Bare Hands: A struggle for dignity of labour


By-Zeeshan Kaskar, Karan Anand, Akhilesh Nagari, Eisha Hussain and Tahira Noor Khan:

These lines from Langton Hughes’, ‘The Black Man Speaks’ exhibit how democracy, which promises equality and dignity to every citizen, consists of groups that are marginalized and face continued oppression.

This holds true for the community of manual scavengers in India. Most of the manual scavengers largely belong to the historically oppressed and marginalized Dalit community. The Dalits have also been discriminated against for being “untouchables”. Though untouchability and caste discrimination remain banned by the Constitution of India, the discrimination faced by dalits, has insidiously crept through to the modern society. People from the dalit community have been restricted to the dehumanizing profession of manual scavenging and are subsequently alienated and ghettoised.

In recent years, the government came up with the Swach Bharat Mission, a scheme which claims to clean up the streets, roads, and infrastructure of India by 2019. The central government has spent around Rs 530 crore over its publicity in the last three years but the promises don’t include any relief for the manual scavengers. An overwhelming majority of sanitation workers in India are still contractually employed, wherein they aren’t paid any minimum fixed wages, and often had to work under the hazardous conditions without any safety measures.

“Our kids are asked to sit separately in the school and are bullied because of our profession,” tells Virender, a 40-year-old manual scavenger. He lives in a neighbourhood where most people belong to his caste. He says other professions are closed for him and the people of his community. “People refrain from giving us any other job because of our caste.”

“Our kids are asked to sit separately in the school and are bullied because of our profession,” tells Virender, a 40-year-old manual scavenger. He lives in a neighbourhood where most people belong to his caste. He says other professions are closed for him and the people of his community. “People refrain from giving us any other job because of our caste.”

In 1993 The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act was passed and in 2013 Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act was passed to stop the employment of people in the degrading job of cleaning human excreta. Though the government employed sanitation workers do not have to enter manholes anymore, those illegally employed by private contractors have no respite. Despite countless deaths of manual scavengers, not a single person has been convicted under these acts.

The government’s apathy towards the issue reflects in the discrepant budgetary allocation. While in 2013-14, the Budget Allocation for manual scavengers was Rs.557 crores, it has seen a drastic plunge to Rs. 5 crores in the 2017-18 budget.

Manual scavenging, apart from being dehumanizing, is also a lethal profession. In 2017 alone, more than 300 people died due to it as stated by National Safai Karamchari Andolan. Manual scavengers are exposed to high concentration of poisonous gases causing various health issues like hepatitis, cholera, meningitis, typhoid, and cardiovascular problems. Many die because of asphyxiation in the manholes.

According to a survey conducted by the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, around 20,500 people have been identified as manual scavengers across 18 states. These figures have been contested by NGOs and other organisations for the welfare of manual scavengers and thus, considered to be grossly underestimated. The National Commission for Safai Karamchari, on the contrary, reports that there are more than 30 lakh manual scavengers and one person dies every five days because of manual scavenging.

Manual Scavengers are from the caste groups which are relegated to the bottom of the caste hierarchy and are confined to a livelihood which is perceived as deplorable or deemed to be too menial by the higher caste groups. The caste designated profession further reinforces the social stigma that they are unclean or untouchable and thus perpetuates their misery.

An absurd misery

Entangled within the web of society, Virender, a 40-year-old manual scavenger, shares his community’s agony. He talks about the discrimination they face every day, how their children are coerced to sit separately in school and bullied for being born into a manual scavenger’s family. His voice trembles with the years of disappointment both from the society and the government, as he explains his predicament.

While cleaning the gutter, with his hands immersed in the muck, he said with a smile, “..sometimes while cleaning the sewage we come across such disgusting things, that it  becomes impossible for us to eat.”

The sight of him cleaning the shit is one rattled with an absurd misery; the longing for something seemingly impossible, nostalgia for what never was and the regret for not being something else.

In a dim-lit room with walls smeared with a quaint blue, Virender took a chair to sit and started eating. He remembered his co-workers and friends who lost their lives while cleaning the gutters. He says that if it were up to him, he would straight away leave this profession. But in order to survive and provide his children quality education, if he has to work as a manual scavenger, he would.

Virender and many others like him start their days with some booze and smoke. They explain that if it were not for intoxication, they would never be able to convince themselves to get in the gutter brimming with human excreta and muck. The alcohol helps them fathom the courage to face the pungent smell that welcomes them in the sewer.

Even though the government has banned the act of manual scavenging, the discrimination against those still involved or previously involved in the profession doesn’t end there. While Dharampal, a permanently employed sanitation worker with the government organ doesn’t have to enter the manholes anymore, he has still not managed to escape the discrimination perpetuated by the caste system. Most people still don’t let him come near their houses. They despise his presence as if the squalor they produce is stuck to the bodies of Dharampal and others like him.

An old manual scavenger waiting for work on a wintry morning 
2 PM: Waiting

The irony of being Rani

Rani (literally translates to queen), a 35-year-old woman, has the most ironic name. With eyes filled with tears, she recounts a life full of hardships and short-lived happiness.

In a dingy shanty, with the haunting absence of her husband, Rani lives with three young children. Her husband, Anil, was a manual scavenger and died on 14 September 2018, because of asphyxiation while cleaning a sewer in West Delhi.

