Zehra Hashmi

On October 3, 2023, Pakistan’s Interior Ministry announced that all migrants living without legal status in Pakistan had twenty-eight days to leave voluntarily or face deportation. This announcement was primarily directed at the four million Afghan refugees residing in Pakistan, of whom 1.7 million are undocumented.

Pakistan has long maintained that Afghan refugees residing in the country can only stay on a temporary basis, with the exception of a statement from the ex-Prime Minister Imran Khan to offer citizenship to Afghan refugees, which was ultimately met with opposition leading to no progress or further discussion of the possibility in parliament. Despite Pakistan’s acceptance of Afghan refugees (albeit reluctant), many, both ordinary citizens and pundits, were surprised when the unprecedented number of deportations began on November 1.

Even by the already low standards of the repressive Pakistani state, the deportation process has been extraordinarily inhumane. This cruel, mass deportation was, as many have pointed out, is a scapegoating ostensibly in response to the recent rise in terror attacks in 2022 and 2023, mostly carried out by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). While the TTP has ideological affinities and links to the Afghan Taliban, they are a distinct group. The Interior Minister under Pakistan’s caretaker government (which took over power in August 2023 until elections were held in February 2024) blamed Afghan nationals and refugees residing in Pakistan for these attacks, despite the fact that they were carried out by TTP. The Afghan Taliban government refused any connection with the TTP-led terror attacks in Pakistan. The Pakistani state has adopted a punitive approach, scapegoating Afghan refugees for its internal problems.

How can we situate this apparent geopolitical problem within its broader social and historical context, particularly as the complexities of this context are regularly flattened by the discourse on securitization in Pakistan that overwhelmingly focuses on the question of terror networks? More immediately, how can the left and progressive quarters within Pakistan and South Asia resist the Pakistani state’s policy-based commitment to deport Afghans in the country?

“The history of Pakistan’s early state-forming years show how the social and political logic of parsing where groups belong has long been central to statist logics— the mode and mechanism by which the state makes the population within its territory both legible and governable”

In the wake of the deportations, a wellspring of expert commentaries emerged. Although these can provide crucial context and critique, they also present intractable problems in such moments. Expertise can often abstract or obfuscate the immediate experiences of those undergoing direct effects of violent state policies, as well as those directly or indirectly perpetuating this violence. From the outset, I want to underline that it is the voices of Afghan refugees experiencing the violent effects of this forced deportation that must remain central in our understanding and action. I say this to centre the limitations of what I write here—in terms of what it can say and do, and especially, for whom.

The current wave of deportations and harassment of Afghan refugees must be situated within the historical context of the Pakistani state’s governmental and bureaucratic approaches to settling people in their place. The history of Pakistan’s early state-forming years show how the social and political logic of parsing where groups belong has long been central to statist logics— the mode and mechanism by which the state makes the population within its territory both legible and governable. However, such a logic is not without internal contradictions. The purpose of this historical analysis is the hope that ordinary Pakistanis, and particularly the Pakistani left, can disentangle their experience of living with difference from those statist logics that have sold the project of separating internal “others” as a public good.
To Be or Not to Be… a Citizen

In 1973, the provincial government of Balochistan became preoccupied with Afghan nationals supposedly “infiltrating” into Pakistan without valid documents. In a summary for the Governor’s Conference, the Balochistan government acknowledged that Afghan tribes had been moving across the border for two or three decades prior, and residing in the area that came to be called Pakistan after 1947. Pakistani officials expressed concern that these groups might permanently settle in this area. The correspondence simultaneously pointed to the fact that in 1962 (a decade earlier), in the districts of Quetta, Chaman and Pishin, the Pakistani government had granted some of these same tribes in the border region—whom they were now identifying as Afghan nationals—Pakistani passports and citizenship. These tribes and their “main sections” had been identified as locals by provincial authorities in Balochistan. In fact, the document stated that “the Pakistan Government’s decision of 1962, whereby semi indigenous tribes, like Hazaras, Durranis, Yousafzais and Ghilzais were declared as indigenous tribes of Pakistan and brought at par with the then existing indigenous tribes for grant of various concessions etc:, also provide an incentive for the unauthorised immigration of Afghan nationals.”

