Racial power asymmetry is part of the popular global discourse that most people are familiar with. Only last month, Derek Chauvin—the police officer accused of the murder of George Floyd—was tried in a globally live-streamed trial where the jury found him guilty on all charges.
The conversation around systemic racism is gaining traction once again in the global cultural imagination. However, this trend follows a strange phenomenon: race as a category and racism as a problem is largely seen as restricted to the Global North; therefore, cases of racial prejudice, discrimination, and violence in the Global South are never framed within the same perspective.
This gives us — citizens of the so-called third-world — an illusory comfort that only the West is plagued with the prejudice of racism and we are quite non-racist when it comes to it.
There has been for the past few years, a growing trend to institutionalise the racism that has existed communally and socially in Pakistan, with the Pashtun community receiving the worst of it. The pattern seems to emerge post-2016, and particularly in Punjab.
Institutionalisation of Racial profiling
In September 2018, the Information Ministry of Punjab ran a public campaign to inform citizens about reporting illegal and suspicious activities. Part of this campaign was an ad that used the images of Manzoor Pashteen—the leader of the non-violent Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement—while it talked about hate speech and terror activities.
However, this can be counted as an isolated incident; earlier in 2017, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assembly passed a strongly worded resolution condemning the increasing prejudice against the Pashtun community in Punjab.
“People of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, including businessmen, traders and daily wagers, have settled in Punjab and other areas (of the country). Unemployment and militancy have forced Pakhtuns to migrate to other provinces to earn a living, but they are being victimised,” read the text of the resolution. The resolution termed the policies of the Punjab government as “racial,” and a “policy of victimisation.”
These instances are only a minute part of the picture; there exists a dark figure of racial profiling in Punjab that escapes the gaze of the media and is never publicised. Local notifications routinely profile the Pashtun communities living in Punjab, relegating them to the margins of society.
Pashtuns living in Punjab revealed that authorities largely target two groups; traders and students. Qayoom*, a Pashtun shop-owner in Lahore, spoke of a notification issued in 2017 by the local trade association in Bilal Market, Bilal Ganj in Lahore, that asked the Pashtun daily-wage earners, traders and shop-owners to submit their account documents to local police stations, detailing their earnings, funding and spending.
The notification said that law enforcement agencies of the Punjab government visited the office of the trade association and directed the president to ensure that the Pashtun community in the area followed these directives.
This trend of seeing the Pashtun community as synonymous with terror or illegal activities—what the Punjab government advert essentially highlights—comes with the need for the state authorities to constantly surveil them, to track their mobility and activities. Qayoom added that the harassment of Pashtun hawkers and roadside stall-owners was a routine in Lahore, apart from the regular harassment of most Pashtuns by police and security personnel.
Sachal*, a Pashtun resident of Lahore, said, “If there is a check post, my chances of being stopped and searched are increased if I am wearing a Pakol. I can pass off as a non-Pashtun by face but I have a very distinctly Pashtun name so when I get stopped [at check posts] and asked for an ID card that is when it gets a little unpleasant. They ask me why I am in Lahore, like just straight up why? And then I have to justify why I, someone who was born in Lahore, am in Lahore. I think it is very racist and microaggressions are common as well. Then they take my details and note them down, something that they do not do often. They just search you and let you go, but I have to give them my details and they note them down.”
In 2017, the Office of Inspector General (IG) of Punjab issued notifications of similar nature that targeted the Pashtun population of the province. The notification instructed local SHOs and police stations to nominate a focal person from the local Pashtun community that would help the police in search operations or raids regarding the Pashtun community.
In all of these notifications, only one ethnic group is mentioned. Another thing to notice is that all of these notifications are crime, police or surveillance related. This highlights that racial profiling is a policy, if not an underlying reality, within the law enforcement institutions of Punjab.
However, this profiling is not limited to simply the institutions of the state; state policy has the ability to penetrate into the social body and civil institutions, signalling information to the general population. That is to say, if the state imagines its Pashtun citizens as a threat to public order and safety, other citizens will follow suit and see the Pashtun community in the same light.
What I am interested in understanding here then, are the experiences of Pashtun individuals in civil institutions in Punjab. The province has a sizable population of Pashtun students from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan.