“My life has become unbearable without Anil. I constantly think of immersing myself in mother Ganges (a Holy river according to Hindu mythology). But something pulls me back. Maybe it’s the thought of my three young children who have nobody except me.”

Rani feels that if there were no manholes, her husband wouldn’t have died. She hopes that all manholes are closed and no other woman has to face the same fate as she did.

Rani’s story echoes the wail of a hapless woman resonating the agonizing pain of the life of a manual scavenger’s family, her four-month-old son passed away after fighting his last battle with pneumonia, and soon after that blow, within six days Anil passed away, leaving Rani with her three children alone at the mercy of God. 

The Tyranny of Caste

Caste discrimination is the Achilles’ Heels of the Indian society. Dr. B R Ambedkar, the writer of the Indian Constitution and the one who coined the term “Dalit”(oppressed)—has compared caste discrimination in India with that of the discrimination against Jews under Hitler. Caste is a social structure which permits the domination of one caste (a social status in the ‘divinely ordained’ social hierarchy in the Hindu society) by the other on the basis of hereditary. Simply put, it means a perpetual domination of one caste on the other.

According to Stanley Rice, the origin of untouchability is to be found in the unclean and filthy occupations of the untouchables. The Dalits have been forced to clean human excreta, burn dead bodies and remove animals’ corpses. This makes them ‘impure’ in the eyes of the rest of the society. They have been subjected to ostracisation owing to their profession.

In a caste-based society, one doesn’t choose their profession but is restricted to it.“How can one feel proud of cleaning the worm-filled, stench-producing shit of millions every day?” Bezwada Wilson writes in his foreword to Ramaswamy book, “India Stinking: Manual Scavengers in Andhra Pradesh and their work.”

With dirt coated hands, eyes longing for respect, the gaze of a scavenger reflects the irony of a society which seems to inflict the burden and misery of scavenging collectively upon him but at the same time looks at him as ‘impure.’ Kailash, Virender and Dharampal are amongst few belonging to the community of manual scavengers, whose profession historically has been to clean the shit produced by other humans. The predicament is that even today there are millions who are forced into scavenging. Their dignity and life are of little importance to the government and society alike, that have comfortably turned a blind eye towards the agony of manual scavenging.

On the other side of the border

Tehseen Abbas

Manual scavenging is not an attractive career choice but for some in Pakistan it is still the only option. 
“I remember my mother’s words, she said that we can only eat when we clean the waste of others,” said  Akram Masih, who was 15 when his mother told him that he would spend his life cleaning blocked sewage lines across the city. 

Masih is now 25 years-old but he remembers each day he spent cleaning blocked drain lines of Saddar town in the bustling port city of Karachi.

In Pakistan, such jobs are reserved for Chuhras or the lowest ranking members of the minority Christian community.  He lives in Essa Nagri, a predominant Christian neighborhood, with a family of six. He makes Rs.800 or roughly $6 per day. “Rainy days were always the worst I had to do extra work to make the rainwater follow,”  Masih said.

Like Masih, so many others are forced to clean the human waste across Pakistan. 
Saqib Masih, 27, is another manual scavenger who has worked in Karachi for more than a decade.  “We often find it difficult to find any other job in the city,” he said. Manual scavenging involves not only cleaning manholes and blocked sewerage lines but also stepping into drains and septic tanks. All of this is a health hazard, according to medical experts. 

Dr. Hassan Auj, a medical officer at University of Karachi said that scavengers are constantly exposed to germs. “Their (scavengers) workplace is unsafe and terrible it definitely has a negative impact on their health,” the medic added. “Most of the scavengers have no protection which makes their job more difficult,” Dr. Auj said.

Like India, manual scavenging in Pakistan is also restricted to particular castes — primarily Christians. Public advertisement clearly seek members from the Christian community for such jobs.

Despite little hope of change, Jawaid Michael, a Christian social activist, encourages members of his community to send their children to school. Michael believes it is about time the government protect members of his community. “The government needs to get serious about enacting laws that ban manual scavenging and assist the affected caste communities.”

A news report quoting World Watch Monitor said that minority representation in sanitation work in Pakistan is above 80 percent. According to the report, 824 out of 935 sanitation workers in the Peshawar Municipal Corporation are Christian.
About 6,000 out of 7,894 sanitation workers in the Lahore Waste Management Company are Christian. And 768 out of 978 workers in the Quetta Municipal Corporation are Christian.

Iqbal Masih, who is responsible for cleaning the sewage lines of Federal B Area block 20 said that he and others have complained so many times about the unsafe sites where they are being sent to work. “We never receive safety training; neither we have safety equipment nor do we get any precautions,” he said. “The only response we get is ‘do your jobs or quit’,” he added.

A report by Minority Rights Commission published in 2012 said that at least 70 Christians have died in Pakistan since 1988 while cleaning sewerage pipelines.
A number of Asian countries, including Japan, Singapore, and Malaysia, have successfully tackled the problem of sewage management and technology is being used to do such jobs.

While Pakistan struggles to provide equality. People like Akram Masih continue to do their job in tough and inhumane conditions. Masih recalls he had no option but to be a manual scavenger. “There was poverty and I had to feed our family. So there was no other option for me – I covered my nose and started doing it,” he said with a quiver in this voice.

Inside Madarsas: A story beyond stereotypes

By – Hasan Akram, Pramiti Lonkar, Mayank Chawla, Ghada Mohammed, Ila Kazmi & Haris Ahmed Khan

A timeline from the colonial times to the present

Early Islamic education started inside mosques in the form of study circles. It had evolved gradually to separate institutions for elementary and higher stages that taught Islamic theology along with various subjects such as mathematics, grammar, poetry and history.

