It has been over a week since thousands of ethnic Pashtuns from Pakistan’s tribal areas marched toward the country’s federal capital. Since then, they have been observing a sit-in protest, braving not only the cold weather, particularly during the night, but also the colder response from Pakistan’s 24/7 Urdu language television channels and print media.
Their key demands include: arresting and punishing the police officer who allegedly kidnapped and killed a young shopkeeper from Waziristan tribal region in Karachi in a fake police encounter; remove all the landmines from Waziristan and the rest of the tribal belt; produce all the so-called “missing persons,” tribesmen who have allegedly been taken into custody by the state security agencies; remove the security check posts, where tribesmen have to prove their identity each time they enter their villages and towns; and put an end to frequent curfews on the movement of locals in the name of security.
The Pashtun protest, unprecedented in the history of Pakistan, is an eye-opener for Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership, who have been dealing with the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) as a strategic space, rather than recognizing the genuine needs and rights of its inhabitants.
The tribal areas have the lowest literacy rate in Pakistan, very few or no employment opportunities, poor health facilities, and an even worse communication system. The normal Pakistani judicial system is not applicable in the tribal areas; the only road leading to justice is the office of the British-era political agent or the outdated jirga system, under which tribal elders decide cases ranging from petty crimes like theft and the land disputes to blood feuds. Jirga justice has been used to justify cruel rituals such as “honor killings” and “swara” (giving a girl, irrespective of her age, to the aggrieved party to settle a blood feud).
The only time that the Pakistani state has truly engaged the tribal areas or its inhabitants were when FATA residents were needed to fight Pakistan’s wars — be that the 1948 fighting in Kashmir, the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, the strengthening and backing of the hardliner Taliban militia in the early 1990s, or providing a support base for the Taliban jihad in Afghanistan.
Decades of state neglect have inflicted immense damages on the lives of the tribal people. However, their worst suffering began following the overthrow of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
Since then, the people of FATA, which is composed of seven tribal districts spreading alongside Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan like a crescent, have been the worst-affected populace in Pakistan and the region.
Sandwiched between the Taliban and their al-Qaeda guests and the Pakistani security agencies, the tribal peoples’ houses were razed and businesses destroyed in the name of anti-Taliban operations; their mosques and hujras (Pashtun guest houses) were bombed by the Taliban and al-Qaeda; their elders were brutally targeted with bombs and beheadings. People were uprooted from their villages and towns and forced to live in tents in chilly cold and scorching heat for years.
Despite suffering such a heavy price for events beyond their control, the tribal people are still not comfortable in their homes and towns, even though the Taliban have been pushed back across the border in Afghanistan by the Pakistani security forces. It is against this backdrop that they finally decided to raise a forceful voice and demand an end to their plight.
Naqeebullah Mehsud, an aspiring model from Waziristan who was killed in allegedly fake police encounter last month, proved the watershed moment. The ongoing protest by the Pashtun tribesmen is significant from several points of view, with their quest for justice and recognition of their political and human rights at the top of the list.
One of the key slogans being raised by the sit-in participants is a demand for recognition of their basic human and political rights. Naqeebullah Mehsud’s killing is just the tip of the iceberg. Notwithstanding the various colorful official ceremonies organized in Islamabad or highly guarded places in the tribal areas in the name of the welfare of the tribesmen, a sense of deprivation and alienation is widespread among the FATA people and this often echoes in the lower and upper houses of Pakistan.
Naqeebullah Mehsud was arrested and investigated by police officer Rao Anwar simply because he and his family had migrated to the city of Karachi in the hope of earning a better life for their next generation. When his family recovered his bullet-riddled body, police officials declared Naqeebullah Mehsud an accomplice of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the group responsible for shooting the Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai and targeting children in a military-run school in Pakistan’s northern city of Peshawar in December 2014.
It seemed likely that Rao Anwar, reportedly backed then and now by some powerful hidden hands, would avoid any punishment, as had happened before, but this time, Naqeeb’s stylish pictures on social media raised a storm in the cities. The issue was soon picked by online media and the storm soon reached his native town of Waziristan, where people were already prepared for an outburst.
The younger generation of tribesmen, thanks to a higher degree of political awareness due to their unwanted displacement as a result of anti-Taliban military operations, were already leveling the ground to demand their rights. Naqeebullah Mehsud’s killing provided them a joint platform.
Since then, the Supreme Court of Pakistan has already ordered the arrest of the fugitive police officer, but the protesters and their supporters have genuine questions about the role of the government and its security agencies. Addressing the people, prominent anchor and journalist Hamid Mir urged the government to arrest Rao Anwar. “If you are unable to arrest him, let us know his whereabouts and we will go after him to bring him to face justice,” Mir said, addressing the government and state security agencies.
Undetonated landmines and security check points have long been resented by the tribesmen in corner meetings, polite demands, and peaceful protests. However, this time the Pashtuns have forcefully raised the issues, despite the reported unhappiness of the military leadership (the army has yet to release a statement on the protests). According to reports, an estimated 80 people, including adults and children, have been killed by landmines in Waziristan over the past few years.
As for the military checkpoints, the Mehsud tribesmen believe the Taliban have been routed and there is no reason for security personnel to block them from entering their own villages in the name of security. “Authorities should stop imposing curfews and beating civilians,” said a pamphlet distributed among the protesters.
As the protesters in Islamabad were delivering speeches and chanting slogans for the due rights of the tribesmen, hundreds more set an alleged Taliban office on fire in Dera Ismail Khan city, located on the periphery with South Waziristan. The Taliban group was accused of killing a young man from the Wazir tribe. In the highly charged environment, the tribesmen stormed a house allegedly used by the pro-government militia and set it on fire. Later, they were recorded on video chanting slogans such as “death to good Taliban.” Good Taliban refers to those allegedly supported by the Pakistani authorities.
While the protest for justice and basic human and political rights has generated a higher degree of awareness among the tribe people on the one hand, on the other, it has also provided them a chance to shed the mantle of being pro-Taliban, pro-jihad, and extremely religious. After all, the disinformed world sees the hapless tribe people as the cause of trouble. They are generally considered as the supporters of terrorism. The fact is that they are victims of terrorism.
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.