Pakistanis who have never seen Pakistan

Jan 20, 2014| Courtesy by :

After ties broke down between India and Portugal, Gujarati Muslims stranded in Mozambique were given Pakistani citizenship. Former diplomat Nazar Abbas spoke with them through interpreters


How did the East African country Mozambique get its name? The word does not belong to any tongue spoken in the country, in any neighbouring country, or in any other country for that matter. But there is an explanation. The history and the legend intertwined, go like this.

Arab traders had settled along the coast of what is now known as Mozambique, and its outlying islands, long before the celebrated Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama reached the coast in 1498.  The area did not comprise one big united country, but was divided among many rulers.  The political control of the coastal areas was in the hands of several Arab sultans. Many locals had embraced Islam. The name of the Arab ruler in the north of the country was Musa bin Beik. When the Europeans first landed here, they asked a local what place it was. The fellow could not understand the words and gestures of the foreigners. He told them the name of the ruler – Musa bin Beik. The visitors, presumably Portuguese, heard ‘Mozambique’.

Graca Machel

Graca Machel

The word Mozambique does not belong to any tongue spoken in the country, or in any other country

Thus the island in the north of the country that the Portuguese occupied first, in the late 15th century, was called ‘Mozambique’. They established a trading centre, a missionary base and a fort on the island. Later, they gave the same name to the whole territory under their control.

Modern day Mozambique, a little larger than Pakistan, has an Island in its north named Mozambique. The island has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site. Ninety per cent of the Island’s population is Muslim, while they constitute only about twenty per cent of the population of the rest of the country. There are still some traces of the Arab past. Mozambique’s currency is called ‘Metical’ (plural meticaish), a variation of the Arabic word ‘miscal’.

In 1961, India annexed the Portuguese enclave of Goa. Portugal and India were thus, technically, at war

Mozambique has a historical and enduring link with the Indian sub-continent. Even today, some 45,000 people of Indian descent live in the country. Under the Portuguese colonial rule, there was no let or hindrance in the movement of people between Mozambique (declared an overseas province of Portugal) and the Portuguese enclaves in India. Merchants from Diu had settled on the island of Mozambique in early 1800s. Hindus from Diu, Sunni Muslims from Daman, and others from Goa migrated to Mozambique as small traders, construction workers and petty employees. Many Gujaratis moved from South Africa to Mozambique in the latter half of the 19th century. None of these sub-continent people were from the present day Pakistan. Even after the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947, there was no known Pakistani passport holder living in Lourenco Marques or any other part of Mozambique. Then, in 1961, India annexed the Portuguese enclave of Goa. Portugal and India were thus, technically, at war. The Portuguese authorities interned all the Indian nationals in Mozambique in concentration camps and the Portuguese dictator Salazar also ordered freezing of their bank accounts. Subsequently, the Indian nationals were served notice to leave Mozambique or acquire Portuguese nationality. Some of them moved to South Africa, England or elsewhere, but the non-Muslims among them who decided to stay on in Mozambique took Portuguese nationality.  The Muslim Indians who had been living in Mozambique for generations, and knew no other country, faced a dilemma. They could not stay as Indians. They had no other country to go to. If they acquired Portuguese citizenship, they would have to send their young sons and daughters for compulsory military service. The foreigners, even if permanent residents, were however exempt from this rule. Since they and their forefathers were not of Pakistani origin, had never even seen Pakistan, and did not speak Urdu or any other Pakistani language (Gujarati was their mother tongue and they spoke Portuguese as their second language), they could not apply for Pakistani citizenship. In this desperate situation they thought of appealing to the Pakistani government. They sent a delegation of their prominent leaders to Pakistan. The delegation called on President General Ayub Khan and explained their predicament, requesting Pakistani nationality and passports. They said that they would stay on in Mozambique – where they were well settled and were living for generations – and would not be a burden on Pakistan. They might even be of some help in promoting trade and other relations between Pakistan and Portugal.  Had they been in India at the time of partition, many, if not most, of them would probably have migrated to Pakistan and would now be Pakistanis anyway. President Ayub Khan accepted their request.

Maputo Embassy

Maputo Embassy

All such Muslims of Indian background who wished to become Pakistanis were directed to apply to the Pakistan Mission in Tanzania where they were issued Pakistani passports. After the independence of Mozambique on June 25, 1975 these Pakistanis could have acquired Mozambican nationality, but the independent Mozambique retained the rule of compulsory military service and there was a civil war. So they retained their Pakistani passports and continued to stay on just as before, as permanent residents.