In short, those who were being considered Afghan nationals now had previously been deemed Pakistani nationals. How and why? The Interior Ministry and Ministry for States & Frontier Regions clarified that the “the factual position was that the members of those tribes, who were declared as indigenous tribes of Pakistan, were already citizens of Pakistan and the intention behind the issue of the Federal government agreement was to remove an invidious distinction between indigenous and semi-indigenous tribes and to grant the letter the same concessions…e.g. exemption from school fee admission in technical institutions against reserved seats.” This document attempted to make a distinction between these Afghans who had been officially recognized as Pakistani—even as they are continually referred to as Afghan tribes, acknowledging that ethnic identity in this case did not translate into a national one automatically—and others who may have entered Pakistan more recently, designating these recent arrivals as “illegal infiltrators.”

This revelatory instance, when Pakistan could not differentiate between its own and its others shows how the construction of territory and determining who belongs to which territory is precisely that: constructed and subject to change, —as opposed to already predetermined through some immutable sense of identity.

The Limits of Governance Technologies

What precisely marked the distinction between Pakistanis and Afghans? Were there means to effectively distinguish between them? As the Balochistan government explained in response, when asked for an approximation of numbers of Afghan nationals and proposals for taking action, there were no “authentic statistics” available. It would not be feasible to collect figures without a proper survey and enumeration. At this early stage, the documentary and information technologies required for such a task were limited.

Further, the use of techniques such as targeted enumeration were impacted by a more intractable problem. Since the migrants were mostly ethnic Pashtuns or Hazaras, “their mixing up with their brethren and relatives in Balochistan was/is not therefore easy to detect.” In this way, the authorities recognized that the distinction between Afghan and Pakistan was exceedingly difficult to make, not only at this moment in time since the state itself had previously taken a different position in the past, but also because of how the community that they were trying to designate as two nations was in other ways singular—exemplified by the fact that they were already “mixed up” with their families on the other side of the border.

The Balochistan government’s summary was a response to specific orders by the federal government’s directions in late 1972. First, they asked the provincial government to persuade Afghans, who had been residing in Pakistan for two or three decades prior, to obtain travel documents or residential permits. Second, they instructed that Afghans who had entered Pakistan in the recent past should also either register themselves or be sent back to Afghanistan. Third, that the provincial immigration police should be instructed to be vigilant and prevent the entry of Afghan nationals into Pakistan.

The Balochistan government responded that it was not possible to act on these demands due to the porous border between the two territories. On the second point, they again retorted that it was not easy to distinguish amongst Afghan nationals or between Afghans and Pakistanis as the supposed Afghans could prove, through their tribal elders in Pakistan, that they had been residing in the country for the last two to three decades. Moreover, many had already been granted citizenship according to the 1962 provision. This case laid bare the internal contradictions of the state. The distinct arms of the administrative and political machinery could not act in a singular fashion, not because of incompetence but because of the historical context that rapidly shifted between the early 1960s and after 1972.

The Early Logics of Securitization

The problem was not only a logistical one, it was also a political one that was increasingly articulated in the language of securitization. In 1973, the 1962 decision came to be seen as a “security risk,” as members of the communities reside on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border—the disputed Durand Line drawn by the British colonial regime and never accepted by Afghanistan—which the Pakistani state argued allowed them to carry out “subversive activities” with ease.

But this risk was two-sided. The Ministry of Foreign affair’s response to the summary suggests that any action now to change the decision, “particularly at a time when the Daud government (in Afghanistan) is likely to adopt a more militant and aggressive approach on the question of ‘Pakhtunistan”, would amount to take a great political risk.” In short, such a decision could provide the Daud regime with a “lever” to encourage the tribes on both sides of the Durand line to take a more militant stance. They thus proposed not to change the 1962 decision to grant certain Afghan tribes citizenship but instead develop administrative machinery to curb and control movement across the border, and the activities of the immigrants.