In the Indian sub-continent, early ‘Madrasas were established in Sindh region during the Arab rule in the 8th century. InSouth India, a form of Madarsas was established almost around the same time along the Malabar Coast. Thus, Madarsa was an essential part of any Muslim society to provide the individuals with education and to fulfill the state’need for preachers, teachers and judges or Qazis.

It wasn’t until the colonial years that the distinction was made between religious and general education. According to Muslim scholars, there were traditionally transmitted sciences such as Quranic studies, Hadith and Fiqh and then there were the rational sciences – logic, philosophy, arithmetic and astronomy. (ReligiousEducation and rhetoric of reform: Madarsa in British India and Pakistan by Muhammad Qasim Zaman) ‘Both these sciences were taught in Madarsas. When the colonizers wanted to set up universities in India, they started promoting this binary,” says Waris Azhari, an Islamic scholar at Jamia HamdardUniversity, New Delhi.

 The British came to an understanding that a distinction between religious and non-religious learning was imperative for sound political administration. The East India Company only supported Madarsas set up by the state or the ones they financially supported. They faced restrictions on imparting religious knowledge, limiting themselves to Arabic and Persian. During Viceroy Macaulay’s tenure, the British came down heavily upon these religious institutes.

Muslims realised that their religious sciences were under threat due to the state regime. In response to this threat, Darul Uloom Deoband was set up in 1866. The syllabus of the Madarsa had now entirely changed, shifting its emphasis from the rational sciences to religious education. Other Madarsas in British India were set up on the same model as Deoband. The focus had shifted to the preservation of Islamic texts.

In 1875, Aligarh Muslim University was set up. “Since then,the Muslim ulama decided to take up the task of teaching the religious sciencesin the Madarsa and let the university take up the task of modern education,”says Wazhari.

Most private Madarsas in India resist state funding as the ones run by the state are in deplorable condition. They also fear that the state may exercise control over the syllabus in lieu of funds. Further, many of the Madarsas are run by families over generations who don’t want to pass over the ownership to the government

After the events of 11 September, 2001, Madarsas across the world began to be viewed as a hub of extremist activities. In a Congressional report on Madarsas by the United States government- ‘observers suggest that these schools are wholly unconcerned with religious scholarship and focused solely on teaching violence.’

“Several Madarsas in India were run by foreign funds from Saudi Arabia and other countries. As Madarsas were seen as a threat, the funding soon dried up after 2001,” says a member of the administration at Jamia Riyaz Ul-Uloom in New Delhi.

In a recent survey by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), the educational attainment of Muslims is the least. In urban areas, the number of male Muslim postgraduates is as low as 15 per 1,000. This number is about four times lower than that of other communities, including Hindus, Christians and Sikhs. Despite India being the fastest growing large economy, the economic condition of Muslims does not show any sign of improving.

Madarsas often pave the way for affordable education in low-income households. Caught between the cycle of ‘reform’ and ‘modernism’, Madarsas strive to maintain their relevance in the contemporary world.

One cannot limit oneself to the Madarsa, need to study beyond it: Ayaz Ahmed

17-year-old Ayaz Ahmed has already chalked out his career plans. Currently studying at Jamia Riyaz Ul-Uloom in old Delhi, he wants a desk job as a web designer. ‘Mujhe AC aur kursi ki naukri karni hai’- I want a job where I can sit in an airconditioned room. He also aspires to serve his community along with his regular job.

Four years ago, Ayaz joined the Madarsa to offer hisservices to Islam. After finishing his classes in the Madrasa, he travels toMukherjee Nagar in North Delhi to study for a Diploma in Computers. Several universities don’t give due recognition to students of Madarsa to enroll in college courses. Ayaz is also giving his Class 12 examinations from theNational Institute of Open Schooling so that he can apply for a Bachelor’s inComputer Applications.

According to him, studying in a school or college is necessary to earn a livelihood and studying in a Madarsa is necessary to become a good Muslim. He believes that both of them are of equal importance. When asked if Madrasas need to change to remain relevant, Ayaz says, “A Madarsa is a fort for religion. If they change, then there will be no such thing as a Madarsa.”

If everyone becomes doctors who will spread the message of Islam?: Mohammad Asif

It’s a few hours after sunrise. The boys are busy getting ready for their morning classes. As they comb their hair while sharing hand mirrors in the corridor, 24year old Mohammad Asif walks along and gathers a small crowd. The students in the Madrasa are not too pleased with Asif as their newly elected leader. They believe the student union president has not done enough to make their problems go away. ‘What have you done for us since you were elected? We have been asking for a good English teacher since months’, says the tallest one amongst them.  Asif explains that he has been trying to get a teacher that the Madrasa can afford but to no avail. “There is a constant need for funds and we always come up short,” says Asif.

Four years ago, Asif came to Jamia Riyaz Ul- Uloom in old Delhi to become an Islamic scholar. Born and raised in Muradabad, Asif soon realised that the world looks at the Madrasa with a different lens. Largely, the narrative in media is that extremist beliefs are being taught in Madrasas. This is also largely backed by the research papers on Madrasa written by government agencies. ‘There is no understanding of the message of Islam. What does Islam really say? It is the messenger of peace’, says Asif.

