Imagine the plight of a people who risk losing their identity cards as soon as they affirm their identity
obody has visited this place in months,” says Meezan Farooq, an official of Nazrul Academy. The Bengali cultural centre was built in 1953. Its stated purpose was catering to the appetite for Bengali literature and promoting the language in the then West Pakistan. “If you plan to visit, let me know in advance so that I can make arrangements for the place to look civil,” Farooq concludes.
The Academy is located in the Pakistan Secretariat, which still houses several federal government offices. “Barrack 69 is where you have to be,” says Farooq. Not many people in the office complex, leave alone the city, know about the Nazrul Academy. “There’s no such place here,” says a police sergeant. He can, however, help one with directions for Barrack 69.
The academy is the only Bengali cultural centre in the city. The people most likely to be interested in it are struggling to survive.
“Their situation in Pakistan is too precarious for many to show interest in culture or literature,” says Advocate Tahera Hasan, a defender of the rights of stateless communities in the country, focusing mostly on Bengalis and Biharis.
“How can a person deprived of identity and citizenship, and harassed regularly by the police be expected to develop an interest in poetry. Should they not rather take care of the basic needs of their families?” she asks.
The standard Bangla script is derived from Brahmi style, ancestral to many sub-continental languages. The Bangla film industry reels in big budgets for commercial movies. But in metropolitan Karachi, the only way to access expressions of Bengali culture is through internet.
Ramazan DJ is perhaps unwittingly doing just that. In his teens and famous by his nickname DJ, he makes short Bangla videos for TikTok that rake in thousands of views. And since some of this traffic is from Bangladesh, Ramazan gets to tap the market despite being illiterate.
“I see Bengali TikToker content and can somewhat relate to it. Most of them are very well versed and sophisticated,” DJ says. DJ wants to be an actor but he is afraid that his Bengali heritage can be a hurdle.
Prof Dr Abu Tayyab Khan, the University of Karachi dean and one of only two teachers in its Bangla Department, tells The News on Sunday he has been asked not to speak to the media about his work without the employer’s approval.
In an interview with Voice of America he had said that most of the teachers at the only Bangla educational institute in Pakistan had left in the early 1970s.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a university official says the department does not attract many applicants. A good fraction of the current students was not eligible for admission in any other department. “They will later seek transfers to other degree programmes,” he says.
For 22-year-old Zehra Qasim, making a virtual acquaintance with her father’s family, based in Bangladesh, was a rewarding experience. A letter found randomly stashed in her closet led her to believe she can finally trace her roots. That letter was sent by her uncle in Bangladesh to her father, who had passed away when she was still in a crib.
Iqbal says when one’s identity puts them in jeopardy, their instinct is to hide… one sees most people adapting to a local culture instead of exerting to preserve their own ways. One also sees them accepting menial jobs and putting up with unreasonable employers.
There was, however, a challenge for young Qasim. “I could not think of anyone around us or among our relatives who could read or write Bangla.”
While her family forever knew the letter existed, it was only recently while shifting her house that she stumbled upon it again. Except this time, she was confident and educated enough to look for options to get it read. “When you have enough education and sufficient means, you get that confidence.”
However, despite repeated attempts with Google Lens, the illegible and decrepit letter remains a mystery to her even if she now knows where the letter was sent from – the Naokhali district of Bangladesh.
But why was it so difficult for Qasim to understand what was written in the letter despite there being a large Bengali population in the country?
Hasan, runs an organisation called Imkaan in Machar Colony, named after fisher people who dominate the population. The NGO is trying to provide basic education and some vocational training to Bengali children in the areas. The neighbourhood, which reeks of sewage, is among the few city areas Bengalis can afford to live in after their identity cards were annulled.
Jaffar Ahmed, an employee of the Imkaan Welfare Trust, is among the few Bengalis in Pakistan who can read and write Bangla. Ahmed says an uncle taught him Bangla when he was young. The uncle left Pakistan after the 1971 war. “If it were not for him, I would not have learned the language,” he says.
“A part of my family left for the new country hoping that they will have a better future there.” Ahmed says Bengalis in Pakistan suffer on account of a general prejudice and discrimination. The Bengali community, he says, is left with little choice but to try and assimilate.
“None of my nine children can read or write our native language,” he says. “Why should I leave my children a legacy that will only cause them hardship,” he says. He says his children are already suffering being born to Bengali parents whose ID cards have been blocked for no reason. They are denied B-forms and thus admissions to schools.
“My daughter is a gymnast. She’s won some local awards, too, but how can she compete in inter-school championships?” First, Ahmed’s identity card based on manual record was revoked. Then he was issued another card after Gen Musharraf introduced digital cards. Later still, that card too was blocked.
“I was born here. The state twice issued me an identity card. Now it dawns on them that I could be an illegal immigrant,” Ahmed laments.
With the struggle for survival still on, one cannot expect a community to boast about its unique culture no matter how rich it maybe, says Haya Fatima Iqbal, an Oscar accolade winning documentary filmmaker and teacher.
“Why do you think you don’t see any new music, any new film, any new poetry coming out of the large Bengali community in Pakistan despite their traditional association with all things art?”
Iqbal says when one’s identity puts them in jeopardy, their instinct is to hide behind a local culture.
In such circumstances, says Iqbal, one sees most people adapting to a local culture instead of exerting to preserve their own ways. One also sees them accepting menial jobs and putting up with unreasonable employers.
Samia*, a Bengali mother of two who works as house help in Lyari, is visibly upset by how people shun her children.
“They tell their children to not play with Bengalis, as if being a Bengali were a curse,” she says. “Even when we speak Bangla among ourselves, some people mock us as if it were an obligation for them”.
A NADRA official who’s not authorised to speak to the media says denial of identity cards to Pakistanis of Bengali origin condemns them to a lifetime of hardship.
*Name has been changed to protect the identity
The writer is a journalist covering human rights and social issues. He can be reached on Twitter at mhunainameen