A History of the Rahdari Document: Policing Mobility in Nineteenth-Century Afghanistan

A History of the Rahdari Document: Policing Mobility in Nineteenth-Century Afghanistan

Ali Karimi

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

4:00 PM - 6:00 PM
Bunche Hall Room 10383


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In the second half of the 19th century, Afghanistan’s borders were fixed. The Afghan state then had to learn how to police them. This paper offers a history of the travel permit, known across the region as rahdari, to explore how the Afghan rulers mastered the art of governing mobility. The travel permit was an ancient instrument of identification and policing across the Islamic world, but rulers in Afghanistan did not enforce it with consistency. In the last decade of the century, this paper argues, the Afghan state’s war on the Hazaras changed that. The war on this religious minority created a large wave of refugees who tried to escape to India, Persia, and Russian Turkistan. The state did not want them to leave the country. The road guards and border police used the travel permit—now issued in print form—to hunt Hazara refugees and determine who was free to travel and who was not. This documentary identification regime helped the young Afghan state territorialize its authority and taught it how to police people on the road, especially the refugees, the runaways, and the fugitives.

Ali Karimi is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication, Media and Film at the University of Calgary. He is a scholar of critical information studies with a focus on surveillance, privacy, and data justice. His research examines the power politics of how the state produces, organizes, and uses population information. He studies this problem mostly in the context of the weak states of the Global South where data is often contested and information injustice is a major issue. He is currently working on a book project, tentatively titled State of Opacity: A History of Counting People, Places, and Prices in Afghanistan, that tells the story of three artifacts that are used for tracking people, places, and prices: the identification document, the house number, and the price tag. The book shows how numerical information—or lack thereof—can affect the state, society, and the market at large. Karimi received his PhD from McGill University and before joining the University of Calgary, he was a postdoctoral fellow at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania.


Sponsor(s): Center for India and South Asia

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