And it is this understanding that Asif wants to bring in to society’s discourse on Madrasas. While Asif acknowledges the lack of economic stability that comes with becoming an alim, he believes there is a need for more youngsters to start learning the religious sciences.“If everybody becomes doctors and engineers and no one becomes an alim, then who will tell the people what goes on inside a Madrasa?’ he asks.

Eventhough the children at Madarsa have the talent, they can’t get jobs: Arshad

“Learning Urdu was the biggest advantage of studying at the Madarsa,” says 23-year-old Arshad. He is preparing for civil servicesand he has chosen Urdu as his optional subject. However, Arshad believes thatis the only advantage he has over students from the modern education system.

Many Madarsas are not governed by a central body. Hence, there is no standardised syllabus. History and geography taught at the Madarsa has barely helped him prepare for civil services. “Before coming to JNU, I was not even aware of my rights or the Indian constitution,” says Arshad.

Madarsas have a 12-year course. The governmentrecognises Madarsa education only if the student completes the entire length ofthe course. Else, he is considered a dropout and has to start over. Further, several colleges don’t recognise these certificates. JNU is one of the fewinstitutes which recognise Madarsa education.

“There is a need to restructure the syllabus and work with the government to gain recognition,” says Arshad. Even though a child may have the requisite skills, he cannot get employed without a valid certificate.

I want to become the future: Shamshaad Alam

As the students in the Madarsa settle in after dinner, Shamshad arranges notes for his class.He teaches his class based on themes. Today, he is going to teach the studentsthe etiquettes of addressing people in English. Although English is included inthe curriculum of the Madarsa, some of the students feel it’s not enough.

“Shamshaad helps us in making conversations. What we study from the teacher is mainly textbook knowledge which doesn’t help us to talk in English,” says one of his students. There are around 15-20 students who pay a monthly sum of 300 rupees for the night classes. Shamshaad has been training himself in English for the past seven months at the American Institute in New Delhi.

He passes on these teachings to his students. Shamshaad also said that once he imposed a fine of five rupees for anyone speaking English in his class. He says that the same rule is applicable at the American Institute too.

According to Shamshaad, English helps him bridge the cultural gap and he considers it as important as currency in today’s world. “Now, when I step out of the Madarsa, I become a part of the culture outside. There is no difference,” says Shamshaad.

He says that English is not taught ‘up to that level’ in the Madarsa. When asked if he plansto talk to the principal about it, he says he doesn’t want to rile things up asthe teachers might take offence. He refrains from questioning their pedagogy. Shamshaad plans to learn five more languages in the future and aspires to become a translator.


In need of an upgrade in Pakistan

madrassah main
It is a small room packed with teenagers, all of whom sit on the matted floor, with wooden desks in front of them. They are virtually glued to the copies of Holy Quran places in front of them as they recite verses in chorus following their Qari (teacher). This is a regular madrasa class at Jamia Darul Khair, a medium-sized Deobandi madrasa (religious seminary) in Karachi.

In Pakistan, there are over 35,000 functioning madrasas, as per  a report titled “The Madrasa Conundrum – The state of religious education in Pakistan” by Umair Khalil, lead researcher of HIVE, a non-governmental organization.

The report estimates 64 percent of Pakistani madrasas are Deobandis. Whereas 25 percent are Barelvis and the remaining 11 percent are from different sects.
A large amount of Pakistan’s youth receives education at madrasas. A majority of these young students belong to underprivileged backgrounds and cannot afford to enroll at schools. “I have a year left in my graduation as a religious scholar. I came here from a very deprived area of Torghar district in Mansehra, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. I could never have imagined to study if madrassas weren’t there,” said Sibghatullah Qayum, a student of Jamia Darul Khair.

In Pakistan, madrasa based education has a great deal of significance in the society. Madrasas are considered as the primary source for Islamic teachings. On the other hand, these institutions also fill the vacuum created by the deteriorated educational system of the country.

According to an associated press report, approximately 2 million students have been enrolled in madrasas across Pakistan.

Reason being, they provide free religious and basic education to the underprivileged students of the country and also serve as an alternative to state-funded schools which used to provide spasmodic and substandard education. Qayum’s further described that all of his colleagues are from diverse rural areas of Pakistan where educational institutes are a rare find.

“On my return, I plan to teach at my local madrasa,” said Qayum.Historically, the curriculum at madrassas has undergone revision. They’ve taught Arabic grammar to learn Quran and Hadiths, Philology, Persian poetry, Philosophy, Penmanship, Arithmetic, Logic, Fundamentals of jurisprudence, Dialectics and Dogmatic sciences. Even, Swimming and Horse riding were included in the syllabus by some madrasas as co-curricular activities.

But, these practices were abandoned after the downfall of liberal Muslim empires across the world. According to the curriculum published by each board on their website, it is drafted in such a way that it follows Dars-e-Nizami which is the historical madrasa curriculum of the subcontinent, combining in-depth religious and some secular subjects.

