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Pakhtun Tahaffuz Movement Gaining Wide Traction

By Aima Khosa

24 Aug 2018

On Sunday, August 12, the Pakhtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) reappeared in public discourse through a large demonstration in Swabi. This gathering was held after an interlude of several months during which the PTM’s leadership grappled with some crystallizing debates faced by any burgeoning political association in an election year: the decision to contest elections or not.

It is public knowledge that prominent PTM leaders Ali Wazir and Mohsin Dawar stepped down from the movement’s core committee when they announced their intention to run as independent candidates for the National Assembly. This announcement did not come as much of a surprise to most commentators and followers of the movement: after all, both Wazir and Dawar are popular organisers in their constituencies, NA-50 South Waziristan and NA-48 North Waziristan respectively. Wazir has tried his luck in elections before – in 2008 and 2013 but was unsuccessful. In his earlier statements as a PTM representative, Wazir had asserted that he was not interesting in running again. But as months went on, he appeared to change his mind and announced that he had succumbed to pressure from his supporters and decided to run. Dawar organised with the young cadre of the Awami National Party’s (ANP) National Youth Organisation (NYO) before the PTM emerged. The ANP removed him from his position after he became active with the PTM. But t was known that he had electoral ambitions prior to his involvement with the newer movement.

The current disagreements within the movement may reflect the positions of the political parties whose disenchanted cadre are now part of the PTM. That effectively puts Pashteen in the position of the figure that transcends partisan loyalties, and in doing so, keeps a tenuous coalition together

This brings us to the towering new figure produced by the PTM: the immensely charismatic Manzoor Pashteen. He remains, in the public imagination, the most visible and undisputed leader of the rights movement. He has, over the past year or so, acquired the status of a moral authority amongst Pashtun youth demanding greater civil liberties and political rights in Pakistan.

Many people affiliated with the movement have attempted to address rumours that Manzoor Pashteen was unhappy with the core committee’s decision to support Dawar and Wazir with their electoral campaigns. But when a BBC Urdu journalist asked Pashteen in a recent interview about a substitute PTM leadership in the Parliament, he may have referred indirectly to the source of the tension: “When we went to the people, we said that we would not ask them for votes. We asked for their support as charity. Dawar and Wazir made a personal decision to contest. They decided on their own. We envisioned the movement and its commitments as more durable than the tenure of an elected government, which ends every five years.”

And so, amidst talk of significant disagreements within the PTM, Dawar and Wazir have taken up their seats in the National Assembly. Those who have followed the PTM’s trajectory since the widespread public outrage over the extrajudicial murder of Naqeebullah Mehsud in Karachi earlier this year have mixed views about the post-election direction of the PTM.

Some senior journalists have hinted that with Wazir and Dawar in the Parliament, it will be easier for powerful quarters who wish to weaken the current PTM leadership to sideline Pashteen, whose name and face is currently synonymous with the movement.

And then there is the view that despite their personal ambitions, Wazir, Dawar and the PTM’s core committee continue to recognize Manzoor Pashteen as the central figure for the movement – not least because he is greatly loved by the confident new Pakhtun youth who currently form the backbone of the movement.

Over the last few months, this energised youth segment has organised the PTM’s door-to-door campaigns for public meetings and has produced a powerful narrative on social media – all of which has been instrumental in the group’s rise in the public domain. The current disagreements within the movement may reflect the positions of the political parties whose disenchanted cadre are now part of the PTM. That effectively puts Pashteen in the position of the figure that transcends partisan loyalties, and in doing so, keeps a tenuous coalition together.

It is amidst these discussions that the Pashtun Long March to Swabi was announced. The demonstration seemed to have three major goals: to present a united front from the leadership on the original agenda of the movement, to test support for the cause beyond “comfort zone” territories of Dera Ismail Khan and Tank, and to move towards more urban territories such as Swabi. The leadership believes that powerful quarters in the Pakistani state apparatus would prefer to contain the PTM’s activities and discussions within a certain area. In order for the movement to grow, it is imperative that it gain traction in the less friendly terrain of urban Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa – where the PTM feels it has still not made significant inroads.

As with most PTM public meetings, the August 12 gathering in Swabi became controversial when a day earlier; Pashteen was turned away from the shrine of decorated soldier Captain Karnal Sher Khan by his brother Anwar Sher Khan, while he was campaigning for the upcoming public demonstration. This incident was captured on video and shared widely on social media, triggering resumption of the incessant debate around the PTM’s loyalty to the state.

Pashteen had earlier come under attack when some young supporters of the PTM attempted to dissuade a man from bringing in the national flag to their public gathering. It is said that during a meeting of the PTM’s core committee, it was suggested that they put up several national flags on prominent spots at future public gatherings to neutralise this PR problem – which some believe to be part of a systematic effort at provocation. At the end of the day, as a PTM activist quipped sardonically, they could decorate an entire field with the national flag and their patriotism would still be called into question by vested interests.

Despite these controversies, several thousand people attended the PTM gathering in Swabi. These included Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir, who also campaigned for the event. Iqbal Lala, Mashal Khan’s father, was also present and narrated a moving poem for the audience.

In his speech, Pashteen expressed his view that Pakistan gained independence in 1947 but Pakhtuns remained in chains. “We are striving to restore dignity and remove this palpable feeling of deprivation among the Pakhtuns,” he said.

He also spoke of the PTM’s future plans and said that the movement would hold public meetings in other parts of the country to seek the support of the people.

For now, despite being surrounded by political workers formerly associated with major regional parties, who would undoubtedly be excited at the prospect of forming a party of their own, Manzoor Pashteen does not seem to be thinking along these lines. One PTM insider told this scribe: “Manzoor wants the movement to be some sort of a permanent thing – but outside of the electoral sphere.”

PTM’s efforts have, overall, met with great progress over the last few months. Their iconic red cap is now commonly sold in Karachi and the city’s Pakhtuns feel somewhat more secure – or at least better heard – after PTM’s campaign for justice for Naqeebullah Mehsud. However, it is as yet unclear as to how Pashteen plans to ensure the longevity of his project without moving towards a party organisation which brings with it an infrastructure and a more widespread, rooted presence that the PTM desires.

Whatever the future brings, it would be very difficult to deny the central role of the young man from South Waziristan. Without Manzoor Pashteen’s moral clarity, personal courage and immense charisma, it is difficult to imagine the Pakhtun rights’ movement gaining such wide traction as it already has.