Understanding their experience can illustrate the very tangible real impact state policy of racial profiling has on the lives of people. Given that they are students, a demographic that is otherwise imagined to be in less frequent contact with law-enforcing institutions, it serves to highlight just how pervasive the impacts of this policy are; racial profiling leads to racial otherisation, which is simply a fancy way of saying that Punjabi people and institutions have a racist attitude towards Pashtun individuals that is only fueled by the signalling provided to the population from above.
“I distinctly remember when my Head of Department (HoD) said ‘I am not particularly fond of Pashtuns’ during a lecture,” said Bizhen* a student at the Beaconhouse National University (BNU). “The stereotypes are the same old ones; violent troublemakers.”
“So how do you deal with such bigotry and racism?” I enquired.
“Well, it is difficult. It depends on who is doing it, if it is a student then at least I can call them out but if my HoD is the one who is saying these things in the middle of a lecture there is not much I can do. So sometimes you push against these ignorant narratives, sometimes you let them see you as they want to avoid confrontation,” he told me as he lit a cigarette.
Bizhen is a Pashtun student from Quetta who lives in Lahore to pursue higher education. “The problem is that the people of the centre do not relate at all to the experiences and lives of those at the peripheries of the country,” he said.
“Lahori elites relate more with the lives of American youth than they even know about the lived reality of people from FATA or Quetta,” Bizhen complained as took a puff and filled the air with a tinge of smoke trailing in the warm light of the lamp. The anger and frustration were clear in his voice, but it was an anger that was articulated in measured intelligent words.
“We have to bow down and be less Pashtun, to the point that the way we dress needs to be changed to make sure that it dispels stereotypes. If anyone on campus looks at a Pashtun who is wearing ShalwarKameez the instant assumption is that they are ‘tribal, conservative and violent’.”
“Pashtuns are never seen as people with an agency within them, we are (in the crudest stereotypes and popular imagination) instruments of violence or with the more benevolent racism fetishised objects of desire as white-skinned coloured eyed people,” said Mahsud a student at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). “With this lack of agency comes to a very odd invisibility that is not only imposed onto Pashtuns and at times we are forced to perform this invisibility as well.”
Mahsud, a Pashtun in his early twenties, grew up in Lahore, born to a Pashtun couple. In his experience, growing up in Lahore came with a complete lack of Pashtun visibility where he did not have Pashtun people around him or a sense of community. The only representation was on TV which was framed within narratives of war and violence. “Given that I went to a majority-Punjabi school there was always a pressure to hide my ethnicity or not stand out. The family dynamic was different, my personal life was different and talking about anything made me the odd one out,” he recalled.
“And the only way I can put how it made me feel is to imagine the Punjabi crowd as this amorphous blob of homogeneity that wanted to suck me in and make me like itself. That afforded me the privilege of fitting in but it also asked me to be less Pashtun,” Mahsud mused.
This invisibility Mahsud talks about connects to what Bizhen had told me, the way Pashtun individuals are expected to act is to always reduce their ethnicity into an invisible trait, to prove to the people around them that they are less Pashtun or a different Pashtun in order to be included in social groups or not stereotyped as a violent or conservative tribesman.
The lens through which Pashtuns were viewed was always the Other: the tribal warlike people as opposed to educated modern Punjabis, he said, adding that being the only Pashtun in the three batches above-and-below felt isolating.
This is one of the reasons Mahsud elaborated, why he never engaged with his Pashtun identity and distanced himself from other Pashtuns as he did not want to be categorised and reduced to a mere stereotype. “I am ashamed to admit this when the first time I was in a place which had a decent number of Pashtuns was my university. And I actively made sure to avoid other Pashtuns on campus and not let my Punjabi (or non-Pashtun) friends see me interact with them because… I don’t know, I think my moving in certain social circles was despite the fact that I was Pashtun. Because I was seen as not ‘that kind of Pashtun’.”
“‘There are too many Pashtuns here’ that is the comment he made,” said Imran* while talking about his experience with his university’s administration as a Pashtun student in Punjab. Imran is a student from erstwhile FATA is currently enrolled at the Islamia University Bahawalpur.
He further explained that the administration is hostile and discriminatory towards Pashtun students, often not helping or aiding them in issues. “We had free accommodation as part of our scholarship, but one day the administration just straight up said they will not give us accommodation and we need to sort that out ourselves,” he elaborated.
