Notwithstanding the flagrant criticism of Pakistan’s powerful army, which is gradually winding up a decade-and-a-half-long bloody fight against militants in the treacherous landscape known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), leaders of the nascent Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) or Pashtun Protection Movement walk a tightrope while raising their voices on a subject many see as a “red line” from the perspective of Pakistan’s security establishment.
Since its emergence in January this year, the PTM’s key demands include recovery of the “missing” — people who were allegedly picked by intelligence agencies during searches and military operations in the tribal areas and adjacent districts — an end to “humiliations” and “discriminatory” checking at military check posts in FATA, clearance of landmines that often injure civilians, and punishment for the police officer who allegedly killed a tribal youth, Naqeebullah Mehsud, in a fake police encounter in January this year in the city of Karachi.
PTM’s demand that missing persons should be produced before the courts and if found guilty must be punished according to the law, seems to be the key point of discord as many have been missing for seven to 10 years with no information about their whereabouts or whether they are dead or alive.
Apart from the tribal areas, where the Pakistani security forces have been conducting anti-Taliban operations since 2005, the district of Swat also tops among areas in the list of “missing persons.” The military fought a hard battle against Mullah Fazlullah, the current Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) chief who once banned music and girls’ education in Swat, and his followers from 2007 to 2009.
This may be one of the reasons that the Pakistan army was concerned about the PTM gathering in Swat and the local administration employed different tactics to keep locals from joining the gathering.
Just a day before the PTM’s April 29 gathering, a retired army officer with the support of some locals hurriedly organized an anti-PTM gathering in Swat’s commercial town of Mingora under the banner of “Pakistan Zindabad Movement” (Long Live Pakistan Movement) where participants delivered angry speeches and leveled allegations that the PTM’s leadership were “foreign agents.”
As I traveled to Swat from Peshawar to observe the PTM rally on April 29, I noticed several billboards and posters on the roadsides where Manzoor Pashteen, a leader of the PTM, was drawn together with Mullah Fazlullah in a bid to depict Pashteen, and through him the PTM, as the new face of Talibanization.
In conversations with locals, many people confided to me that just a day before the gathering they were instructed by their village elders not to participate in the rally. “If you or anyone from your family attends, I will inform the [army] officials,” said a Swat resident who defied the threat and attended the meeting.
Last month Pakistan Army Chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa hinted that the PTM’s gatherings were “engineered.” Since then, there has been a media blackout of the group’s public meetings held in Lahore on April 22 and Swat in April 29. While English dailies carried some reports, most private and public televised news programs avoided mentioning the PTM’s activities.
By the same token, authorities in Lahore, where the PTM organized its gathering on April 22, refused them permission for the place of their choice at the eleventh hour. Hours later, police raided the hotel room where the PTM leaders were staying and detained several. The raid and arrest was widely condemned on social media and under mounting pressure, the local authorities released the detained leaders within hours.
While the 24/7 TV media was already observing a blackout of the PTM gatherings, print media also stopped publishing news and even opinion pieces about the group. Author and columnist Babar Sattar turned to Twitter complaining that the News International, an English-language daily paper based in Karachi, refused to publish his article about PTM; another columnist, Mosharraf Zaidi aired the same complaint, tweeting “For the first time in over a decade, @thenews_intl has refused to publish my column.”
Khan Zaman Kakar, an activist and a supporter of the PTM, wrote on Twitter that his analysis of the PTM was removed from the website of The News on Sunday pages soon after it was published.
While their speeches and criticism of the Pakistani military is furious and even unprecedented, all of the PTM leadership have openly declared their loyalty to Pakistan and want their demands to be addressed and resolved under the Constitution.
“Terrorists and militants fought their battle from the mountains with guns and bombs. They don’t come in the cities to hold protest demonstrations for their rights and demands,” former senator Nabi Bangash told me during an interview in Pakistan’s federal capital Islamabad this week.
Bangash, who believes peaceful struggle for constitutional demands is the right of all Pakistanis, says to end their sense of alienation, this young and emerging leadership from FATA and rest of Pashtun areas need to be heard. “Forcing them out from the screens, or print publications will only increase the sense of alienation and humiliation that is widespread among FATA people in particular and rest of Pashtuns in general,” he added.
All the leaders of the PTM have experienced the horrors of both the Taliban’s atrocities and the impact of anti-Taliban military operations in their areas. Manzoor Pashteen, for example, was less than 10-years-old when the Taliban emerged and the army entered his region.
There were times, when like many other tribal children, Pashteen was a fan of the Pakistan army and he wanted to join the force after completing his education. What changed his mindset was the experiences of military operations in his home region. The killing and disappearance of civilians, destruction of houses and businesses, forcing out of over a million people from their homes to live under pathetic conditions in tents and rented houses, “humiliations” faced by tribal people at security check posts, and discriminatory treatment not only in their own areas but the rest of Pakistan as well soured Pashteen on the military career.
The PTM leadership is the product of the arduous and wretched conditions they have face in their native areas for decades. They suffered and still suffer under colonial-era laws (the Frontier Crimes Regulations); they witnessed barbarism and terrorism in its worst shapes as al-Qaeda, the Taliban and a host of other militant groups came to settle in their villages and towns; and they experienced destruction and humiliation at the hands of their own country’s army, which many, like Manzoor Pashteen, cherished and once wished to be part of.
Although the PTM leadership is harsh in its statements, my interaction with them suggests they are very much reconcilable. While cornering them further may increase their sense of alienation, a sober effort to listen to their lawful demands may help bring them into the fold.
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.