This shift towards an administrative approach, away from a singularly militarised approach, reflects a central and continual strategy of the Pakistani state up until today: it indicates a turn to bureaucratic measures of control. The state has effectively developed means and mechanisms for surveilling its population, crucially as a whole, in order to then identify the fault lines of difference amongst them. This is not a singularly technical manoeuvre—it allowed the state to act with agility alongside shifting political circumstances.

“The state has effectively developed means and mechanisms for surveilling its population, crucially as a whole, in order to then identify the fault lines of difference amongst them”

Indeed, in 1973, political circumstances were shifting in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. The first elected government, under Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was known to be deeply preoccupied with surveillance, exemplified by the formation of the Federal Security Force (FSF). In Afghanistan, the Daud government came into power, overthrew the monarchy, implemented a pro-Soviet policy and actively advocated for a greater Pashtunistan, encompassing the Pashtun areas of both Afghanistan and Pakistan. In response, there was an increasing concern on Pakistan’s part to not agitate the border tribes, in a bid to maintain a hold on their political sympathies towards Pakistan.

This did not mean they accepted the presence of Afghans. The Interior Ministry noted the political risks which were preventing the government from carrying out deportations, but supported “subtle pressure” to motivate Afghans to leave. Given that Pakistani law enforcement has never been known for its subtlety, it is hard to say how effectively subtle these measures were. Furthermore, at this time, the Pakistani state developed an administrative machinery for identifying Afghans, for building pressure on them as a community, and did so through a logic of securitization. In this sense, the language and technologies of securitization preceded those that became ubiquitous after 9/11, and served as a precursor to the harassment that Afghans face today.

The Pakistan government, historically, vacillated on how to deal with Afghans. Occasionally, they have extended a warm welcome, such as after 1979, in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. At that time, the calculation changed for Pakistan, as it received U.S. military and financial support for its fight against the Soviets. As a result, Pakistan hosted not only the incoming Afghan refugees but also Mujahideen camps. However, even in its welcome, Pakistan always sought to strategically create and maintain a distinction.

This was not easy. As disparate parts of the Pakistani state attempted to adjudicate the problem of “illegal entrants,” it was not clear to them either who was Pakistani and who was Afghan. This is crucial because the ambiguity of national identity has since shaped the surveillance technologies both Pakistanis and Afghans (in Pakistan) are subjected to. Moreover, it only underlines how the demarcation of national identity and citizenship is incommensurate with how those subjected to this surveillance and control have practised belonging and mobility.

It further raises the question: is the way that Pakistan sought to first accept and then reject certain Afghans as Pakistanis a shift from earlier governance practices? How did earlier regimes deal with the question of demarcating border populations? In short, how can we situate the Pakistani state’s attempt at fixing people to place within a longer historical context?

Colonial Continuities, Postcolonial Disjunctures

In some ways, the cross-border frontier communities confounded the British colonial regime precisely because they blurred the territorial logic of colonial India. Maintaining the tribal areas as a political and geographical buffer zone—as a frontier that was regulated through its indeterminate status outside of direct colonial control—was one way the colonial state dealt with the complicated nature of sovereignty in this region. In many ways, there are significant continuities in the Pakistani state’s approach to the former Federally Administered Tribal areas, most prominently in the form of the Federal Crimes Regulation and the political agent system continued by the postcolonial state. Not to mention, the very process by which the Durand Line was declared a national border by the Pakistan government in 1947 reflects the acceptance of colonial divisions. The Pakistani government’s attempts to control Afghan migration into Pakistan can in this sense be understood in Vazira Zamindar’s terms, as part of a “long partition,” where bureaucratic processes were deployed to create an internal border. Alongside the colonial continuities in Pakistan’s approach to its frontier regions and their inhabitants, is its post-independence national interest. A distinct logic of securitization and control functions to provide the state capacity to maintain an arbitrary approach in the form of “administrative machinery” to demarcate distinct national populations.