Most academic experts claim that the system of education at Madrassas has been out of touch. A professor of linguistics at a university in Karachi, who wished not to be named, questioned: “How can you educate students and prepare them for the world if you haven’t updated your curriculum in decades?”madrassah secondWhile many religious institutions claim to teach English, Science, Drawing, Math, Logic, Sindhi, Urdu, Economics, Persian, History, Geography, Physics, Biology, Chemistry and Astronomy as secular subjects throughout the period of study.  Their primary focus remains on Arabic (Grammar & Literature), Islamiat, Life of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), Tajweed, Quran, Islamic jurisprudence, Qira’at, Hadith, Tafseer, Ethics, Ruling of Edicts and studying the life of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

“Our curriculum is designed in such a way that it develops student’s expertise in religious education without ignoring secular subjects because at the end of the day our prime intent is to educate students regarding Islam,” claims Mufti Adnan Ali, a scholar, and teacher at madrasa Jamia Darul Khair.madrassahHowever, Murtaza Haider, the Associate Dean of research and graduate program at Ryerson University in Canada who is currently researching on madrasa graduates and their prospects in labor market has debated over the fact that the curriculum offers secular subjects only at the initial phases of studies and are gradually reduced as the classes proceed.

This means students lack in technical and vocational skills which limit their job options. “With our limited funding sources, we can only teach theoretical subjects to the students. It is the responsibility of the Ministry of Education to introduce technical and vocational training in madrasa curriculum to help these students in attaining certain kind of skill development as well. Had it been implemented it would be a great initiative,” explained Mufti Ali in his defense.As the graduating madrassa students approach the competitive job market a majority of them fail to find employment opportunities.

“Most of them are not trained for the world we live in,” said a top ranking multinational firm’s HR manager, who did not wish to be named. Professor Jamal Malik, chairman of Islamic Studies at Erfurt University in Germany and an expert on the matter stressed the fact that the curriculum at madrassas in Pakistan should be revised and should include technical and vocational training which could help students securing better employment opportunities in job market.

While there is little political will to reform madrassas, the current Chief of Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa has recently stressed that madrasas should be reformed. In 2015, the Sindh government initiated the registration process of madrasas in the province. Lawmakers in the province have also drafted a bill for registering madrasas and monitoring their funding sources but unfortunately it has been nothing more than a paper tiger.Some madrassas in the country have realized the need for change. Darul Uloom is one of them.

“Darul Uloom has always tried to set standards,” said Mufti Ebad-ur-Rehman, head of the department of studies at Darul Uloom, Karachi. “Adopting a curriculum which has a mix of traditional religious subjects along with updated modern subjects has helped us produce better students,” the cleric claimed. While Darul Uloom may have experimented with reforming its curriculum, there are many madrassas across Pakistan that continue to resist change.

“It is necessary for the government to introduce compulsory act for reforming madrasas which should be applicable across the board,” said Murtaza Haider an expert on madrassas at Ryerson University in Canada.  

“You can’t have unskilled workers in the market. Students must receive vocational training along with religion and other subject to be able to sustain themselves in the market,” Haider stressed.  

Of toil and yearning – the daily struggles of Afghan migrants in India and Pakistan

Hanan Zaffar, Amanjeet Singh, Majid Alam, Intifada P.B., Basit Aijaz & Omer Nadeem

Afghan refugees started immigrating to India after fleeing the Soviet war in Afghanistan in 1979. Many more migrated to escape the Taliban regime two decades later. According to UNHCR reports there are close to 10,000 Afghan refugees in India, most of whom live in Delhi.

In spite of the struggles that come with abandoning home and homeland, most Afghanis seem to have assimilated well, finding small jobs or even opening a business of their own. However, the struggle has been tough and continues to be so for many refugees.

This project traces their journey post migration and how they have gelled well into the society despite vast cultural and social disparities, focusing on how they have built their lives around places where they have spent their life-long savings: a bakery shop, a small restaurant, a coffee shop, a grocery store etc.

Dawood Ahmad is a tailor in Bhogal. Mustafa Hameedi works as a mechanic in Ashram. The Qasimin brothers run a salon in Bhogal. What’s the one thing that unites all of them? War. They, like many thousands of refugees from Afghanistan, have fled their country seeking refuge and asylum in Delhi. According to a 2016 report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are approximately 2.6 million registered Afghan refugees scattered across the globe. Of them, about 14,500 refugees and asylum-seekers are registered with the UNHCR in India.

Until today, India doesn’t have a uniform refugee policy and nor is it a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Convention on refugees. However, it does let the UNHCR run welfare programs for them in the country. Here are a few of their stories.

According to Article 1 Para 2 of the 1951 United Nations Convention, a refugee is defined as an: “A person who owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.

The tale of a tailor

At a tailor shop in one of the crowded localities in Delhi, four tailors are engrossed in stitching kurtas which you don’t often see in Delhi. The four tailors speaking in broken Hindi with a Pashto accent sought refuge in Delhi three years ago.

Dawood, the master tailor fled Kabul to escape the violence that that has tormented the city since the Soviet-Afghan War in 1979. Today, he lives in Delhi as a UN recognized Afghan refugee. He runs a rented tailoring shop and stitches clothes, especially catering to the small Afghan community present in Bhogal, South Delhi.

Dawood’s day begins at 9 in the morning, taking orders, designing and stitching. Dawood’s family of five resides in the vicinity of his shop. While talking of Afghanistan Dawood recalls his childhood. “The country was peaceful before the Taliban took hold. I owned a small shop back home. Business was extremely good,” he says.

While Afghan refugees like Dawood, temporarily find themselves at peace in India, there’s a long way to go before their sufferings come to an end. The refugees living in India and elsewhere are given refugee cards by the UNHCR. Even though the cards grant them a refugee status, they provide very little else in terms of ensuring good living conditions. While Dawood complains about the expensive living conditions in Delhi, he is thankful for the peace he has found here.

