Why the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement Needs to be Heard in Pakistan

Since its emergence only a few months ago, Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) has been gaining support and momentum. The movement has been able to organize protest gatherings at different cities of Pakistan including Peshawar, Lahore, and Karachi attracting support of mainly Pashtuns including some sections of non-Pashtuns. At the same time, the movement has been able to puncture the atmosphere of fear to a level that other ethnicities have also started raising voices against oppression.This carries implications for overall identity politics in the country.

While the movement rose to prominence with the incident of extra-judicial murder of Naqeeb ullah Mehsud, its main demands include bringing missing persons to due process of law, elimination of unexploded ordnance and land mines, putting an end to extra-judicial killings, Pashtuns’ humiliation on security check posts and racial profiling of Pashtuns in non-Pashtun areas of the country, and constituting truth and reconciliation commission.

The movement has received its coverage overwhelmingly on social media when the mainstream media in the country has given it very little airtime. The social media have given the movement a diffused and less centralized look.

As the growing support of PTM shows, those Pashtuns who are part of the movement have started looking at themselves more through their ethnic identity and less as individuals belonging to different tribes. This is essentially negating the tribal nature of the erstwhile FATA region where people have historically viewed themselves through their tribal affiliations from where this movement originated. But, it is still a long way from a mass mobilization at a level, for example, as was witnessed in Khudai Khidmatgaar.

The security establishment’s response to the movement has been both hot and cold. The DG ISPR, the official spokesperson of the armed forces, has gone from calling Manzoor Pashteen a “wonderful boy” to terming the movement as suspicious and working on enemies’ designs.Even when the authorities have warmed up to negotiations with PTM’s leaders, there have also been efforts to run counter-campaigns to discredit it and use of rallies and the media to shape public opinion against it.

These efforts to undermine PTM and its demands come from a mindset that has a narrow prism for viewing state’s security. This is nothing new in the country’s history that has witnessed similar majoritarian policy imposed on peripheral social or political movements. In this case, the underlying argument is that PTM’s demands are subversive and intended for some non-linear conflict to weaken the security institutions and hence the state.

The country’s history is dotted with movements and struggles emerging in the peripheries that have invariably been interpreted as dangerous for national integration. Without support of the mainstream, movements/struggles like the MRD in 1980s, the Baloch struggle for rights that have seen many cycles of violence or even the non-violent Khudai Khidmatgar have been dealt with coercive power of the state. On the other hand,  those political movements that have had support from the mainstream, especially from Punjab – met relative success; for example, the student movement against Ayub Khan’s regime, the PNA (Pakistan National Alliance) movement against Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s government, or the Lawyers’ Movement against Musharaf’s military dictatorship. But, the success or failure of movements has largely been depended on how they were viewed by the military establishment who carry almost a monopoly over national issues. The movements like the one against Ayub Khan or the movement against Bhutto’s government witnessed mass mobilization and were at the center of political landscape of the country and therefore they couldn’t be ignored or suppressed. In these cases, the withdrawal of institutional support of the military for the incumbent government led to its downfall. As some have argued, it was mainly due to the fact that institutional thinking within the security establishment of the times feared losing credibility or prestige in the eyes of the public if it continued its support for the governments in power, even in case of military dictators. On the other hand, the coercive and repressive power of the state has been used when dealing with movements in the periphery.

In this context, it should be kept in view that the country is still carrying a lot of colonial baggage that is reflected in its political history and one would hope this won’t be repeated while dealing with PTM. We can see the colonial-hangover in the post-colonial Pakistan despite the lapse of more than seventy years. From one perspective, the Pakistani state, dominated by the security establishment in both its internal and external manifestations – still retains, albeit to a much lesser extent, the ruling mindset that once existed in British India. The Raj with its military fiscalism, its marshaling of Indian resources for the British strategic interests in the North and Afghanistan,the economic protection it gave to regions that gave it military recruits, and its policies of divide and conquer. The argument put forward in “Why Nations Fail?” about the presence of extractive institutions in some societies as opposed to inclusive institutions partly explains this colonial legacy.

