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When I was embarrassed being a Pashtun

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There are more than 50 million Pashtuns in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India collectively. They are among the most prominent groups in the history of South Asia. They had been involved in numerous historical changes in the region. Currently, however, Pashtuns are the subject of different kinds of discrimination in Pakistan and India. Their loyalty to Pakistan is constantly questioned for being a Pashtun and the grandsons of Afghan – irrespective of the fact that they are the sons of the soil, which is a part of the current day Pakistan. This kind of discrimination is called structural inequality, and it has created identity crises for the Pashtuns. This article is about my experiences facing embarrassment based on my identity while roaming the country. My thoughts in no way should be generalized on the overall population. I am not writing to hurt someone’s feelings. More than 60 percent of my friend circle is non-Pashtuns. Similarly, I have reached to this level of my education by the mentorship of highly esteemed faculty who are mostly non-Pashtun. Moreover, I also admit that, on many occasions, I received enormous help from them.
Pashtuns invaded and ruled over the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent in the 11th century and diminished the legacy of the Hindu-ruled areas, paving the way for the Muslim Sufi Saints in the region. This process caused a substantial propagation of the Pashtuns in areas extended from the current Afghanistan Eastward into India. In 1948, Pashtuns from the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), along with militias from Northern Areas liberated the current-day Pakistan-held Kashmir on the directions of the then newly formed government of Pakistan.
The Indo-Pak independence in 1947 decided not only the fate of India and Pakistan but also Afghanistan. Turbulence emerged in the Pashtun areas due to the infamous Durand Line between Afghanistan and the then-India. It continues to be a constant headache for Pashtuns living, especially in Pakistan. It is astonishing that despite their sacrifices, they are dehumanized one way or the other. Some case studies I am the witness of, are given below.
1. I did my high school education in my hometown in Khyber Agency and then joined Edwards College Peshawar. Till then, I had no interaction with anyone else apart from the Pashtuns community. When I shifted to Islamabad in 2009, I had my first interactions with people from diverse areas. In 2010, I experienced for the first time in which being a Pashtun is not a welcoming gesture anywhere outside Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK). A father of my class fellow, from Sialkot, died, and we were supposed to attend the funeral. When we crossed into Punjab district from Islamabad, we were stopped by police. I was wearing simple clothes, no jackets, etc. but police insisted on getting out of the car. He searched me from head to toe, even he touched my private body parts as well.
2. A week ago, I was watching an Indian movie Kesar, which was about how the British forces in the 19th century made unsuccessful attempts to subdue the populations, including current day tribal areas of FATA. Most of the districts of the area were a continuous headache for the British forces. The agitation of the tribal people limited their mobilization. In this movie, Pashtuns were portrayed as wild and barbaric. It seems like they were expecting a warm welcome from the locals while occupying their lands and looting their properties. In the same movie, funnier was the story of how the Bollywood filmmakers glorify 21 Sikhs killing 10,000 tribal Lashkar. Upon investigation, the elders of that area of Orakzai Agency – the area where this war took place -termed it rubbish and lies. Being a Pashtun, I have ethical and intellectual right to speak against this fake history and the ongoing phenomenon of Pashtun dehumanization in India and Pakistan.
3. A few years ago, I was going to Azad Kashmir with my elder brother for some construction work. While entering the area, we were stopped by the police at their security checkpoint. They asked for our identity cards, and when they came to know that we were from the tribal areas, they told us to pull over. They asked for ID cards and registration papers of the car. We were investigated for more than an hour. While my brother was speaking with them, I was thinking about myself being a Pashtun and how this specific area where we are standing now had been liberated by my forefathers seven decades ago. I asked myself why it is happening with us this way? Moreover, what did we do wrong to deserve this attention from the police? Not to mention that we were going there to repair our heavy machinery which was involved in the construction of a road connecting the main town with remote areas. We were working in an area which had been extremely vulnerable for the cross-border fire, and no one else was willing to go there.
4. In 2018, I came to the University of Massachusetts, the United States on a fellowship which was sponsored by Higher Education Commission of Pakistan. It was my second fellowship I won based on my educational and research background. On my way to Washington DC to attend a conference, I stopped in New York to see the city. While roaming around in one busy street of Manhattan, I randomly entered a gift shop after I heard Quran recitation audio. While I was checking gifts, a tall brown guy approached me and said ‘Assalam Alaikum’ and then ‘where are you from.’ He was happy when he came to know that I was from Pakistan. He was tall with a beard. During our conversation, he realized that I was Pashtun. He was very friendly with me until he slipped some Urdu words from his mouths that are still echoing in my mind. I’m unable to translate it into proper English, but rather I will quote it in Roman Urdu, ‘Beta, bikna (sell) nahe hey in Americans ke Haathon’. It means “do not sell yourself at the hands of the Americans.” And from this, he meant do not sell your country while working as a spy for Americans. After hearing his words, I left the shop saying nothing because of respect. I was lost in thoughts and kept asking myself questions why being a Pashtun had been looked at suspicion by the non-Pashtun Pakistanis. This is not enough. There have been several other occasions in which I have seen non-Pashtuns giving threats to leave Pakistan and to go to Afghanistan. It is the same as the non-Muslims in India are giving to Muslims to leave India and go to Pakistan. It forced me to think that my status in Pakistan is exactly equal to the status of Muslims in India.
5. This negativity is prevailing in our society for decades. The recent wave has been on the rise since the State’s forces began operations against the insurgents in the tribal belt adjacent to Afghanistan after the 9/11 incident. The insurgents left no area unattended and created havoc far and wide in the country. They inflicted great damage in the lawless tribal areas. In this war, more than 60,000 people have been killed, including combatants, state army, and civilians. On many occasions in some areas of Pakistan, pamphlets have been distributed to inform general public of the possible attacks by insurgent(s) wearing dresses like Pashtuns and speaking the Pashto language. Apart from this, there were textbooks in some provinces which portrayed racial profiling of Pashtuns and correlated it with terrorists. Worse yet, this was allowed under the willingness of the concerned higher authorities of those provinces. Similarly, there had been movies made to create awareness about terrorism in which almost 90% of the terrorists had been shown in Pashtun dress code and speaking Pashto. The phenomenon is called systematic violence. This targeting of Pashtuns seems to ignore the insurgent mindsets in the rest of the provinces, too.
This mentality is eating the very roots of the foundation of our country. It needs to be stopped. This issue was not appropriately addressed in the past, and the results were disastrous in the form of 1971 East Pakistan episode – now Bangladesh. We, Pakistanis, were not giving them their due rights, although they were in the majority. Islamabad needs to revisit domestic policies, including textbooks that promote hatred against other ethnicities in the country. All such intentions and activities need to be criminalized and be punished. It can have dangerous implications shortly if not stopped. We need to invest our energy to train the next generation of coexistence and mutual harmony. We need to learn from the experiences of other nations. Human development must be our first goal, and it can only be achieved when everyone is treated equally. Let us not divert ourselves from the directives given by our Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah; he said “You may belong to any religion, caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the state.”