The ostensible objective of this move, as explained by Rana Mohammad Afzal Khan, parliamentary secretary for finance, revenue, economic affairs, statistics and privatisation, during a speech in the National Assembly last year, was to add credence to the data collected during the Sixth National Census carried out in two phases between March 15 and May 25. Asif Bajwa, chief statistician of the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) and the man in charge of the census exercise, also said that the soldiers were meant to be “neutral observers” who would conduct an on-the-spot verification of the demographic data collected.

Their neutrality, however, has never been a given.

This is an excerpt from the Herald's October 2017 cover story. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.