We need to understand the reasons that lead to emergence of movements for rights like the PTM. For most of the country’s history, its security policies (both internal and external) have been run in a way that has brought out the contradiction of two opposing forces within the state. On the one hand, there has been a long history of integrationist policy of creating a homogenous Pakistani identity through various means, education, the media, and institutions of the state. These policies have been carried out mainly with the help of Islam as an ideology and Urdu as the common language for all the peoples.This sometimes resulted in steps that went against the discrete identities of the peoples predating the state and its origin. In this case, the country is no different than many other countries that have grappled with assimilating identities into a homogenous nation-state image of the Westphalian order. On the other hand, history of the country has been frequently punctuated with rise of various mainly right-wing militant groups diluting the state’s monopoly on violence which runs against the very root of nation-state spirit.

After the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, the perceived or real geo-strategic interests of the state directly led to the destabilization of border regions with Afghanistan like FATA (now merged with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa through a constitutional amendment). In this run for securing geo-political interests, the state and its institutions looked the other way as militants of all shades and hues found the erstwhile FATA and its periphery as their breeding grounds. This created an opportunity for such groups to create political and militaristic space for them to grow, thrive, and take roots, carrying serious implications for the stability of the area. With a delayed response, the military could not wipe out the militants and their entrenched networks so easily and not without use of kinetic force that carried consequences for civilian population in the region. Eventually, a large population of civilians was caught in the cross-fire despite the large-scale evacuation of people.

In light of the efforts only to protect the security interests, the enforced disappearances and other excesses have given fuel and support to PTM. The demands of the movement and cries for help should not be looked at as if endangering the state’s domestic jurisdiction but needs to be viewed within constitutional mechanism as reiterated by the movements’ leaders on multiple occasions.

The Pashtun movement, mainly led by youth from the erstwhile FATA, has remained non-violent and has repeatedly vowed to address the grievances within the constitutional framework. It has its chances of success in peaceful means of struggle as violence can further increase miseries of the country in general and Pashtuns in particular. At the same time, the efforts to picture PTM as anti-state and being part of a larger subversive campaign do not help in building bridges across the fault lines of prejudices in the Pakistani larger society. The efforts should be focused on building common grounds rather than killing the image of PTM. The desire of vested interests to cling to power that has benefited from instability in erstwhile FATA and elsewhere, will focus on creating differences. In case, the humanitarian demands as put forward by PTM are mishandled, it will harden the political environment and widen the fault lines in the country.

At the heart of this debate is the question of how the state’s policies towards Afghanistan can be aligned to the demands of PTM. All of this comes in the backdrop of a history of disastrous strategic depth policy pursued in Afghanistan and the policy of exporting Jihad which became an existential threat to the country itself.

In the footsteps of the British policy of creating “buffer zone”and its view of Afghanistan as gateway to “the geographical pivot” which included Central Asia among other regions, the policy of strategic depth by Pakistan (in context of US support for the Mujahideen after Soviet invasion) can be traced as well that sought to impose a political geography’s theory on the real world with disastrous consequences.

To reiterate, the Pashtun supporters of PTM have been supporting it precisely because of the large scale instability and emergence of militant groups in erstwhile FATA or Swat. The rest of the country hasn’t witnessed similar political and social upheaval at such an unprecedented level. The PTM is essentially the blowback of policies or lack thereof that failed to restore stability and security in the areas for so long. The feelings of being ignored and painted as the other were reinforced with the lack of share and participation in the decision makings of the country. However, genuine constitutional reforms if carried out through the 31stAmendment would go a long way to address these political resentments.But, the recent attack on PTM gathering by the euphemistically named Aman Committee (Peace Committee) puts a question mark on reconciliatory approach.

Given that Pakistan is apparently moving away from US and towards Russia, the country needs to be more reconciliatory towards PTM and seek to address its demands to alleviate the country’s strategic fear of the US presence in Afghanistan or Afghan’s irredentist claims. However, this cannot happen with a confusing policy of the state towards the issues being raised by PTM.

For overall political and social landscape of the country, the movement carries potential for making it more inclusive as well as positive implications for identity politics in the country, in terms of ethnicity, religion, and gender.

Hamid Shehzad has a degree in Peace and Conflict Studies.He lives in Islamabad, Pakistan.