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Opinion: Pashtun protest

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By Afrasiab Khattak-More than a week of peaceful protest by thousands of Pashtun activists (mostly from Waziristan and FATA) in front of Islamabad Press Club may or may not succeed in forcing the government to accept their reasonable demands but it has definitely redefined Pashtun political discourse in Pakistan. The contradiction between ever growing socio political awareness brought by urbanisation and the utter political disempowerment is the main factor behind the current protest. This non violent political uprising, manifesting impressive energy in Karachi, Dera Ismail Khan and Islamabad, has given voice to the voiceless. It is basically a protest against war and colonial type subjugation in Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA). It isn’t surprising that the nucleus of the protest has originated from Masood tribe (pronounced Maseed in the local Pashto dialect) of South Waziristan political agency. Masoods have faced death and destruction on a large scale in the so called war on terror. They have literally been in the eye of storm. After the collapse of Taliban control over Afghanistan in December 2001, Taliban and Alqaida turned Waziristan, a backward and isolated tribal region adjacent to Paktia, Khost and Paktika provinces of Afghanistan, into their main base for regrouping and launching a new war in Afghanistan with tacit support of Pakistani state. In 2003, Taliban Shura (Council) formally established the ‘Emirate of Waziristan ‘with Jalaluddin Haqqani as its Amir (Leader). The unemployed youth in both South and North Waziristan flocked into the ranks of Taliban. Unlike Wazirs who have natural resources like forest and fertile land of Wana valley, Masoods mostly live on remittances from Middle East and employment in Karachi and other big cities in Pakistan. In December,2007 Taliban decided to create Tahreek-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) for division of work and efficiency, Masood dominated the leadership of the new outfit. Bait Ullah Masood. Hakimullah Masood, Waliurahman and some other top leaders of TTP belonged to Masood tribe. Waziristan has witnessed several military operations in the last few years, leading to displacement on wide scale. Majority of Masoods, like many other tribal Pashtuns, have lived as IDPs for more than a decade.

The brutalisation and state oppression isn’t confined to Waziristan and other parts of FATA. FATA Pashtuns have been the main target of military and police operations in Karachi also. The present protest was triggered by the murder of Naqibullah Masood, a young man from Waziristan based in Karachi. Naqib was killed in a fake encounter with police led by Rao Anwar, a police officer notorious for his “expertise” of fake encounters. But the narrative that has emerged from the speeches in the sit-in over the last one week is the expression of cumulative alienation of Pashtuns created by state violence, oppression and humiliation. FATA is devastated by the war brought to the area by the misguided Afghan policy of Pakistani state. Pashtuns belonging to FATA remain excluded from modern state systems and full fledged citizenship under an administrative structure devised by colonial rule. Every government in Pakistan has repeatedly backed out on promises to introduce reforms in the area mainly for two reasons. One, FATA has been used as a launching pad for Taliban’s war in Afghanistan and under this Afghan policy it’s the strategic need of Pakistani state to keep it a no go area and a black hole. Two, the huge black economy of the area is milked by Pakistani bureaucratic elites along with local war lords. This powerful vested interest in the status quo effectively blocks all the efforts for reforms. After the large scale deployment of Pakistan army since 2002 and the protracted military conflict has worsened the situation. Four out of the five demands of the Pashtun protest are about military’s control. They include cleaning of the area from land mines and IEDs, bringing an end to enforced disappearances after arbitrary raids on their homes and also stopping the imposition of prolonged curfews in the area. Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi told a delegation of the protesters that he will make sure the arrest and trail of Rao Anwar, the police officer responsible for the murder of Naqib Masood. The Prime Minister made no commitment about demands related with Military’s actions but he promised to persuade the GHQ to meet the representatives of the protesting Pashtuns.

It is for the first time in history that a movement that isn’t initiated by any nationalist political party has consistently embraced Pashtun identity. The need for unity required rising above tribal divisions. The mainly spontaneous movement that’s largely blacked out by Pakistan’s Urdu language electronic media, has attracted huge  sympathy and support from all sections of Pashtuns not just from within Pakistan but also from Afghanistan and Pashtun diaspora based in UK, US, Canada and many other countries. The anti war narrative of the Pashtun protest in Islamabad has widely resonated with Afghans who are sick of brutality and devastations of war. Pakistani state is nervous and clueless at the outpouring of solidarity and support from wider sectarians of Pashtun society. The Pakhtunkhwa based political parties, that took their time to overcome their initial inhibition, were ultimately forced to join the protest and declare their support for it. Interestingly this protest has become a shoulder for the tears of all Pashtuns aggrieved by state policies and they also include Pashtuns from settled areas. Many people couldn’t hold their tears when Fazal Khan Advocate, whose child was killed in the terrorist attack at Army Public School Peshawar in 2014, narrated the agony and disappointment of his family. Families from Swat raised the issue of enforced disappearances in their areas. Many of the few thousands people caught during military operation remain incarcerated in the so called internment centres. Some have dubbed these centres as Pakistani version of the Guntanamo Bay. Out of the fear of being labeled as “anti-state” most of the political parties are hesitant to raise such issues on their platforms. Pent up feelings on such “taboo” subjects have defined the present subject. The active participation of women activists has given a new colour to the protest of tribal Pashtuns who are otherwise dominated by patriarchal traditions. Songs, poetry and slogans recited and raised in the protest are creating an interesting new body of Pashto literature. Pashtun social media activists are using the full potential of the new media for promoting their cause. It’s in this context that some people have called the protest a Pashtun Spring.

Be that as it may, the most positive characteristic of this uprising is its total non violent and civil nature. Instead of going up to their mountains for launching their traditional armed uprisings, people of FATA have learnt to converge on big cities for peaceful political protest. But they have a long way to go for achieving peace and political empowerment.

The brutalisation and state oppression isn’t confined to Waziristan and other parts of FATA. FATA Pashtuns have been the main target of military and police operations in Karachi also.

The writer is a retired Senator and an analyst of regional affairs.