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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Has PM Khan’s Citizenship suggestion revealed ethnic nature of Pak politics?

News Analysis |

Opposition parties bashed at the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) for its reckless and ‘irresponsible’ statement over the issues of refugees and citizenship. The issue was raised jointly by opposition party PPP and one of the government allies, the Baluchistan National Party (BNP), through a call to attention notice. Nafeesa Shah of PPP slammed the PM for his “insensitive” statement and said that PM Khan had “failed to take the feelings of the locals” of Karachi into consideration.

Former foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar also lashed out at the premier’s statement, calling it “irresponsible”. “Prime Minister Khan must realize that after becoming premier, he does not only represent his party but the entire country,” she said. “He can take U-turns as his party’s head, but not as the prime minister — [that too] on such important issues.” A few days ago, PM Khan made the surprise announcement during his first visit to Karachi. He indicated that passports would be given not only to children who were born and brought up in the country but also to their parents.

The PPP fears that if the government decides to offer citizenship to refugees living in Karachi and other urban centers of Sindh it will adversely affect the political support of the party.

However, following a backlash, he later appeared to row back on the plans, saying he had raised the issue of refugee citizenship “just to initiate a debate” and that no decision had been made. The announcement was criticized by the opposition Pakistan People’s Party; with provincial minister Saeed Ghani claiming that Pakistan could not afford it. The party’s leader Saeed Ghani said he was “strongly opposed” to granting citizenship to people he described as “illegal immigrants”.

As a matter of fact, Pakistan has the largest refugee population in the world, according to the UN. Afghans began pouring into the country when their homeland was invaded in 1979 and by the end of 2001, following the US invasion, there were an estimated four million refugees living in Pakistan. Although many have since returned, the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) says there are more than 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan, with around 1 million of those being a second or third generation.

Read more: Imran Khan to give some Afghans, Bengalis citizenship

Moreover, laws in Pakistan ensure that anyone who is born in Pakistan shall be given the citizenship. Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari said in the NA that “whether you like it or not, it is the law that those born in Pakistan are Pakistani nationals,” she was referring to the Citizenship Act of 1951 which grants citizenship status to everyone who is born in Pakistan.

Interestingly, the PPP is known as a liberal and progressive political party in Pakistan. But on the issue of granting citizenship to those who are born in Pakistan, the party is behaving like an ethno-nationalist party of Sindh. The PPP fears that if the government decides to offer citizenship to refugees living in Karachi and other urban centers of Sindh it will adversely affect the political support of the party.

Read more: Citizenship of Pakistan- stricter rules and a dilemma for minorities

To maintain, its political base in the province, and particularly in urban Sindh, the PPP is not interested to let the government implement any such laws. It is yet to be seen that how PM Khan deals with the issue after such heavy political storm in the national assembly. For many analysts, Pakistan is expected to make new laws to repeal the existing ones which allow citizenship to every child born in Pakistan.

Another staunch opponent are the Balochi nationalists. They often utilize the fear of the Baloch becoming a “minority on their own lands” and while at first their ire was reserved for Punjabis it has now turned towards Afghans. Represented by Balochistan National Party chief, Sardar Akhtar Mengal in the Parliament, they are demanding the repatriation of Afghan refugees. These opponents are offset by Pakhtun nationalists like the ANP and PKMAP who desire the integration of Afghans mainly to cater to their Pakhtun votebank.

The Citizenship debate highlights the ethnic faultlines of Pakistani politics. Ethnic politics are either the mainstay of ethnic parties like the BNP & ANP or become a fallback position for “mainstream” parties like the MQM and PPP. Such political machinations often play havoc with the lives of the common people who suffer.