A Treachery of Conspicuous Silence

November 22, 2023
12 mins read
An Afghan refugee girl goes to collect garbage to burn for heating in a camp near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in Torkham, Afghanistan, 4 Nov 2023. Image: AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi

As progressives around the world (a few decades too late) come together to call for a ceasefire in Gaza and an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, solidarity as an act is rightfully being put to the test. Can we continue condemning structures of oppression, that we condone in our own immediate realities? Researcher Heba Adawy writes about the Pakistani silence on the expulsion of Afghan refugees from Pakistan.  

As we watch, in visceral horror, Israel’s genocidal assault against the Palestinians turned into refugees in their own land— babies covered in dust or blown to smithereens, a mother hugging a lifeless body shrouded in white, a father desperately digging the rubble of his house for the remains of his child, another refugee crisis unfolds on the frontiers of Pakistan and Afghanistan. In October, Pakistan’s interim government ordered nearly 1.7 million undocumented Afghan refugees to leave by November 1 or face deportation. As the deadline surpasses, thousands of Afghan refugees have flocked the Durand line with their meagre belongings, while others have been rounded by Pakistani authorities in deportation containers – their homes, livestock, and assets confiscated. 

For many Afghans consigned to deportation containers, Pakistan was not only a place of refuge, it was also their place of birth, their only home, and the final resting place of their parents and grandparents. Pakistan has been home to a population of more than 4 million Afghans since the Soviet war in the 1980s, including 880,000 Afghans with a legal right to remain in Pakistan and 1.3 million with Proof of Registration (PoR) cards. While the interim government claims that it is targeting undocumented immigrants, civil rights groups in Pakistan are also warning against implications for those with legal status to remain, Pashtun and Hazara trader communities at large, undocumented minors, and the city’s poor.

As Pakistanis take to the streets from Karachi to Lahore, London to Sydney, protesting the ‘enforced silence’ on Palestinians in Western liberal corridors, there is something about the figure of an Afghan refugee child, strapped to the back of a truck and waving goodbye, that belies their noise and defies expression.

The figure of the refugee and the limits of solidarity

As a Pakistani in diaspora, residing in Australia – a state established through a settler colonial project, it is a moment of acute moral reckoning to watch the simultaneity of this crisis unfold alongside Israel’s assault on Gazans, rendered refugees twice in their own land. Here in Australia, the Palestinian— as a figure of refuge— can be tokenistically accommodated in Australian multiculturalism. He is ‘included’ in back-door ministerial meetings week after week by the ruling government to assure that a specific multicultural contingent is heard— even if ignored. But his rage against his own annihilation unravels the settler project at its seams. It exposes the hollowness of liberal paternalism that sustains settler colonialism, where a routine self-confidence of reciting land acknowledgments of Aboriginal land (‘Always Was, Always Will be’) resides with settler unease over Palestinian acknowledgments of indigeneity (‘From the River to the Sea1’). 

But if Palestine is a moral litmus test for much of the Western world, as Angela Davis reiterates, then it is also a symbolic frontier for fighting oppression and forging intersectional solidarities. Or, so I expressed rather enthusiastically in a recent conversation I had with an Afghan friend in Canberra. We had both gathered in solidarity and in revulsion of the Palestinian exception in the Western liberal academy, where at best, Palestinians could only be pitied at a moment of complete annihilation. But his circumspect response to my enthusiasm made me ponder over my own words. We did not talk about Afghan refugees, then. But a sense of collective guilt has trailed me since.

In part, my enthusiastic response stemmed from how Palestine was a frame for intersectional solidarity among Pakistani and Indian Muslim immigrants in Australia. In the wake of Israel’s assault on Gaza, many were relating with Indigenous dispossession, more viscerally, than what I had heard from them in the past 5 years. Israel’s assault came at the heels of a Referendum called by the Australian Labour Party to vote for the recognition of Indigenous Voice in the Parliament. For many recent immigrants, it was their first opportunity to not only participate in a constitutional exercise but also, paternalistically, decide whether Indigenous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders needed recognition in their own lands. 