But what happens if you don’t have a UN refugee card?

Dawood’s story is one of hope. But this is not the case with thousands of other Afghan refugees living in India. When Mustafa Hameedi, a 37-year-old mechanic escaped the bloodshed in Afghanistan and landed in Delhi little did he anticipate the struggles he would face here. After four years of living here, Mustafa, who runs a small automobile workshop in Bhogal, South Delhi, still longs for official documents that will establish him as a refugee in India.

“The UNHCR is asking for certain documents that require me to go back to Afghanistan to fetch for them. But how do they expect me to go back there? It’s not possible. It’s very dangerous,” Mustafa says.

Apart from the tedious UNHCR process, the Indian government also hasn’t done much to help the Afghan refugees. Recently The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill of 2016, was introduced in the Lok Sabha seeking to amend the Citizenship Act of 1955. This new Bill provides citizenship to illegal migrants, from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, who are of Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian extraction. However, the Bill doesn’t have a provision for Muslims from these countries, who constitute a major chunk.
Click on the image for interactive graphics

This irks Mustafa, who believes that rather than being a liability on the country, he and many other skilled refugees like him are actually contributing to the economic growth of India. “India claims to be friends with Afghanistan; however, refugees like me are waiting for the government to recognize the effort we are putting in to build this country. My mechanic store provides employment for four other Indians. I am not being a burden on India’s economy,” says Mustafa.

However, these difficulties do very little to dampen the hopes and dreams of these Afghan refugees. A brilliant example is of the Qasimin Brothers.

Singing their way through hardship

In an expensive deluxe hotel in South Delhi’s Hauz Khas, some half a dozen Afghani boys are dancing merrily on a raised platform in presence of a sizeable Afghani crowd. It is an Afghan wedding reception lit by lilting music of the Qasimin brothers. Bedazzled by the Persian and Pashto rhythmic tones, the whole crowd seems to be mesmerized by the mellifluous songs performed by Sameer, Asad and Mujeeb Qasimin. One can see nostalgia-laced over all their jubilant faces.

However, the Qasimin brothers are not full-time professional singers. In fact, they are not even trained in the trade. They are barbers by profession – the band barbers- as lovingly called by the other members of a closely knit refugee community in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar area.

Eight years ago, forced by uncertainty back home Sameer, the eldest of the three decided to come to India in a bid to start life afresh.

“There were bomb blasts everywhere. I didn’t want to die. I didn’t want to lose my family. So, I came here (India) with no regrets but a lot of pain. The pain of losing my motherland but satisfaction that I have a family to live with,”  Sameer adds.

Except for Mujeeb, the youngest among the trio- who makes YouTube videos, the Qasimin brothers worked as barbers back home also, before lucrative offers by Afghan refugee families for performing in wedding ceremonies tempted them to learn traditional musical instruments.

According to UNHCR data, Pakistan and Iran are the most viable options for Afghans fleeing their country. Experts believe that geographic proximity, porous borders and the presence of functional labor markets are what attracts them to these countries.

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Click on the image for interactive graphics

However, the trend in refugees fleeing the country has varied over the years depending on the intensity of the conflict. According to reports 4.6 million registered refugees returned home, largely from Iran and Pakistan, in the decade following the U.S.’ invasion and the overthrow of the Taliban government in 2001. However, according to a study by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) almost three-quarters of those Afghan refugees who returned home were forced to flee again due to violence and lack of assistance to start a new life in a war-torn home.

Perhaps this is why Sameer Qasimin, has started to accept India as his home. “India is a second home now and the chances of returning back (to Afghanistan) keep diminishing with every passing day.” As Sameer continues his story, Asad his younger brother abruptly interjects him. “No, as and when peace returns to the place, we will go back. We have our home there. Our relatives. Nobody wants to die in a foreign land,” he says with absolute certainty and hope in his eyes.

The only thing conflict has left the people of Afghanistan is memories. Memories of pain, suffering and longing. While Dawood Ahmad’s teary eyes glitter as he recalls mountains back home dotted with snow and Mujeeb Qasimin’s voice quivers as he speaks about making his country proud by becoming a famous singer in India.

(With inputs and visuals by Baitullah Hameedi from Kabul)

Afghans in Pakistan – Home away from home

Dressed in a shredded Shalwar Kameez, Habibullah and Waliullah travel across Karachi to collect garbage on a cart attached to the back of their motorbike.

Both brothers live in the Afghan Refugee camp, situated in Sohrab Goth area — a shanty part of Pakistan’s bustling port city of Karachi, which is dotted with small concrete block houses, tight shops, cartwheels, thorny shrubs and crowded by a large number of trucks.

“We leave our home at 6 in the morning” says Habibullah, aged 24, as he empties a garbage bin in one of the huge jute bags while his younger brother, Waliullah, 15, sits on the cart, separating paper and cardboard from the rest of the trash. The latter says that their father suffers from mental disorder. “He yells and tries to throw things on every member of the family.”

The two brothers who originally hail from Afghanistan have no option  but to work with his brother to earn for his family that includes, Habibullah, his mother, and three young sisters.

Despite belonging to a conservative religious family, these brothers pick garbage because of the lack of employment opportunities for Afghan refugees.

“I want to enroll at a school but I can’t because I have to wake up early in the morning for work every day,” Waliullah states. If I don’t work who will feed my family? he added with a quiver in his voice.

