Amir Khan, a resident of Nowshera district of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, who runs a catering business in Lahore, was sleeping in his apartment when the police knocked at his door early Sunday morning. “They told me that my neighbours thought that I was a terrorist.”
The 35-year-old has been living in that apartment for seven years and never faced any issues with his neighbours. “They [the police officials] were in no mood to talk,” he said. “As soon as they entered my apartment they started asking questions about my links to terrorists.” One of the policemen slapped him. The police looked at his identity card and took him to the police station. After spending a night in the lockup, Amir was released on the condition that he would keep an eye on his friends for any suspicious activity and inform the police if he thought any of his “Pukhtun” friends were involved in planning any terrorist activity. Amir was disgusted.
This is the face of racial profiling in Pakistan. It started after bomb blasts in Lahore and Sehwan with the Punjab police declaring a crackdown against terrorists. However, their anti-terror operations are largely targeted at the Pukhtun population in these two provinces. Some district police officials distributed pamphlets requesting the general population to report any suspicious person or activity. The terrorists were specified as “Pathans and Afghans”. Similarly, traders have been asked to register Pathans working in their markets and submit lists to the nearby police stations to help the government curb terrorism.
Zafarullah Khan lives in Islamabad. He is a Pukhtun who has been living in Islamabad for the last four years. On Monday morning, his brother, a college student, was detained by the Islamabad police “for not carrying proper identification information”. In a Facebook post, Zafar wrote that his brother had a college identity card but the police were of the opinion that anyone could create a fake student card.
Pukhtuns posted videos on Facebook, saying that Pakistan was safe as long as they were alive. Pukhtun nationalists mocked those people by tagging them as “Gul Khans”. The term Gul Khan was used synonymously as “servants of Punjab”
After receiving news of his brother’s detention, Zafar went to the police station. He was surprised when the police asked for “a permanent residence certificate”. Zafar showed his CNIC with his current address. However, the police officer did not accept the address on his national identity card as “enough proof”. Zafar said that the police officer argued that even someone who lives in a rented apartment could get a national identity card with a current address of Islamabad. Zafar was taken aback by the arguments. “Is it a crime to live in Islamabad on rent?” he asked. He had to approach a high-level security officials to have his brother released.
The decision has drawn flak. In a press release, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) condemned “the apparent racial profiling of Pukhtuns” and asked the government of Punjab to do some self-reflection instead of harassing citizens of a particular ethnicity for the crimes they did not commit. “The HRCP is aghast at the administration in at least some districts of Punjab issuing formal or informal orders, asking the population to keep an eye on suspicious individuals who look like Pashtuns or are from Fata and to report any suspicious activity to them,” the HRCP said. “The stereotyping that makes suspects of an entire ethnic group needs to be unequivocally condemned and appropriate corrective measures introduced at the training and execution stages to prevent any recurrence. Safeguards must be announced to protect individuals from harassment or being treated like suspects because of their appearance or facial features.”
The racial profiling of Pukhtuns has got people talking again about their identity and citizenship status in the Federation of Pakistan. The discussion mostly focuses on how Pukhtuns should negotiate their identity in the face of new challenges. The majority of the nationalists considers the racial profiling an extension of what they count as a series of injustices since the creation of Pakistan. They think that Pukhtuns have never been treated as equal citizens in the state of Pakistan. The nationalists want a tit-for-tat response for the government of Punjab. They believe it is the time that Pukhtuns as a ‘nation’ to stand up against what they feel is structural oppression. Danish Rahman, 23, (name has been changed on request), a nationalist activist, said that he was not surprised by the government of Punjab’s decision to declare all Pukhtuns terror suspects. “It is a product of those seeds which their elites and policy makers have been sowing for the last seven decades in minds through textbooks and the media,” he said.
Imad Khalil, a law student in Peshawar, agreed with Rahman. “The ongoing humiliation of Pukhtuns by the Punjab police may not be at the behest of the Punjab government,” he said. “However, the circulars of the Mandi Bahauddin police and some trade unions based in Punjab clearly show that the constructed racial profiling of Pukhtuns for decades is the main reason behind this humiliation.”