The Referendum outcome, ending with a majoritarian refusal of the Voice, has been a moment of reckoning for Indigenous Australians. Paired with the Labour Party’s unflinching support for Israel, without a commensurate acknowledgment of Palestinian suffering, it is also an eye-opener for many settler immigrants from the Global South, particularly from Muslim communities. 

For many Muslim immigrant families from South Asia, solidarity with Palestinians is instinctive. It is shaped by their global South positionality, their Muslim identity, and their fragmented relation with anti-colonial histories in the subcontinent. A year after the British brokered the Partition of the subcontinent, they presided over the historic displacement of Palestinians through the Nakba of 1948.

Eqbal Ahmed, a renowned Pakistani intellectual and a contemporary of Edward Said, commented on the ironic simultaneity of the events from the heart of the American empire. While sensitive to Jewish suffering, he did not hesitate to speak his mind at the expense of harassment and attempted deportation. “Thus, at the dawn of decolonization, we were returned to the earliest, most intense form of colonial menace – the exclusivist settler colonialism which had dealt genocidal blows to the great civilizations and peoples of the Americas,’ he wrote in 1984. 

For Pakistanis, Palestinian solidarity extends across the spectrum. The state’s overt posture is a refusal of Israel (a refusal that, ironically, coincides with a recognition and purchase of Israeli tech and spyware). But, dovetailing with this position, Pakistanis imbue Palestine with different meanings: as a spiritual land of the Prophets; as an epitome of anti-colonial and anti-imperial struggle; as a secular cause; as a religious-nationalist cause.

This instinct is not so much the case with Indigenous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Here solidarity has to be learned and unlearned. Here, one’s relation with the “original inhabitants” or the “traditional owners”— (as the acknowledgments go)— is mediated through an Australian liberal mainstream in which many settler-immigrants aspire to integrate. Often it is also mediated through the (dis)privileged biases of race and class that skilled settler-immigrants bring with them, where they occasionally see disempowered Indigenous Australians, but not their disempowerment. In the wake of the Referendum outcome and the media’s complicit coverage of Palestine, however, many emerging immigrant families are connecting the dots. For the first time in my conversations, they are seeing the horrors of Indigenous dispossession on Stolen lands through Palestine. They are hearing the history of Aboriginal land— not through routinized acknowledgments of its ‘traditional owners and elders past, present and emerging;’ but the screams and televised massacres of an unfolding, and more identifiable, settler colonial genocide in Gaza. 

But while Palestine has compelled many skilled immigrant families to take to the streets and rise from an apolitical stupor, the sight of an Afghan refugee child fails to mobilize a wide-scale response both in Pakistan and in the Pakistani diaspora. Like the Indigenous among many settler immigrants, and perhaps the Kashmiri among Indian Muslims, the Afghan refugee in Pakistan defies more familiar templates of solidarity. Or perhaps he is too familiar for solidarity. Is this yet another manifestation of the (liberal) silence that we despise? The hallmark of which is not so much a religious or secular subjectivity, but an evasiveness to confront a horror within? 

Growing up in Pakistan, my own interactions with Afghans were mediated by a class privilege. In the bazaars of Karachi, Afghan shop owners would sell unstitched silk and cotton, joke and quibble with my mother over zabardust maal (fantastic treasure) that had just arrived in their store, and serve us tea as sweet as sugar. But my most searing memory was as an adolescent in Karachi, after the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Our car was parked outside a store near our house when we saw an old baba resting with exhaustion on the pavement in front of us. He seemed to be from a Pashtun background, with a white beard and a white pagri (headgear). Almost reflexively, my cousin, who was visiting from London, reached out and offered him some money. What followed was something we did not anticipate. His reluctance to accept anything from us turned into tears as he repeatedly pointed his finger to the sky, as if a testimony to God. We got out of the car and surrounded him. He took off his pagri and cried in a language we did not understand, and we began to cry with him. We implored him to wait while we brought back some goods from our house nearby. When we returned, he was nowhere to be found. 