“…the people of what is now called Pakistan and of Afghanistan have long been an integral part of each other’s homelands and lives. ”

Importantly, given the recent deportations of Afghans, what is perhaps most important to consider is how two seemingly contradictory aspects of the Pakistani state can be true at once. Firstly, it has significantly developed the capacity to enumerate, identify, track and surveil populations it considers “security risks,” far beyond what the colonial state could or even desired. Second, even as it built this capacity, as the historical instance mentioned above delineates, various arms of the state recognized and were compelled to work with (not always against) the internal inconsistencies in dividing ethnic and kin-based communities across national lines. This can be observed in how the state vacillated, granting citizenship one decade, only to act punitively towards those it sought to win favour with the next. This not only demonstrates the capriciousness of the state, but also that the state itself gets easily caught up in its own arbitrary mode of assigning national identity. Moreover, this reveals how the movement of people across the landscape in South Asia has been so long-standing and complex that even the state is compelled to recognize the conjunctures at which its logic fails.

Against an Insular Identity

Perhaps one reason that I am inclined to reject the narrative of insular belonging—other than the excellent historical accounts that make it impossible to see the people of Pakistan as bounded, internally homogenous and discrete from one another (this idea of “four” distinct nations and provinces has been sold to us as a national myth) is my family history. Afghans have not just been living in and travelling to South Asia, as emperors, merchants or labourers. In fact, there is a long history of very many different kinds of people from precolonial and colonial India who made their home in Afghanistan, including my great grandfather who left to work as a physician in Afghanistan and raised my paternal grandmother in Kabul. These family histories are not unique or unusual. Faiz Ahmed has written about the broader cultural and historical context within which Afghanistan became a place, particularly during the colonial era, to which Indians (and Indian Muslims in particular) were drawn to. All to say, the people of what is now called Pakistan and of Afghanistan have long been an integral part of each other’s homelands and lives. It won’t be any different anytime soon, and a fixity to our identitarian politics will only further the alienation and dehumanisation experienced by both.

Oddly enough, it is the longstanding intertwined history and present of people across the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands that the Pakistani state attempted to respond to consistently from its formation in 1947 to the present. In saying that the state recognizes its own limitations and logical inconsistencies should not be taken to mean that we can expect it to act any differently—that is, and historically only has been possible through mass, popular resistance. I hope that in recognizing the incoherence of the statist impulse to pin people down in place, those in progressive circles can see how it would do us no good to emulate such a logic, and that it may further divide an already narrow space. In short, the limitations of national criteria for belonging should offer a lesson for how we use the terms refugee and citizen, and build elasticity into our notions of who belongs where and under what circumstances.

This is not to say that Afghan refugees in Pakistan are not refugees; that they have not been displaced from their homes as a result of decades of devastating war and conflict. I do not seek to erase the category of the refugee. Rather, I want to point to the ways the Pakistani state has strategically shifted its boundaries of inclusion and exclusion and how, in doing so, it has sought to simplify and at times even erase the ways the complex intermingling between diverse and heterogeneous peoples in South Asia has been constitutive of their identity. For instance, as scholars such as Sana Alimia  show, urban spaces in Pakistan have been shaped by the labour and life of Afghan refugees. The irony of the erasure of co-constituted Afghan and Pakistani lives is that it has so fundamentally shaped Pakistani statecraft and politics. One simple way this can be seen is the blocking of national ID cards of Pakistani Pashtuns based on identifying kin-based connections between Pakistani citizen and Afghan refugee populations that I have written about elsewhere.  

The Afghan question in Pakistan is central to the political program of resisting a repressive state. Not only has the deportation of Afghan refugees been cruel and inhumane, making opposition to it necessary on humanitarian grounds, it also reflects a vision of an exclusionary and xenophobic society. Resistance in this moment offers an opportunity to reflect on those mobile unclear histories that compel us to reject the state’s weaponization of legality as a strategy for exclusion and the purity of a singular identity formation.

Zehra Hashmi is assistant professor in the History and Sociology of Science department at the University of Pennsylvania. She received her PhD  in the Interdepartmental Program in Anthropology and History at the University of Michigan. Her research focuses on Pakistan’s national identity database, and more broadly the history of identification technologies in colonial and postcolonial South Asia as they intersect with surveillance, kinship, migration, and governance.

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