Trammelled Pashtun aspirations: The sad tale of another oppressed ethnic minority in Pakistan

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Since inception, Pakistan has been wary of the Pashtuns’ ethnic identity, brutally squashing their ethno-cultural aspirations. Despite being the second largest ethnic community in the Pakistan army, the Pashtuns have been viewed with suspicion on account of their cross-border ethnic ties in Afghanistan. No government in Afghanistan, not even Taliban, has ever recognised the arbitrary Durand Line that divides the Pashtun nation between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Pakistan’s history is replete with examples of harsh military led scorched earth campaigns to snuff out demands for provincial autonomy. After the army’s horrific blood letting in East Pakistan led to the birth of Bangladesh, Pakistan tried to inveigle the Pashtuns with false promises of provincial autonomy. However, the 1973 Constitution endorsed the idea of a centralised state. The National Awami Party, the legitimate conscience keeper of the Pashtuns, was denotified twice in succession, on November 26, 1971 and again on February 10, 1975.

The proud Pashtun nation has always resisted the military jackboot of a government and army dominated by the Punjabis. Ever since Pakistan turned their homeland into a nursery for radical indoctrination and militant training during the Afghan jihad in the 1980s, Pashtuns have been the worst victims of the trans-border violence. Pakistan’s policies have led to an influx of foreign radicals, who have created a lawless environment in which the local people have suffered immeasurably. Pakistan’s misguided military operations have laid waste to the local economy, resulting in internal displacement of the tribal people and rising crime and drug abuse.

The Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), a non-violent group that seeks civil and political rights for the Pashtuns, was formed in January 2018 after the cold blooded elimination of Naqeebullah Mehsud, a charismatic Pashtun, by the Karachi police in a fake encounter. A socio-political movement that openly challenges army excesses, PTM quickly gained in popularity, catching the imagination of the indignant Pashtuns who have been routinely subjected to second-class treatment in Punjabi-dominated institutions across Pakistan.

PTM organised a march of 5,000 followers from Waziristan to Islamabad in February 2018 and submitted a five-point memorandum to the government demanding an end to the profiling of Pashtuns, clearing Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of landmines, a time-bound judicial process for detainees, an inquiry commission to investigate extrajudicial killings, and the prosecution of Rao Anwar, the police officer accused of Mehsud’s killing.

PTM regards the Pakistan army as “terrorists in uniform”. In reprisal, the state has launched a vigorous media campaign to malign the movement and suppress popular dissent. The recent killing of Arif Wazir, a prominent PTM leader and cousin of Ali Wazir, a member of the National Assembly (MNA), has added fuel to the fire. His assassination was a grim reminder of the state’s capacity to silence dissidents.

PTM opposes the arbitrary and motivated army operations in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) tribal areas, purportedly aimed at the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), also known as the Pakistani Taliban. TTP owes its allegiance to Afghan Taliban but powerful sections within it consider the Pakistan army and state to be un-Islamic. PTM alleges that a secret deal has been struck between Pakistan and Afghan Taliban, to draw an artificial distinction between “good” and “bad” Taliban as a ploy to eliminate their respective opponents.

Sardar Arif Wazir was a votary of Pashtun rights and a vociferous opponent of state sponsored violence until he was fatally shot in South Waziristan on May 1. His wanton killing, not surprisingly, was justified by the authorities. Arif’s killing sparked an uproar. Tribesmen in the thousands congregated at his funeral in Wana.

PTM leader and North Waziristan MNA Mohsin Dawar conveyed his party’s resolve in a tweet on May 2, stating that “Arif Wazir was murdered by the ‘good’ terrorists and our struggle against their masters will continue.” The hashtag #StateKilledArifWazir was trending on social media soon thereafter. Arif was the 18th member of his family to have been killed by state-sponsored militants.

Pakistan’s systemic use of militant and terrorist proxies to wage so-called jihad, whether in Afghanistan or in Jammu & Kashmir in India or in the KP and FATA regions of Pakistan, is well-documented. It is a policy that promises a searing blowback on Pakistan.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.