The protests, mostly by youth, in northwestern Pakistan since early February are a clear and visible indication of decades-old resentment among locals against a system based on repression, injustice, suppression of free speech, and widespread corruption in the country’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which are still being ruled under colonial-era laws.
The protests also suggest the replacement of the traditional old guards — the Malaks or tribal elders — by the younger generation, who are educated, well-informed, politically more aware, and ready to challenge the system they believe to be denying them their due rights under the Constitution of Pakistan.
Manzoor Pashteen has become the linchpin of the so-called “FATA Spring.” The 25-year-old youth from South Waziristan tribal district was catapulted to fame and popularity after he led a rally in Islamabad and staged an unprecedented 10-day sit-in protest, which culminated in the acknowledgement of almost all their demands by the authorities.
The key demands included, but were not limited to, the clearance of landmines that often kill civilians, mostly children; the removal of security check-points; the release of all those held in extralegal detention by the security agencies; and the arrest of a police officer who allegedly killed a tribal youth in a “fake police encounter” in Pakistan’s port city of Karachi in January.
The roots of the so-called “Pashtun Uprising” date back to 2015, when Manzoor Pashteen, along with 25 comrades from the tribal areas, launched a protest campaign against the landmines in their areas.
However, the real catalyst is more deeply buried: the decades of subjective and discriminatory treatment of the tribal people by successive Pakistani governments, both civilian and military; the incoming al-Qaeda leadership in FATA and the emergence of the Pakistani Taliban after the overthrow of the hard-line Taliban regime in Afghanistan; and the subsequent takeover of the Pakistani security forces, who conducted numerous anti-Taliban operations that also displaced hundreds of thousands of tribal people and damaged their businesses.
Uprooted from their remote and backward villages and towns in the tribal belt, which stretches north to south along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, the tribal people, many of them for the first time, came to settle in the cities. This gave them the chance to see and observe progress, prosperity, and amenities firsthand.
The displacement also provided tribespeople the opportunity to access the media, admit their children to government-run schools, use treatment facilities at well-equipped city hospitals, and observe the legal system, comprising police, courts, and the right to appeal.
The last one in particular was unbelievable for the tribal people who continue to suffer under the colonial-era Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR). Under the FCR, a political agent, who is representative of the federal government, can arrest any number of people from a family, clan, subtribe, or tribe if one member commits a crime. The political agent can also sentence people to prison for any number of days without the right to appeal.
When Manzoor Pashteen was laying the foundation stone of his Mehsud Tahaffuz Movement (Mehsud Protection Movement) in 2015, he was conscious of the rights and privileges enjoyed by his fellow Pakistanis in the cities and towns outside his tribal areas. Unlike the elders, who remained stuck in the old system by providing support to the political agent to ensure their personal and family access to perks and privileges, Pashteen and his young comrades were more concerned about the collective benefit of their people.
The killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud, an aspiring model from Waziristan, added fuel to the fire. Youths from other tribal districts rushed to become part of the movement raised from Waziristan, which soon spread to areas as far away as the Valley of Swat and the Bajaur tribal district bordering Afghanistan’s eastern province of Kunar. The struggle launched to protect the rights of Mehsud tribe people was soon converted into the broader Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement or movement for the protection of Pashtuns.
“We raised those issues while looking into the eyes of the civilian and military authorities in Islamabad, which people were scared to mention even within the four walls of their houses before this,” said Manzoor Pashteen in his Facebook Live message after ending his protest sit-in in Islamabad on February 10.
Since then, massive protests, mostly by youth without the participation of traditional political leadership or tribal elders, have been observed in the Valley of Swat and the Bajaur tribal district.
Swat, also known as the Switzerland of Pakistan, witnessed the Taliban’s brutality when a cleric by the name of Mullah Fazlullah raised an army of Taliban using his FM radio sermons from 2006 till 2008. Mullah Fazlullah, who is now leading the proscribed Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), not only started intimidating, taxing, beating, and even beheading locals but also challenged the state by forcefully occupying the government offices in the Malakand region, of which Swat is a district.
The Pakistani security forces launched numerous operations against Mullah Fazlullah, finally dislodging him from Swat in May 2009. Since then, the security forces have maintained a presence in the valley to block the Taliban re-entry there.
However, the people of Swat often complain about maltreatment at the check-points established by the Pakistani security forces. On February 18, despite orders from the authorities, youth in Swat Valley’s main town of Mingora organized a massive rally to express their resentment over the presence of security check-posts.
Like the protest in Islamabad, a complete media blackout of the Swat rally was observed. Later, police filed cases against the organizers of the protest under the sections of the Pakistani law relating to terrorism and sedition, although the rally ended quite peacefully.
Days later, another protest was staged in Bajaur, one of the seven tribal districts. Here, as in other areas, Pakistani security forces had conducted numerous operations from 2007 onward to defeat the Taliban.
The protest in Bajaur, the first of its type in more than a decade, was organized to demand the arrest of the killer(s) of a university student from that area who was kidnapped by unidentified people in Karachi. The student’s blood-soaked body was found earlier this month. The news sparked widespread anger in his hometown.
Encouraged and emboldened by the protests in Islamabad and Swat, the youth in Bajaur came out on the roads in large numbers on February 20 and warned they would undertake a march toward Islamabad if the killers were not arrested. The protest was once again ignored by mainstream Pakistani media.
The wave of protests by youth in areas where the people have adopted an enforced silence, partly because of the Taliban brutalities and partly because of the military presence, signals a landmark shift. The old-style Malaks (tribal elders) are ceding influence to the educated and somewhat high-tech generation of tribal youth, who are using the expanding influence of social media to create awareness and protect their rights.
Daud Khattak is Senior Editor for Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty’s Pashto language Mashaal Radio. Before joining RFE/RL, Khattak worked for The News International and London’s Sunday Times in Peshawar, Pakistan. He has also worked for Pajhwok Afghan News in Kabul. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.