Mairaj ul Haq

Marooned: Karachi’s stateless fishermen

Ethnic minority groups in Pakistan have long lived in legal limbo without ID cards

Ever since the blocking of his computerized national identity card (CNIC), Sohail Ahmad has stayed close to home. Squashed up against the port of Karachi — Pakistan’s most densely populated city — Machhar Colony is a decrepit sprawl of open sewers and trucks spilling fish guts on unpaved streets, but venturing into other neighborhoods can be even more unpleasant. 

Being hauled into a police van and roughed up or asked for “chai pani” (bribe money) are everyday hazards when you don’t have a CNIC. Not that Ahmad has much cash to part with these days. Like his father, he used to make a living fishing on the open sea but, for the past five years, he has not been able to set foot on a trawler. Given Pakistan’s disputed maritime boundary with neighboring India, he is not allowed to sail without a valid ID. 

Biometric belonging in Pakistan

Around the world, centralized biometric identification systems are being presented as one-stop solutions to many of our problems.

According to governments and the organizations behind them, they provide safety and social security to millions. To critics, they are overarching, inflexible and reflect what people in power believe society should look like, not what it actually is.

In this collection of pieces, Coda Story’s inaugural Bruno fellow, Alizeh Kohari takes a deep dive into the benefits and pitfalls of Pakistan’s National Database and Registration Authority.

Ahmad says that his card — one of millions issued to Pakistani citizens by the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) — was suspended a decade or so ago. According to him, the country’s Intelligence Bureau decided that his CNIC and supporting documents, including a ration card dating back to the 1970s, were all fake. He has been fighting the decision ever since. 

To fully understand Ahmad’s case, it is necessary to grasp how NADRA makes such decisions. Every CNIC blocked by the organization falls into one of two categories. If an individual’s card is suspended because of irregularities in their family tree, they must appear before a regional board and present their documents for reverification. This is referred to  as a “routine” case.

The majority of blocked CNICs, however, are “complex” cases, in which cardholders are suspected of not being Pakistani in the first place. In these instances, district committees of bureaucrats, police and intelligence agents interrogate and investigate the individual in question, then deliver a verdict on their citizenship. According to NADRA, the process should not take more than 40 days, but some people have been waiting for years. 

Like many others in Machhar Colony, which is home to at least half a million people, Ahmad is an of Bengali ancestry. His Urdu is stilted, but when speaking his mother tongue, his words become swift and fluid. He was born in Pakistan, he says, but doesn’t have the paperwork to prove it. The documents he does have — once sufficient for him to be given an identity card — are now considered suspect. Still, he carries them everywhere, creased and dog-eared, but carefully wrapped in plastic.   

“Look, if you tell me my documents are fake, I’ll believe you,” he said plainly. “I’m not educated. I can’t read or write. But, if I was issued fake papers without my knowledge, then how is this my fault?” 

Ethnic Bengalis in Pakistan have long lived in legal limbo, subject to the whims of a paranoid state. Many lack the full set of documents required to apply for a CNIC. Others, like Ahmad, have had their cards retroactively cancelled or told they cannot be renewed. (Regular CNICs expire after five or 10 years.) Part of the reason is prejudice.

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“In the authorities’ imagination, there are no Bengali-speaking Pakistanis,” said Hiba Thobani, a lawyer with Imkaan, an organization that represents undocumented communities in Karachi. “If you speak Bengali, you’re immediately deemed Bangladeshi.”    

In 1971, after the eastern wing of Pakistan broke away to become the newly independent nation of Bangladesh, the number of Bengalis remaining in Pakistan had dwindled to between 10,000 and 25,000. But, by the late 1990s, that figure had shot up to 1.5 million. Many migrated for economic reasons. In the 1980s, Pakistan’s economy was faring considerably better than that of Bangladesh. Some Bengali migrants crossed into Pakistan through India, either on foot or by boat. According to a number of testimonies, the only question asked to many of them by Pakistani border guards was whether they were Muslim. 

At the same time, however, the rising number of migrants alarmed Pakistani authorities, which feared that Bengalis could become the second-largest ethnic group in Karachi, upending the already delicate political equilibrium of Pakistan’s most populous city. 

In 1996, Afzal Ali Shigri, then head of a federal paramilitary force called the Frontier Constabulary, conducted a survey of undocumented migrants within the country. The Shigri Report, as it came to be known, warned of the supposed criminal tendencies of “new” immigrants from Bangladesh. To counter that perceived threat, the National Alien Registration Authority (NARA) was formed alongside NADRA in 2000, tasked with registering foreigners in Pakistan. 