The brothers take their motorbike to Gulshan-e-Iqbal area of Karachi that is about six kilometers away, to collect trash from around 250-300 houses and earn Rs. 50-80 per house every month, depending upon the amount of trash each house generates.

As any conservative Afghan family, the women stay at home. Waliullah’s sisters are no exception. They remain at home to attend to their ailing father but at times he becomes aggressive. When the situation gets out of their control they they call Habibullah or Waliullah to take care of him. The family has been to sought medical help but the hospitals don’t allow any of them to stay because they don’t have a National Identity card — an identification document mandatory for all Pakistani citizens.

Ironically, despite pleas for mercy, hospitals in the city refuse to admit their loved one. “As an Afghan refugee we have no options.” “We end up taking our sick father to religious clerics, but that didn’t work either,” Habibullah sobs as he recalls his father’s misery.

Afghan refugees are not just deprived of basic necessities such as the right to employment and education, they are also denied healthcare facilities — all for not being a legal citizen of Pakistan.  

Both brothers are happy that the country has given them a place to live but they “feel hopeless” at times because they cannot own anything.

“The bike we use for garbage collection was purchased on my father’s friend’s name who is a security guard but a Pakistani national.  “He has done a favor for the love of his friend and our father, Habibullah says.

The brothers are grateful that Pakistan has welcomed their “parents and grandparents” at the time of migration, giving them a place to live and “food to eat” but at the same time, they feel “devastated and underprivileged” for not being able to something as basic as a bike or a house.

But not all Afghans are unhappy for living in Pakistan, some feel “privileged” for being able to migrate for their “children’s secure future.”

Adjusting in Pakistan

Azzami Madad works as a Naan maker or commonly known as Roti wala. He has a little shop situated in North Nazimabad area of Karachi. He explains, “My PoR card is a blessing in disguise because it enabled me to get a shop on rent.” Proof of Registration (PoR) card is given to the registered refugees by the government. The cards are important tools of protection that provide temporary legal stay and freedom of movement for the millions of registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

The 48-year-old Naan maker migrated to Karachi decades at the beginning  of the infamous Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He was just a teenager when his family had to run for their life. A few years after his arrival, he got married to one of his paternal cousins. He has two children, Shahjahan, 12 and Gulmeena, 16.

He works from 11 AM in the morning to 1 AM at night just to make sure that he is “providing the right amount of income” to his family. Despite being a Naan maker, he is saving money for his daughter’s wedding and is desperately seeks a marriage proposal for her. He says, “I would have gotten her married to any of my relatives’ son but she does not want to marry in the family. She has gone to the community school, led by UNHCR, here in Karachi and I must respect her decision because this is what our religion teaches us too.”

His son Shahjahan studies in fifth grade in a school situated in Sohrab Goth area. “I don’t want him to make Naans. I want him to get religious and contemporary education and start his own business,” he says, as he takes out a Naan from the Tandoor.

“Pakistanis have always been welcoming. Giving away a piece from your land to people who don’t belong to your country is not an easy decision to make. I wholeheartedly admire Pakistanis for their generosity,” he says as he wipes away a thin layer of sweat from his forehead with a piece of cloth.

He lives in Sohrab Goth with his family and he feels Pakistan is a safe place to live — or atleast safer than Afghanistan. “Since my children were born here, I raised them as a Pakistani citizen.”  Afghanistan will always be a foreign land for them, he adds.


Hope for the hopeless

In what might appear to be a glimmer of fresh hope, newly-elected Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan has made a promise to the Afghan and Bangladeshi migrants living in Pakistan. On 16th September 2018, the premier vowed to grant citizenship to Afghans whose children were born in Pakistan.

“We are really looking forward to the new PTI government’s support for their Afghan brothers and sisters as PM Khan promised,” says Abdullah, the 44-year-old community leader of Afghan refugees residing in Karachi. He continues, “However, we have not been contacted by any member of the National Assembly or Provincial Assembly, or for that matter, any member of PTI yet.”

Wearing a white turban, the six-feet tall Abdullah who has blue eyes, can easily be mistaken as a Pakhtun. “I was just a kid when the Soviets blatantly killed anyone and everyone they would find,” says Abdullah. Recalling the ill fated Soviet invasion, Marwat, 78, says, “It all began in late 1979 when the then Soviet Union literally demolished our homeland with tentatively 100,000 soldiers. Abundant Afghans, including my family, left their birth country, due to massive executions, arrests, absolute political unrest, and explicit human-rights violations.”  During General Pervez Musharraf’s term in office in early 2007, a significant number of Afghan refugees were allocated Proof of Registration (PoR) cards after a well-concluded registration exercise by the government. These cards provided all those refugees a temporary but legal refuge in the country.

“We are completely satisfied with our Pakistani brothers and sisters, for they have given us a chunk of land from theirs and they have never let us feel insecure or unprotected around them. The last time we felt highly vulnerable was when we were home” said the forty-four-year-old community leader Abdullah.

As per Pakistan’s National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA), Pakistan has a total of 2.8 Million Afghan refugees within its territory with 1.6 million having a PoR card, meanwhile approximately 0.84 million Afghans have been repatriated by the joint initiative of UNHCR and the Government of Pakistan.