Sights of poverty are not uncommon in Pakistan— and for us, perhaps mistakenly, it was another occasion of just that. To this day, the old baba’s image is seared in my mind. We could only decipher that he had come from Afghanistan, but we never learned his story.

What explains the silence in Pakistan?

There are several ways to explain the relative silence on the Afghan refugees issue in Pakistan. For many, there is a class structure that withholds meaningful interaction with Afghans in Pakistan. Then, there is xenophobia. In the wake of current deportations, for instance, activist groups in Pakistan have been highlighting myths perpetuated by the militarized state to implicate Afghan refugees for political and economic insecurity in Pakistan. There is also a geopolitical calculus, where political tragedies become cynical scoring points for nationalists. Solidarities fall hostage to the interests of imperial and national security establishments— Afghans and Baloch for an Indian nationalist mainstream, Indian Muslims for a Pakistani nationalist mainstream. Refuge turns into a mark of nationalist benevolence rather than a reckoning with the complicit militarist and imperial structure that created it.

But as with the Palestinian question, what we need to confront on such occasions is not just the silence of the racists, but what is enabled by the silence of those who are quite loudly anti-racist. 

So how has silence come to exist as a structure in Pakistan? 

The interim government’s decision to deport 1.7 million undocumented Afghan refugees is the latest guise by the interim government to ‘fight terror’ in Pakistan. Upending thousands of Afghan lives, the interim Prime Minister has justified this decision as a bureaucratic exercise to control externally sponsored terror attacks and manage border security and the flow of arms trade in Pakistan. According to Hameed Hakimi, an Associate Fellow at Chatham House, this green light has been given by Pakistan’s security establishment as a ‘populist measure’ in the middle of severe political and economic insecurity. It can also be seen as a geopolitical pressure tactic against the Taliban regime, with whom relations have not progressed since the withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan. 

In a recent petition filed to the Supreme Court, 13 Pakistani lawyers have decried the interim government’s decision as “unconstitutional, illegal, and inhumane’ and in “contravention of national and international law.” While the interim government’s ostensible mandate is to oversee general elections in Pakistan, analysts have described its presence as an extension of undeclared martial law in Pakistan. Taking over after a 16-month rule by the Pakistan Democratic Coalition (PDM), the interim government is also one of the most empowered caretaker set-ups since 1977. In April 2022, a parliamentary vote of no confidence ousted former Prime Minister, Imran Khan (from Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, PTI) in what investigative reports from the Intercept have confirmed was a US-backed regime change over Khan’s diplomatic neutrality on Ukraine.

What could have been an opportune moment for building anti-militarist and anti-imperial solidarities among progressives and disenchanted PTI supporters soon disintegrated into political in-fights. The more pressing question was not to seize the moment with imperfect victims but to determine who— historically— was the real critic, the real anti-imperialist in Pakistan. In the following months, the PDM government— backed by the military establishment and supported by sections of civilian and ‘democratic’ elites— introduced a series of measures to embolden the security establishment. These included amendments to restrict political liberties through the Official Secrets Act 2023, to increase economic power through the Army Act 2023, and to exercise economic stewardship and unusual powers of governance through (an amendment) to the Election Act, 2017.

In the past 16 months, Khan’s demand for popular sovereignty through elections has prompted the military to engage in mass detentions, military trials of civilians, and the torture and abduction of his political workers and their families and children. While this wave of terror is familiar to those in the peripheries of the country, it is unprecedented in targeting a previously shielded urban middle class which, until recently, had been more sympathetic to the military. For decades since the ‘War on Terror’, the military establishment has engaged in enforced disappearances and mobilized anti-terror legislation against political activists and ethnic minorities in the peripheries of the country.  What has sustained this structure of violence is not just the fear of repression, but in a context where political opposition to military dominance remains atomized, it is also a selective silence that revolves from one group of constituents to another.

