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Calling Afghans ‘Namak Haram’ Betrays Ignorance And Misplaced Arrogance

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Following the #PakVsAfghan cricket duel and the hate it generated, Shueyb Gandapur says that we need to empathise with the suffering of war torn people both in country and in Afghanistan. That’s only way to heal the wounds and eliminate hatred.

The usual feelings of superiority harboured by many in Pakistan in relation to their country’s largesse towards the war-weary Afghans became more prominent as the Cricket World Cup began in England. Smug with the awareness of the favours their country has bestowed on Afghanistan, many Pakistanis expect nothing short of full credit for every success of the Afghan cricket team.

It is true that most Afghan players mastered the game of cricket while living in Pakistan as refugees and also that Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) extended support to its Afghan counterpart for the game’s development in the past, yet politics found its way to influence sport as it does in our region. As a result, Afghanistan turned to India for facilities and support to keep playing international cricket. On the Pakistani side, the derogatory label of ‘namak haram’ (disloyal/ungrateful) applied to Afghans in general and their cricketers in the current scenario took further steam.

Those taunting the Afghans as namak haram keep touting the favours done to Afghan refugees in the form of refuge and shelter, while war raged in their country. But they forget Pakistan’s role in trying to install its favourites as Kabul’s rulers. The pursuit of Pakistan’s policy of strategic depth led to the very situation where Afghans lost their homes and had to run for their lives. It’s pertinent to ask if it’s reasonable to expect gratitude from those who survived as refugees in squalid conditions while their houses burned due to events in which ordinary people had no hand and they were victims of local and global politics.

There’s the argument that events of the past four decades with conflict in Afghanistan should not be viewed in isolation, because the two neighbours seldom enjoyed cordial relations even before that. Afghanistan voted against Pakistan’s membership of United Nations, as they did not recognise Durand line as the legitimate border. It is a border inherited from the British rule that has separated people of the same origin and culture into two countries, similar to other such splits of colonial legacy. Afghanistan also offered support to the idea of Pashtunistan, which never really galvanised into a serious movement to be reckoned with.

How any of that comes even close to compare with the continuing tragedy unleashed on Afghanistan since the mid-70s is something we need to ask. The cost of this conflict in terms of loss of human life, the erasure of a way of life and the uprooting of millions of people is immeasurable.

The official version in Pakistan goes like this: Soviet Union invaded the brotherly Muslim country, with their eyes on Pakistan and its warm water seaports. Pakistan helped and trained mujahideen to save our Afghan brethren from the godless communists. In the process, our secret services caused the downfall and breakup of a superpower and played a leading role in ending the Cold War. This version completely brushes over the fact that Pakistan had been preparing an Islamist uprising against the Kabul government since early 1970s, years before the Soviet forces entered Afghanistan. We had been talking to the Islamist insurgents, months before the Soviet invasion happened.

Fast forward the decade of Soviet-Afghan war that resulted in hundreds of thousands of casualties, Pakistan continued its policy of picking favourites in the civil wars of Afghanistan – sponsoring them with men and material. While doing so, Pakistan also radicalised its own population, as madrasahs and training camps funded by Saudi and American money kept producing militants to fight in Afghan jehad. Narcotics and weapons became easy to get hold of that would be used in Pakistan’s internal insurgencies a few years later.

Our allies in Afghanistan were regressive elements who, with the fall of Kabul, took away most personal freedoms, imposed stringent restrictions and banned female education. Among other things the Taliban banned was the game of cricket as well.

As America’s War on Terror began, Pakistan changed sides to allow the use of its facilities to US forces to bomb the Taliban in return for aid. Many Afghans complain of covert support for the Taliban insurgency continued in the form of safe havens from where they could launch attacks to destabilise the Kabul government. The expectation of gratitude needs to be tempered and placed in the larger context.

Are Afghan leaders and warlords blameless in all of this? Absolutely not. Which suffering nation or community do not have some of their own folks collaborating with their oppressors for personal benefit? Does that provide the basis for outsiders’ involvement in a sovereign nation’s internal fights and fuelling them for its own designs of dominance? Certainly not.

The Afghan conflict, that doesn’t have an end in sight, resulted in the displacement of millions. The number of Afghan refugees in Pakistan reached up to 4 million at its peak. As the inflow of refugees had started almost forty years ago, a generation of them opened their eyes in Pakistan and did not know any other place to call home. Life as a war refugee is hard as it is, so majority of them lived in poverty and extremely unfavourable conditions. Funds kept coming from international donors for their rehabilitation, but pilferage and corruption in the distribution was common. It was not unusual to find foreign supplies for resale in the markets of Peshawar and Quetta that were supposed to be donations for refugees.

On the assumption that hopeless socioeconomic conditions make people turn to criminal activities, Afghan refugees were later considered the usual suspects for crimes happening in the country. Although this notion was disproved by the KP police data that showed the percentage of criminals was not higher among refugees than locals, it did not stop the harassment faced by the former at the hands of law enforcement agencies.

Speaking to some Afghans in London, who had spent years as refugees in Pakistan, gave me an insight into the circumstances under which they lived. The inability to rent houses, finding decent employment, getting admission in schools plus separation from loved ones in pursuit of survival were common threads. Many children lost years of schooling while others would stay indoors under the fear of being hauled up by police as suspects for crimes of others. Having to give bribes to police and other agencies was a common experience as well. When it came to the repatriation of refugees, no humanitarian concern was shown to naturalise those who had spent decades of their life in Pakistan and were not familiar with life elsewhere.

The derision of being called ‘namak haram’ on top of all the suffering Afghans endured both within and outside their country, one should try to understand the roots of resentment they harbour towards Pakistan. This is in no way to justify the hatred coming from the Afghan side but an attempt to highlight that such deep wounds on the body and psyche of a nation are bound to result in bitterness.

Otherwise, if we apply the same theory universally, there are many countries whose financial help Pakistan has benefited from, or where Pakistanis live as migrants, sending billions of dollars home. Some of those countries have also harmed our social fabric by supporting radical elements. If we castigate those countries, rightfully, for the harm their actions have caused to Pakistan, will that make us namak haram as well in relation to them?

The need is to shed the racist arrogance shown by some amongst us towards others and awaken sympathy for the suffering people, whether they be amongst our own countrymen or our neighbours. That seems to be the only way to heal the wounds and eliminate hatred. Only through galvanizing such sentiments can we hope to build the momentum necessary to bring about the change in Pakistan’s policies that have impacted generations in Afghanistan as a frontline state of the West.

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