“I want to go back to Kabul. The place does not only have my father’s toys that he had saved for me to play, but it also has the grave of my father,” says Marwat’s young grandson.  A teardrop rolls down his cheek as Marwat picks him up. “We will visit Kabul soon and your father will be really happy,” says Marwat as he assures his grandson.

Harassment restricts women’s access to public spaces

Women's Protest


Mayank Chawla and Pramiti Lonkar

Earlier this year, seven-year-old Zainab Ansari from Kasur district in Pakistan was abducted on her way to a religious tuition centre. She was later found raped and strangled to death. The incident led to nationwide outrage. Similar to the Nirbhaya gangrape case in New Delhi in 2012, the case touched a chord with the society and brought changes to the legislation. While the rape law in India was revised, Pakistan outlawed child pornography after the Zainab’s case.

However, the two countries remain among the most unsafe for women. As per a study by Georgetown Institute’s Women, Peace and Security (WPS) Index, India ranks 131 among 153 countries. The index measures inclusion, justice and security for women. India ranks way below Saudi Arabia (99) and Nepal(85). Read more

India and Pakistan: Divided By Borders United By Hunger

Amandeep Singh, Ila Kazmi, Hannan Zafar, Waqar Hussain & Fatima Sheikh


Twenty-seven-year-old Madhu, was first tied and then brutally beaten to death by a mob in the southern Indian state of Kerala. His fault? Allegedly stealing food worth $3! In a similar accident, a few years back in 2011, a video appeared showing a Pakistani teen being chased and shot twice for stealing food.

Even seven decades after freedom, hunger crisis continues to haunt India and Pakistan. Successive regimes on both sides of the border have tried to bring about massive policy changes and improve the living standards of its citizens. However, both countries have failed to produce major breakthroughs, particularly in hunger alleviation According to State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2017 report, out of the 850 million hungry people in the world, 300 million are from India and Pakistan alone. This is despite the fact that both countries produce surplus food. “Problem arises owing to deficiencies in policy implementation and distribution rather than production,” says Khurshid Ahmad, a senior official working in Government of India’s food distribution department.

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70 years after independence, Delhi’s taste-buds want more from Pakistan’s kitchen

Pakistani biryani at Deez Cafe

Midhat Fatimah and Rajat Mishra

The surge in the number of desk-workers foraging new exotic food outlets has boosted the restaurant business in Delhi, Connaught Place being the hub. However, interestingly, menus of many restaurants have Pakistani dishes. A few restaurants serving North Indian and Mughlai cuisine have added Pakistani food items.

Deez Filmy Café and Bar in Connaught Place specialises in Handi Biryani (Biryani cooked in an earthen pot) and serves North Indian and fast food with a punch of Bollywood in its setting. Food is served in a hall with walls adorned with posters of famous dialogues from Bollywood movies while contemporary Punjabi and Western music plays in the background. The menu offers a range of items including Pakistani food items like Sindhi Biryani and a gravy dish called Pakistani Chicken Masala which has a paneer variant too.

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In the subcontinent, the ‘third gender’ struggles to exist

Anubhav Chakerabarty, Akhilesh Nagari, Basit, Jahanzeb Tahir & Sara Tanveer

The transgender community was recognized as a ‘third gender’ in India in 2014.  In contemporary India, although events like queer parades and informal meeting spaces offer a much-needed gathering space and platform to talk about LGBTQ issues, several issues continue to plague the transgender community.  

Class Divide

Anita, a trans woman, who came to Delhi from Darbhanga 15 years ago, still finds it difficult to make her ends meet. Financial security is one of the several problems that the transgender community faces.

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Qawwali continues to connect India and Pakistan


Eisha Hussain and Intifada Bashir

“Chhaap Tilak Sab Cheeni Re…..” is a composition that resonates with Indians as much as it does with Pakistanis. A Qawwali, within the ambit of Sufi devotional music, it epitomes the art works under the syncretic tradition of Sufism. Pioneered by Amir Khusrow about 700 years ago, Qawwali has managed to survive the tests of time.

For Qawwali — that originated in undivided India — 1947 was a landmark year. Although Amir Khusrow’s disciples (Qawwal Bache) kept the tradition alive for centuries, the partition forced qawwals to migrate to cities across India and Pakistan. As a result of this migration, Qawwali diversified and spread further across both countries. Read more

Transport woes in Delhi and Karachi


Majid Alam, Ghada Mohammed, Hasan Akram & Hasan Haider

Buses and Metro in Delhi account for a total ridership of around 6 million a day. Inspite of a huge public transport system, the city struggles to cope up with the rising population. The buses in Delhi are run on Compressed Natural Gas, a less polluting fuel, and are owned by Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC), and under private owners. Delhi Metro is a system of modern train communication that started in 2002 and currently carries around 3 million people daily.

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Pakistani fashion a hit in India

Sania Ashraf and Yash Shukla

Amongst many things that tie women of India and Pakistan together, their love for Pakistani suits features on top of the list. India is no stranger to producing high quality ethnic Salwaar-Suits; but the ones that Pakistan offers are simply too outstanding to ignore. “Pakistani suits are fresh and stylish and putting them on makes you stand out,” says Asmita, a 27-year-old PhD scholar and a fashion enthusiast.

Vogue for Pakistani suits started a decade back. It got a further impetus when Pakistani serials started getting aired on Indian television. “Through television, commonalities between the two countries were brought to fore. Pakistani styles are different from the ones prevalent here, hence the craze,” says Nayanika Thakur, Fashion coordinator at the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), New Delhi.

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