When I was posted in Maputo, the number of Pakistani passport holders was estimated to be 5,000. This number should now be 8,000 to 9,000. Except a very few of them, they have never been to Pakistan. They do not speak any Pakistani language. Those who had access to television or VCR had a smattering of Urdu and Hindi because they would regularly watch Pakistani TV dramas and Indian movies. Most of these Pakistanis were small traders and shopkeepers. They had regular communication with friends in Karachi. The TV drama videos were flown to Maputo almost immediately on release in Karachi. They speak Gujarati at home and Portuguese in public. Amongst them were parents of the Finance Minister Mr Abdul Majeed, himself a Mozambican national. The minister’s father came to my office more than once to get his and his wife’s passport’s renewed. It sounds odd and unusual but it was interesting that we in the Embassy of Pakistan had to communicate with Pakistanis through a Portuguese-English interpreter. Pakistanis, of whatever background, were our responsibility under national and international law. They were not Pakistanis, yet they were (and are) Pakistanis.

Once, a group of about 75 prisoners of various nationalities held by RENOMO insurgents were being released through the United Nations. They included a dozen men, women and children holding Pakistani passports. As a representative of the government and the embassy of Pakistan, I received them from the UN representative. The handing over ceremony was held in a hotel in Maputo. I signed the papers, greeted them, hosted a little reception for them, but conversed with them through an interpreter. They did not have to be repatriated to Pakistan. They just went to their homes in Mozambique with relatives and friends.

Maputo huts

Maputo huts

Being the only other diplomatic officer with the ambassador, I was looking after various duties including the consular affairs. I recall that on the average, we received five or six applications every day for renewal of passports. We would interview the applicants as and when necessary. One day, an applicant by the name of Antonio Abdul Sacoor submitted his Pakistani passport for renewal. When I saw the application, I was curious how he had got this name. I called him.  He was a smart young man in his thirties. Antonio was well educated, knew some English, and amongst other skills, he was a qualified car mechanic.  He told me that he had shifted from a city in the north of the country where he had been living with his parents for long.  His father had died and he had now shifted to Maputo with his mother and other relations. He had a nice house and was running his own workshop and a garage. I asked him about his name. He said that during the Portuguese colonial rule, the indigenous black Mozambicans and those of Indian extraction, particularly the Muslims, were not permitted to get education beyond the primary (Class 4) level. Even Samora Machel, the revolutionary leader and first president of independent Mozambique, had only studied until the fourth grade and then trained and served as a male nurse in a hospital in Lourenco Marques. The father of Abdul Sacoor (as pronounced by Gujaratis) was deeply conscious of the importance of education. He therefore gave him a Christian Portuguese name, so that he could complete his education.

Some plainclothes intelligence officials came to her house and took her son away

Antonio Abdul Sacoor would visit the embassy often. We patronized him by getting him some odd paid jobs.  One day his mother came to see the ambassador. She was distraught and in tears. She said some plainclothes intelligence officials came to her house and took her son away.

The family had gone to the police but couldn’t locate him or find out if he was safe. We were very upset to hear that. We assured her that the embassy would trace him. The ambassador, Col Naseer, met the foreign secretary and other officials and told them that the Government of Pakistan was deeply concerned. He demanded of them to provide full information about the whereabouts and welfare of the Pakistani national Antonio Abdul Sacoor. After his persistent effort, the Foreign Office informed us that he was being held in a maximum security jail on some serious charges. We informed his mother. She was not allowed to meet her son but we, the embassy, were given consular access. I accompanied the ambassador to the prison. Antonio was well. No physical harm was done to him. He told us that he had done nothing wrong and that he was being held without any formal charge. His neighbor, a serving army major, had been arrested by the army intelligence on charges of anti-state activities — not unexpected during a civil war — and during the questioning they had learned that the major was friendly with him. All that Antonio had told us proved to be true. The ambassador explained to the authorities and demanded his release. After some delay, Antonio Abdul Sacoor was released without any charges. He came with his mother to thank the embassy. I cannot forget the joy we felt to see his mother happy.

During the period we were pursuing Abdul Sacoor’s case, I would often contact my counterpart in the Portuguese embassy, First Secretary Mr Emilio (I forget his exact name). Through him I came to know that nine Portuguese nationals were being held in the only maximum security jail of the country, on various charges. I exchanged information with him after our visit to the jail. A few days later, I read a news report that two of the Portuguese prisoners had been released. I called Emilio and congratulated him. Emilio confirmed the report and said only six of their nationals were left in the prison. “Wait a minute,” I said. “You had nine prisoners and two were released.” Emilio said that was correct. ‘Then there should be seven of your nationals left in the prison.” He insisted there were six. “Look my dear friend, I have studied Mathematics. I was very good in arithmetic even in my school days. I can tell you with full authority that nine minus two makes seven.” Eventually, he laughed and told me one of them had escaped from the prison and had safely reached Lisbon.

I laughed too, and asked how the prisoner could flee a maximum security prison. “He bribed the guard on duty,” Emilio said. “He must have paid a very hefty bribe for that, but the Mozambican guard will now be discovered and will face the music,” I said. “No,” he replied. “The guard has also safely reached Lisbon.”

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