On Getting a Pakistani Passport

Yesterday I went to the passport office in Karachi’s Awami Markaz in order to renew my Pakistani passport.

This is not an experience most people look forward to, so I’m not complaining about the incredible privilege I enjoy that allows me to go through the “Urgent” facility – if you pay Rs. 9000 (and grease the right palms) you get your passport in five days. Or else you can pay Rs. 2000 plus an indefinite amount of bribes and perhaps even then you’ll get rejected for no reason known to anyone except the passport officer who’s suffering from caffeine withdrawal or a fight with his wife and doesn’t really feel like giving you any explanation for why he told you to go away and come back some other time.

I’m not complaining either about having to reach the passport office at 8 in the morning where other people are already standing in line, having come from who knows how far and with who knows what difficulty on public transport or taxi or just walking, really, to get to the office and stand in line an hour before I even got there.

My father tells me that when he got his first passport forty-five years ago, it was considered a real privilege, not a right, to obtain a passport. I know that as a citizen of Pakistan it’s my right to get a passport, but I realise that even having the means to travel marks you out as privileged in this country where the average earning is $2 a day. If you’re lucky.

And when I think about what we went through in 1947 to obtain our own country, I feel that getting a Pakistani passport is still a privilege.

A political scientist last night told me that Pakistan was created because Hindu nationalists did not want Muslims living in their country after Partition. It was such a simple statement but it shocked me because I had never heard it put in those terms before (this person was neither Pakistani nor Indian). I grew up thinking we got our own country because we wanted a separate homeland for Muslims, and then there’s the popular academic nation that Pakistan was born out of a massive screwup, Jinnah was negotiating for Muslim rights and he went too far and didn’t know what he was getting into, and suddenly, oops, there’s your new country with nothing. No army, no railroads, no bureaucracy, no banks, no system. Nothing. Oh, and here, a couple of million migrants and a huge amount of bloodshed – about 8 or 9 million killed in communal violence.

I hadn’t ever had it put to me that we got our own country because we weren’t wanted in the country we’d always lived in. I’m talking generally, of course. My family has always lived in Sindh, so we didn’t really go anywhere before or after Partition. Staying in one place and not having to leave is also a privilege, not a right – look at the refugees in Syria, or people who have to migrate for economic reasons.

So as I was standing in line applying for a new 10-year passport (this is a new thing in Pakistan, previously our passports only lasted five years), I was thinking about all of this as I was listening to people getting interrogated gently but firmly by the data entry officers. The people whose parents migrated from India had the most problems because they rarely brought proof with them of where and when their parents were born, when they came into Pakistan from India, and so on and so forth. And they couldn’t get passports unless they had that kind of documentation, because of history and politics and blah blah blah…

It was the first time I’d seen Muhajirs, or people of Indian origin settled in Pakistan, have a more difficult time bureaucratically than people who are indigenous to Pakistani territory. I felt no sense of triumph at that, though. I felt sad and sorry that people whose families sacrificed and emigrated and suffered trauma had such a difficult time obtaining a passport. It was a security issue, but it was unfortunate and symbolic of the ongoing effects of Partition and migration. A post-Partition hangover.

The passport process is easy, if you’ve got all your papers in order. You sit on a stool and get your picture taken at one station. The system sends your photo with your data to the next station, where you get fingerprinted. Then the next station, where data entry is rechecked and you have to sign forms that all the information is correct and that you believe Mirza Ghulam Ahmed is an imposter and all Ahmedis or Qadianis of whatever faith or sect are not Muslims.

I am so angry that my citizenship is made contingent upon signing that part of the form. I hear people don’t sign it out of protest but I wasn’t ready to push my luck. I signed, but I felt rotten about it and I still feel pretty sick about it today. This is something we have to change, but I don’t know if we can. Anyway. I wouldn’t be surprised if one day they tell us Ahmedis can’t get Pakistani citizenship.

After you sign that form and feel like a horrible person, you go to a BL counter (I have no idea what that stands for) and you show them your previous passport. If it still has valid visas they write “VV” and finally you go to the Assistant Director who does more mysterious things with your form and signs off on your application.

Then you go home and wait with your token and get your Pakistani passport. And when it comes, you look at it and you think about what our people went through sixty-six years ago to get our own country. And you think about Muhajirs and Sindhis and you wonder if we’ll ever resolve the disputes and come to an understanding about what it means to be an immigrant or a native and what do these things matter anyway, because we’re all humans, right?

And you look at your passport again and you think about the Ahmedis that you had to betray in order to get your passport.

You feel a strange mixture of gratitude and regret and self-hatred and confusion and pride. And that mix of emotions is what it means to be a Pakistani.

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