“I would say this is the routine at this point, the administration is constantly making life more difficult and even harassing Pashtun students, especially the ones from FATA who happen to be studying here on scholarships. This means they are dependent on the university for accommodation etc. and the university just harasses them.”
Harris, another student at LUMS recalled instances of racial microaggression he has faced on and off-campus. “There is some ‘acceptable kind’ of discrimination that sometimes happen on campus, so for example, once I went to the library in shalwar-kameez and the librarian stopped me and said are you a student here? I said yes and showed them my student card but there were like ‘is this even real’ and I said ‘yes, obviously this is real, confirm it if you want to,’” Harris recalled.
“Similarly, we were once sitting in the cricket ground and a COVID-monitor came and told one of my friends who looks very stereotypical Pashtun and speaks accented Urdu that he was not a student at the university and that he would take him to the security office. It was not until someone who knew the COVID-monitor gave assurance that he was a LUMS student that he believed it.”
But these were just the on-campus experiences Harris talked about, the discrimination and profiling of Pashtun individuals is a reality across institutions, “You don’t expect a thing like this at LUMS, you know, it’s supposed to be more liberal and a hub of new knowledge and progressive and all that,” he said with a strange tinge of disappointment, as if his disappointment was unwarranted, and this racial profiling was somehow ‘acceptable’.
“If I get stopped at a security check post, the one question they ask is ‘are you Pashtun?’ and then given my permanent address is of Batkhela, Malakand they always ask me what I am doing in Lahore, then I have to explain that I am a student and my father is in the civil services and he is posted in this city,” he added.
These experiences are routine for Pashtun citizens living in Punjab; a perpetual otherisation and treatment with suspicion. Rather than looking at other contexts and understanding how we can reduce this racial prejudice, it may be far more useful to understand what these Pashtun individuals think may help in bridging the gap between their community and the Punjabi majority as they are far more informed of their lives reality and the prejudice they face.
Bizhen commented there seems to be a forced exodus of Pashtun communities from their lands; this occurs not only due to the state’s negligence of the regrouping of violent factions on the periphery, the lack of rebuilding in the aftermath of military operations, but also due to a lack of opportunities (educational and entrepreneurial) in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
This forces individuals out of their homes as migrants to Punjab. In this context then, part of the racial prejudice is an economic discomfort that the native population feels towards settlers from other provinces. If this brain drain is stopped with the rebuilding of areas impacted by conflict and the provision of opportunities in provinces other than Punjab, then a more egalitarian exchange of populations is possible.
Looking at how other societies around the world have dealt with discrimination and asymmetrical power relations between ethnic groups may be useful, but each society has its own peculiar context and nuances. In such a case, hearing the voice of the Pashtun population is far more useful than trying to correct the problem by enforcing a policy ‘from above’.
The prejudice towards Pashtuns exists because the history and cultural identity of Pakistan is framed from the perspective of Punjab, Harris opined.
“The Pakistan Studies curriculum goes into detail about the political landscape of Punjab and looks at Punjab’s experience with Partition, its leaders and people. This humanisation is never granted to Pashtun people,” he said.
The inclusion of anti-colonial Pashtun figures such as Bacha Khan, the Fakir of Ippi, and countless others into the curriculum all across Pakistan would allow children to imagine a Pakistani identity that also acknowledges the struggles of the Pashtun people. This also works to dispel the stereotypical colonial representation of Pashtun people as violent; Bacha Khan led one of the biggest non-violent organizations in Asia, the KhudaiKhidmatgar. The cultural imagination of all Pakistanis contains Punjabi figures like Baba Bulleh Shah or the Sindhi saint Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai, hardly any non-Pashtun Pakistani would be familiar with Pashto poets such as NazoTokhi or Rehman Baba. This points towards a fundamental lack of appreciation by the state for the culture of its constituting unit.
Mahsud expressed how media and television can be used to humanise, but change the cultural imagination associated with the figure of the Pashtun. By using media to portray Pashtun individuals in a more nuanced way that do not use them as comic relief, we can allow not only a large part of our population to resonate with a character on screen but also allow non-Pashtun people to see the lived reality of Pashtun people. To show characters that are unabashedly Pashtun but also much more than that; like all the rest of us, whose ethnicity is a part of their identity but not a box they fit into.