This is the worst kind of discrimination and counter-terrorism policy or strategy, argues Ziaullah Hamdard, 27, a lecturer at the Department of Communication and Journalism at the Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan. “It will create more hatred, division, distances, and differences and will harm the national integration in the long run,” he said.
The debate has been on both sides. Some Pukhtuns do not feel that any wrong was done. A journalist from Peshawar asked on his Facebook page: “It doesn’t hurt anyone if the police and other law-enforcement agencies take the Afghan refugees and other Pukhtuns in Peshawar and elsewhere in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, or even in Sindh over lacking [absence] of legal documents. But, if the same process is done in Punjab, it is called humiliation of the Pukhtuns. Why?”
Others just thought it was a conspiracy to call it ‘racial profiling’. Zubair Ali Khan, 25, who works in the media section of a major political party, said, for example, that, “Pakistan is in a state of proxy war and I think this issue is launched [highlighted] by external forces. By external forces, I mean all the elements which are against the stability of Pakistan.”
Get back to where you belong
Pukhtun youth is divided into two ostensible groups. One group prefers their ethnic identity over the national identity. This group believes that their identity as Pukhtun comes before their identity as a Pakistani. They believe that provincial autonomy can serve the underprivileged people of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, even at the cost of a weaker federation. The other group leans toward preferring their national identity over their ethnic identity. They think everyone would equally benefit from a stronger federation. Politically, the Awami National Party and its student wing leans to the former and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf and Jamaat-e-Islami to the latter kind of outlook.
In November 2016, when tensions were high between Pakistan and India, some Pukhtuns posted videos pledging to protect Pakistan at every cost. The Pukhtuns in those videos claimed that “as long as Pukhtuns are alive no one can do any harm to Pakistan.” The videos were not well received by Pukhtun nationalists and intelligentsia who thought that the State had used Pukhtuns to achieve its strategic goals at the cost of peace and prosperity in the Pukhtun region. Pukhtun nationalists mocked those people by tagging them as “Gul Khans”. The term Gul Khan was used synonymously as “servants of Punjab”.
Recently, PTI supporters started a campaign on Facebook and on the streets of Peshawar. They started asking Afghans refugees “Kala ba ze” (When are you going back to your country?) This angered Pukhtun nationalists. In response to the recent incidents of racial profiling, the nationalists returned the favour by asking PTI supporters and people living in Punjab “Kala ba raze” (When are you coming back to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa?) or “Kala ba de ubase” (When will they kick you out (from Punjab)). The war continues on social media.
Politics in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa
All the major political parties in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa have reacted with the strongest expressions coming from the ANP’s Asfandyar Wali Khan. In a media briefing in his hometown of Charsadda, Asfandyar Wali announced that they would be boycotting all meeting at the national level. “We have the right to return the favour to Punjab by refusing its people entry,” he said. Similarly, the PTI’s Imran Khan, the chairman of the ruling party in KP, condemned the actions of the Punjab government in a tweet.
Dr. Hussain Hussain, a political analyst, believes that the Punjab government is just covering up its own negligence and the presence of militant groups in the province by scapegoating innocent Pukhtuns. “The Pukhtun racial profiling is rooted in the ideology that presents Pukhtuns as synonymous with barbarism and war,” he said. “The government of Punjab does not see the 71 militant organizations that are involved in extremism and terrorism in Punjab but it targets the Pukhtun daily wage workers?”
The irony is lost on no one. A Pakistani, a Punjabi, who is doing his PhD in Language and Sociocultural Studies was discussing the racial profiling with an American at an American university. The Punjabi defended the actions of the provincial government by saying, “Not all Pukhtuns are terrorists, but all Pukhtuns are terrorists.” And by that reasoning, he felt that the government needs to keep track of them. The American responded by saying: “How is that statement different from Trump’s policy on Muslims?” The Punjabi had no answer.
The writer is a researcher. His primary area of interest is the intersection of race, gender, health, and journalism