One of the most important developments in Pakistan last year was the emergence of a powerful but nonviolent civil rights movement among the country’s long-suffering Pashtun minority. The movement, popular and led by youth, is known as the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) or Movement for the Protection of Pashtuns.
Events over the past year have shown that this organic grassroots movement hasn’t been a temporary outburst of youthful unrest and anger in a war-ravaged and marginalized community. Instead, the PTM has come to represent a resilient, peaceful, and popular initiative that has withstood extensive state repression, persecution, and a media blackout since its inception.
The movement has consistently but peacefully protested against Pakistani state policies that have imposed an armed conflict on the underdeveloped Pashtun homeland in Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and southwestern Balochistan provinces.
The early January 2018 murder of Naqeebullah Mehsud, a young aspiring Pashtun model, in a fake police encounter in Pakistan’s southern seaport city of Karachi triggered an explosion of anger in the western districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, formerly called the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). This anger among the Pashtuns had built up over decades through various cycles of the Afghan war and the so-called War on Terrorism after 9/11. These events brought the Pashtun people the three Ds: death, destruction, and displacement.
The Pashtun Long March, prompted by Mehsud’s murder, proved a rallying cry for Pashtuns. They were sick and tired of the war and the disempowerment imposed on them by decades of the Pakistani security establishment’s misguided Afghan policy.
The protest that originated from the South Waziristan district went from Dera Ismail Khan through Peshawar valley, the Pashtun heartland, to Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, in the first week of February 2018. After a few days of pressure and persuasion, the traditional tribal elites left the protest, which resulted in the young leaders of the PTM taking over. The movement’s charismatic leader, Manzoor Ahmad Pashteen, 24, has successfully navigated troubled waters.
The Islamabad sit-in gave birth to the country’s most dynamic, active, and nonviolent youth political uprising. It has taken the Pashtun belt in Pakistan by storm and mobilized Pashtun diasporas in several countries on an unprecedented scale. In massive protest gatherings, it has successfully taken its message to the big cities of Pakistan like Karachi, the eastern city of Lahore, Quetta in the southwest, and the northern metropolis of Peshawar.
What we witnessed over the past year shows that the PTM braved all hurdles on its path, holding big protest rallies in places like the northwestern Swat Valley, Swabi, and Karachi. Its recent rallies in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s southern cities of Bannu and Tank have been particularly impressive. Pakistani political observers have been pleasantly surprised by women’s participation in public meetings in conservative areas like Bannu.
The movement has given voice to the voiceless people of former FATA, who for decades were at the receiving end of extremist violence and state oppression. But the PTM’s anti-war narrative has resonated with Pashtun masses in neighboring Afghanistan and elsewhere. Despite promises at the highest level, the Pakistani state has failed to effectively address grave abuses such as enforced disappearances, landmines, and mistreatment by security forces.
The nonimplementation of legal and administrative reforms outlined at the time of FATA’s merger into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa last year has left more than 6 million Pashtun residents of these regions in legal limbo and an administrative vacuum. Since military authorities run the day-to-day administration in the area without judiciary and other civilian institutions, voices are raised against the uniformed bureaucracy during the agitation, which invariably attracts its wrath.
Pakistani military leaders have issued several public warnings against the movement for crossing what they said were undefined “red lines.” But PTM leaders have emphasized the need for respect of the fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution. They complain that Mehsud’s murderers roam free after more than a year of calling for justice.
The recent abduction and brutal murder of Tahir Dawar, a decorated police officer from Waziristan, remains uninvestigated despite official promises at the highest level. The refusal of state authorities to investigate the alleged harassment of women and children by the security forces in Khaisor, a village in North Waziristan, has further added fuel to the fire of alienation.
As a grassroots movement, the PTM is grappling with organizational and structural problems as it evolves. There has been an intense debate within the movement about whether it should pursue parliamentary politics by standing in elections. Many PTM supporters say it should remain a mass resistance movement against tyranny and oppression and shouldn’t waste its energy on parliamentary aspirations. But others maintain that the parliament could be used as a front for people’s resistance.
Two of the top PTM leaders, Ali Wazir and Mohsin Dawar, won parliamentary elections in July 2018 as independent candidates. They have boldly raised issues in the National Assembly or lower house of the Pakistani parliament. Even when I was a member of the Senate or upper house of the parliament from 2009 to 2016, most of my colleagues avoided discussing the issues they are now raising.
Similarly, the movement has also yet to figure out the nature of its role for the long term. So far, it has functioned as a pressure group brought into being by a political uprising among Pashtun youth. But it obviously can’t remain that forever: It must make a decision about its long-term structure and sociopolitical program.
In conclusion, the policy of harassment and oppression adopted by the country’s security institutions toward PTM isn’t expected to bring positive results. Banning its coverage by the mainstream media hasn’t been able to stop the movement from delivering its message to the masses.
If Pakistan’s ruling elites are wise, they must realize that only the formation of an independent truth and reconciliation commission, tasked with investigating the atrocities committed by both state and nonstate actors and respecting the fundamental rights enshrined the constitution, will help restore political stability and end the movement’s agitation.
Afrasiab Khattak is a former member of the Senate or upper house of the Pakistani Parliament. He is a public intellectual and leading human rights defender in South Asia.