Pashtuns up in arms in Pakistan, will the country fall?

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Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA), bordering Afghanistan, is considered one of the world’s most significant geopolitical regions. These tribal regions have been the scene of the world’s deadliest military operations, which started when the Taliban and affiliated groups established full control over this area. These terrorist groups let loose through a reign of terror by killing the maliks, the tribal chiefs. The operations undertaken by the Pakistan Army to push back Taliban uprooted millions of people from this tribal belt, resulting in sense of alienation and injustice. But successive governments in Islamabad failed to undertake measures for social and economic uplift of region, which continues to be governed by the regressive British-era law called the Frontier Crimes Regulation Act (FCR).
Under this law, neither parliament nor the courts have any jurisdiction over the region. Although recently the jurisdiction of the Pakistan Supreme Court has been extended to FATA, there is still a long way to go before this becomes functional. Due to the lack of access to the modern legal system, the power to decide the fate of the people in the region lies with the Jirga courts which are governed by customary laws. These jirgas will continue to remain influential and may create hurdles in the way of the official courts dispensing justice. Although, the PML-N government proposed to review and revisit the FCR in 2017, as such, no attempt was made to persuade the local politicians to support the FATA bill which recommends the merger of FATA with KP. The mainstreaming of FATA will automatically scrap the FCR. Due to political expediency, however, the PML-N government dropped the FATA bill from the priority list in spite of the Pakistan military backing the merger. Grievances have been brewing among the Pashtuns since the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, when the Pakistan Army started military operations in the region to clear the area of armed foreign terrorists fleeing from Afghanistan. These operations turned the region into a war zone because of the local sympathy for Afghan militants in the region. On top of this, the media and political parties have maintained a long drawn silence over the atrocities faced by the Pashtuns especially in the Tribal area during the course of the operations of the Pakistan Army. The mainstream media in Pakistan has not given any noteworthy space to the emergence of the PTM phenomenon and the people of Pakistan have remained mostly unaware of developments in FATA. It is the PTM’s activism on social media platforms that forced the mainstream media, particularly the English and electronic media, to reluctantly provide some coverage for the protesters led by PTM. Even the attempt by mainstream political parties – their warning to Pashtun members and affiliates that participation in PTM rallies would lead to expulsion – has not been able to hamper the protests. In particular, the participation of women in the recent Peshawar protest was a surprise element, keeping the conservative Pashtun culture in view. Manzoor Pashteen has suggested that “if by banning the media from covering the movement, Pakistan believes that it can crush and fizzle the movement, it’s mistaken”. It has to be noted here that international media organisations like the Voice of America, BBC, and Aljazeera are covering the movement on a large scale, and additionally, PTM is using social media to disseminate news about the movement to the outside world. The Pashtun diaspora is very actively following this movement. Through social media, Pashtun diaspora has successfully internationalised the predicament of the Pashtuns in Pakistan. Although the PTM is a still a movement, it has all the ingredients for graduating into a political party representing the Pashtuns. Apart from massive public support, the PTM has raised popular issues which mainstream parties, particularly the nationalists, had failed to address. Sensing the support PTM is getting, other political parties such as Awami National Party (ANP), the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PMAP) and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) initially supported it. But later they distanced themselves from the movement and also advised their party activists not to attend PTM gatherings because the latter’s ultra-ethno-nationalist views were eroding their own political appeal and agenda. It is too early to expect that the PTM will shape up as a viable nationalist movement, the kind seen in the past when the Pashtunistan movement was at its height. The reason for this scepticism is on account of the fact that the Pashtuns are fragmented along tribal and sub-tribal lines. In the past, this division has made them vulnerable to manipulation and left them at the receiving end of state repression.

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