In 2018, the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement emerged from the erstwhile Tribal Areas of Pakistan. Led by educated and tech-savvy Pashtun youth, the movement used trending hashtags to break through media censorship and puncture a mainstream silence on enforced disappearances in Pakistan. As the military establishment pushed on with repression, supporters and members of Imran Khan’s political party played the supporting role. They looked away, gaslit, or actively labeled Pashtun and Baloch activists as ‘foreign-funded’ and ‘anti-state’ agents engaging in conspiratorial warfare against the nation. In the early months of the PDM government, as the terror turned inwards against Khan’s supporters, several commentators with ‘democratic’ and ‘progressive’ credentials also engaged in schadenfreude. When his top aide was subjected to torture followed by another journalist partial to Khan’s party, many scoffed at the “public tears” of the elites now turned into victims. A common refrain went as follows: “Our communities suffered and yet we never cried in public,” as if stoicism in the face of torture qualified as a moral virtue. As one community’s pain competed with another’s, the apparatus of terror only expanded. 

Today, the interim government’s decision to expel 1.7 million Afghan undocumented refugees— many of whom have known Pakistan as their only home— is an outcome of an emboldened security apparatus and the latest manifestation of the state’s instrumentalized counter-terrorism strategies. It is the latest saga in which refugees are bearing the brunt of the Pakistani military’s geo-strategic policies in Afghanistan— this time through an unelected US-backed caretaker regime rather than the US-sanctioned wars of the past.

In the city of Chaman (Gardens) in Balochistan, along the Durand line sketched by a British diplomat 129 years ago, local communities are protesting the new border regime for the fourth week in a row. With families and livelihoods on either side, they would traverse the border by the day, only to return by night.    Along the northern frontier of Pakistan, Afghan families are stranded inside the cities and young Pashtun men and teenagers face ID checks or are detained at deportation centers. Recently, activists and lawyers also expressed outrage over “accidental deportations” of Pakistani Pashtuns who were traveling without documents, including in one case, a teenager.  

As Pakistani authorities continue to round off Afghan refugees in containers, it will be difficult in the coming months to separate the deported Afghan from the disappeared Pashtun and Baloch, the secretive “holding centers” from extrajudicial detention centers. Just as it is difficult to separate the current structure of oppression from decades of revolving silences that have sustained it. 

Tens of thousands mobilized in the southern port city of Karachi, Pakistan on October 15 in solidarity with Palestine. Image: Twitter

Post-Script: To a fellow Pakistani, from a Settler Colony

How many selective silences do we keep before they turn into a structure we cannot pierce with our protests? 

How many times do we look away from those we cannot relate till we lose sight of our own reflection in the mirror? 

For too long, there are those who have seen the Afghan refugee as a reflection of their own paternal benevolence rather than a reminder of their flickering moral conscience.

As we stare, in silence, at the figure of an Afghan child strapped to the back of a truck waving goodbye, have we also bid farewell to Pakistan as our place of refuge?

How do we square our pain for Palestinians with our indifference for Afghans? Here in the Australian settler colony, surrounded by a different silence on a re-enactment of Aboriginal history in Palestinian land, I will not allow one tragedy to compete with another. I will not just justify to a third audience our pain for Palestine. Nor intellectualize it as a conditioning of a cynical statist project elsewhere.

Rather, I ask what it means to re-center Afghans through Palestine in the present moment. I recall the words of Angela Davis when she described her interaction with a Palestinian activist in the West Bank. What could she (as an African American) do for them? She wondered. He responded that the best thing she could do was to fight for justice in her own country. 

There would be nothing more tragic than to bear witness to this extraordinary moment of pain today and to neglect one of the most central lessons it behooves us.

  1. What Does “From the River to the Sea” Really Mean: https://jewishcurrents.org/what-does-from-the-river-to-the-sea-really-mean ↩︎

Heba Adawy

Heba is a wanderer who carries many diasporic identities with her. She is also a doctoral candidate, with an interest in researching youth politics and militarisation in South Asia.

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