Islamabad, February 11
Unlike the recent violent protests in Islamabad, the one being held on a daily basis in front of the National Press Club at the centre of the city is both organised and peaceful. Protestors even tidy up at the end of the day, only to return the next morning to resume the sit-in. The gathering is unique in other ways too. It is organised over social media and attended mostly by young Pashtun men, many of them from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), with a sizeable portion belonging to the Mehsud tribe. And their list of demands include a plea to stop stereotyping of Pashtuns in Pakistan.
The trigger for this protest came after the murder of a young shopkeeper and social media star in what is being described as a staged encounter in Karachi. The killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud in mysterious circumstances, and the manner it was later found to be a fake encounter, prompted hundreds of Pashtuns to assemble in Islamabad to demand the arrest of Rao Anwar, the policeman behind the killing.
In a series of emotional speeches, speakers vented their grievances and called on the government to do something.
Most protestors have no political leanings. In fact, no major politician was even part of the protest. The men attending the protests are angry because they feel that as Pashtuns, as in the case of Naqeebullah, they are targeted for their ethnicity.
They spoke of hundreds of Pashtuns in custody and how many more had been killed by the law enforcement agencies in different operations.
Mureeb Mohmand, a political analyst who lives in FATA, said that out of the five demands made by the protestors, the most significant is the one for repealing laws under which the tribal areas are governed and the integration of FATA into Pakistan.
One such law, the draconian Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) gives unlimited powers to law enforcement agencies and no legal protection or recourse to the people who live in that area.
The protestors have also touched a raw nerve by criticising the military operations in their area, particularly Waziristan that is divided into North and South Waziristan districts, two of the seven FATA districts. The region turned into a hotbed of violence after 9/11 when al Qaeda and allied extremists based their operations in the valleys there.
Officials have said that in the war against terror, more than 50,000 civilians have been killed in militant attacks and military offensives. More than 6 million were displaced in dozens of military operations as hundreds of thousands of families lost their businesses and livelihoods. The protesters insist that the bulk of these casualties were in FATA.
They say the authorities are yet to clear land mines they planted at the time of the fight against militants. The Pushtuns in Islamabad are also protesting the imposition of curfews and the arbitrary measures imposed by the army during its operations there, as this bring untold hardship on the people of the area. They have also demanded that the victims of forced disappearances, many of whom they suspect are in military custody, be presented before the courts.
Speakers have criticised the military’s role of siding with one militant group against another. Others, much to the embarrassment of the military high command, insist that militants have not been wiped out of the areas as the army chief claims.
All this has made them unpopular with Islamabad’s ruling elite, with the result that the protest is receiving very little coverage in the national media.
“There is an unofficial blackout on this protest because it targets the military,” said journalist Imran Shirvanee. The protestors are undeterred. They have said that if their demands are not met, they will hold a series of protests across the country and highlight their plight through social media.
Islamabad, February 11