By Najam Sethi
09 Feb 2018
Several thousand Pakhtuns, young and old, but mostly from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), are camped outside the Press Club in Islamabad. They are protesting the state of displacement, internment, ethnic-profiling, disappearances, killings, injury and exile that have been everyday occurrences of their war-torn lives in the last ten years. Thousands of families are disabled or devastated in one way or another. Few have been compensated in any meaningful way. FATA is a restive and impoverished tribal borderland in the front-line of the most violent terrorist and anti-terrorist operations in recent years.
The trigger of the current protest is the killing, over a thousand miles away, of a popular social media Pakhtuns model-star – Najeebullah Mehsud – in a “police encounter” against “terrorists” in Karachi, which is home to thousands of displaced and runaway Pakhtuns from FATA. The villain of the piece is a notorious police officer – Senior Superintendent of Police, Rao Anwar – who has done the bidding of the military in many such “encounters” aimed at “cleaning-up” the terrorist-infected city, much as in FATA in recent times. And one of the public demands, naturally enough, is to bring the errant and defiant cop to justice. He has been a law unto himself but is now on the run from his own police force because of public and judicial pressure.
The timing of the “Dharna” is also conducive: ruling and opposition parties are especially sensitive to angry voters in the run-up to general elections. The venue is significant too: Islamabad is the seat of the federal government that controls FATA directly on the basis of a colonial system of administration; it is also the headquarters of the powerful military that has waged a relentless war against the Taliban in FATA but failed to work effectively with the civilian authorities to rehabilitate the displaced people and rebuild their lives.
The protesters are also demanding that the “disappeared” be saved from the summary wrath of the military (that has lost over 3000 soldiers and officers in this war and, like all militaries in such situations, has no love lost for due judicial process). They are demanding that land mines which litter the landscape and take their toll indiscriminately be removed. They are sick of the routine curfews that are imposed in troubled areas whenever there is some terrorist strife in some part of the country or other. They want the civil-military establishment to stop the ethnic profiling of Pakhtuns as potential terrorists and the constant surveillance of Pakhtun population clusters outside their home territories. They want hospitals and schools and roads and jobs for their ravaged region. It is reported that “70% of the region’s 5 million people live in poverty; the literacy rate is 10% for women and 36% for men”.
This is an opportune moment to raise a bigger but urgently needed demand – that of the merger of FATA with mainstream Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province so that the “tribal areas” are also brought into the fold of the general “democratization” and “civilianization” of state and society underway in Pakistan, with all its imperfect paraphernalia of elections, rule of law, accountability, local government, etc. Every government in the last twenty years has promised to amend the constitution and bring about this reform but each has shied away at the last minute because of countervailing pressure from party political or tribal vested interests in coalition with the ruling party. Two of the main culprits are Maulana Fazlur Rahman’s JUI and Mahmood Khan Achakzai’s PKMAP. Both fear that a merger will enable the mainstream parties to capture their tribal vote. The PTI is popular with the youth; The PPP and ANP have core secular constituencies; the Muslim League will capture the conservative centralist voter. The waters have now been muddied by another group that is demanding a separate provincial status for FATA, a demand that is vigorously opposed by everyone else because of fears that it may lead to similar demands by disgruntled linguistic or ethnic minorities elsewhere in the country.
One curious but unfortunate fact of this protest must also be recorded. The mainstream media is pretending that this “Dharna” is not meaningful in any significant way, hence it doesn’t deserve the 24 hour “breaking news” live coverage afforded day in and day out to mainstream politicians. Yet not so long ago, a firebrand mullah, Khadim Rizvi, with barely 2000 supporters, was able to block Islamabad and hog the news for three weeks on end and also succeed in toppling one minister and threatening two others simply because he seemed to have the indirect blessings of the military. Since the media is slavish only towards the military, and since the military establishment seems to be indirectly at the centre of the FATA protest also, the conclusion is obvious.
The irony is that the military fought a war to save Pakistan from the cancer of Talibanism; it has been urging the civilians to spend more money on rehabilitating displaced persons; and it is desperately seeking FATA’s merger with KP to stabilize the region and consolidate the hard victories won there.