NARA was subsumed by NADRA in 2015, but its actions continue to haunt the Bengali community. Under current policy, if an individual was ever issued a NARA card, they are ineligible for a CNIC. Many people who might otherwise have qualified for Pakistani citizenship — especially ethnic Bengalis and Pashtuns — report having been forcibly registered as foreigners under NARA. Ethnic profiling of minority groups continues in other forms, too. 

“Today, when Bengali speakers go to NADRA, it’s often forcibly written on their forms that they were born in Bangladesh, even if they have documents proving otherwise,” said Thobani. In her experience, NADRA’s data operators make little effort to communicate with her clients.

Like Ahmad, many of them speak heavily accented Urdu, and translators are rarely at hand. Often, applicants cannot read or write and can unwittingly sign off on forms containing inaccurate or false information. Bengalis also have an additional obstacle to clear. Once their data acquisition form has been filled at a NADRA center, it must be attested by a senior bureaucrat, usually the deputy commissioner. This decision is made at the discretion of the official in question and can take years.

As a result, bureaucracy — particularly that pertaining to identity documents — can be especially complicated and confusing for Bengalis. One young resident of Machhar Colony described how he and his friends visited NADRA as one big group. It felt momentous and fraught with risk, like crossing a border. Another described taking gifts of fish to the deputy commissioner’s office in the hope of persuading officials to sign off on her papers. 

Capitalizing on this desperation, brokers and middlemen dot the streets of Machhar Colony, promising to ease the pain of the process. Across Pakistan, in fact, there is a large underground market for NADRA data: forged documents and counterfeit family trees, using information leaked, according to one report, by low-level officials at banks that use NADRA-provided verification software.

 In Machhar Colony, according to one person I spoke to, the current rate for getting a CNIC made is between 10,000 and 12,000 rupees ($58-70). In more complicated cases, or if documents are missing, individuals may pay up to 20 times that amount.

Bribery and fraud are not the only ways people lacking the required documents are able to obtain authentic ID cards. For all of NADRA’s  notorious inflexibility, decisions at its service centers are also often made on an ad-hoc basis. 

“Some people manage to get their CNICs made just with their father’s CNIC; others with just their mother’s. Women have been told to get their husbands’ CNICs made first,” even if they are eligible through their parents, said Thobani. “But the problem is, these come under scrutiny later. Applicants say, well you gave us a CNIC under these conditions but NADRA says it must be fraud, because we’d never have done that. It brings their own processes into question.”

It is often forgotten that there is another way of obtaining an identity card in Pakistan — one that doesn’t involve a desperate search for lost documents belonging to long-dead ancestors. Pakistani law grants birthright citizenship, meaning that if you can prove you were born in the country, the legal status of your parents should have no bearing on your right to a Pakistani identity.

The existing system doesn’t make it easy to apply for a CNIC on the basis of birthright, but there is a precedent. In 2017, 20-year-old Saeed Abdi Mehmood — born in Islamabad to Somali refugees — sued NADRA for refusing him an ID card on the grounds that his parents were not Pakistani. Even after winning his case, Mehmood first had to obtain approval from the Interior Ministry; a process so labyrinthine that, according to his lawyer, it appears that he still doesn’t have a CNIC. 

The hurdles aren’t just administrative, they are deeply political. Facilitating birthright citizenship has profound implications not just for the Bengali community but also for the nearly three million people of Afghan origin living in the country, many of whom were born in Pakistan. In fact, Mehmood’s lawyer, Umer Gilani, said that he first intended to fight the suit with an Afghan-origin plaintiff but decided against it, opting for a less politically divisive test case. 

At some point, Thobani believes, the Pakistani state will have to decide the fate of the generations of stateless people within its borders. 

“We often ask this question at hearings. You can’t deport them to Bangladesh because, for one, we don’t have extradition agreements with Bangladesh and, for another, they’re not Bangladeshi citizens, so Bangladesh won’t accept them anyway,” she said. “There’s no answer. This question is ignored.”

When he isn’t following up on his court appeal, Ahmad stays at home. No one in his family has a valid ID card. His sons work as day laborers, one of a dwindling number of jobs that don’t always require you to supply your CNIC. In encounters with the state  — a bored policeman on the street, a clerk in a government office — he is often asked, “When did you come here?” He may not be able to prove it, but he’s never known any other home.

Sohail Ahmad is a pseudonym.

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Alizeh Kohari

Alizeh Kohari is an independent Pakistani journalist who divides her time between Karachi and Mexico City. Between 2011 and 2015, she was a staffer at Herald, a Pakistani news magazine. Her reporting has been published in BBC, Reuters, Harper’s and WIRED.