Maulana Fazlur Rahman and Mahmood Khan Achakzai steadfastly resisted the merger of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, but in the end the pressure on the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N)-led federal government from different quarters was so intense and sustained that Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and his leader, Nawaz Sharif, could no longer oblige their two allies and keep delaying the inevitable.
The opposition to the merger had prompted veteran politician, Sartaj Aziz to remark that Fata would have been merged with KP one and a half year ago if there had been no resistance by certain people. He should know better because Sartaj Aziz, presently deputy chairman of the Planning Commission and earlier an adviser to the Prime Minister on foreign and security affairs, had played the most important role as head of the Fata Reforms Committee to formulate recommendations that eventually led to the merger.
However, the challenge from Maulana Fazlur Rahman, head of Pakistan’s biggest Islamic party, JUI-F, and Mahmood Khan Achakzai, leader of the secular, Pakhtun nationalist, PkMAP, isn’t over yet. The two, who make strange bed-fellows due to their different ideologies, opposed the Constitution (Thirty-First Amendment) Bill, 2018, formally known as the Fata Reforms Bill, in and outside the parliament and have continued to advance arguments in support of their stance. In particular, Maulana Fazlur Rahman, whose party has substantial vote-bank in the tribal areas, has started mobilising his tribal jirga comprising elders from Fata to mount opposition to the merger.
The JUI-F leader would try to get the support of the 19 parliamentarians — 11 MNAs (one seat remained vacant for five years as election could not be held due to insecurity) and eight Senators — for his cause. He may succeed to some extent as only one tribal parliamentarian out of eight present in the National Assembly at the time of the vote on the merger bill voted for it while others abstained.
The parliamentarians from Fata obviously are keeping an eye on the coming election and they won’t do something that could diminish their chances of victory. Normally, given to protecting their personal interest than the collective good of their people, they may have calculated the cost of being seen too close to the government that ended the special status of Fata and threw the tribespeople into an uncertain future.
Now that the countdown to the general election on July 25 has begun, Maulana Fazlur Rahman could even turn the polls into an informal referendum on the future of Fata. Along with Mahmood Khan Achakzai, he always advocated holding a referendum to let the people of Fata decide whether they wanted a separate province or merger with KP.
In fact, the JUI-F leader smartly turned this argument into a democratic choice by arguing that the tribal people deserved the right to decide their future instead of imposing a decision on them. Those backing Fata’s merger with KP used to counter him by offering rather unconvincing arguments, like there is no mention of referendum in the constitution and a constitutional amendment would be needed to make it possible.
A constitutional amendment certainly could have been made as was done in case of the Fata Reforms Bill by mobilising two-thirds vote for the merger. Others referred to the sorry history of past referendums that were rigged by military rulers, which essentially meant that no free and fair referendum could be held in Pakistan.
This is a sad comment on the state of democracy in the country that warrants the need for setting up caretaker governments to supervise elections because the incumbent ruling parties cannot be trusted to ensure fair and transparent polls.
It is possible that the JUI-F and its allies during the election campaign would present arguments in support of a separate Fata province to win support from the disaffected sections of the population. Many tribespeople are unhappy about their circumstances after having suffered human and material losses due to militancy and military operations and this sentiment could be exploited to get their votes.
As two million people from Fata forming over 40 per cent of the population was displaced, it is hard to find anyone who doesn’t have a story to tell about suffering endured all these years. Already, the rights-based Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) has highlighted the Pashtun grievances against the state, more so the military, to win broad support not only in Fata, but also in other Pashtun-populated areas of Pakistan.
Though there is no love lost between the JUI-F, which sympathises with the Taliban, and the PTM that is avowedly nationalist and anti-Taliban, it would be interesting to watch how local grievances are collated and used to build support for divergent causes.
It would be now up to the pro-merger parties and groups to explain to the voters the benefits of Fata’s merger with KP not only because it is logical, but also practical as presently the powers that be in Pakistan believe making Fata a province could open the Pandora’s Box because the demand for new provinces is coming from sections of the Seraiki belt, the Hazara division of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Urdu-speaking Mohajirs in Sindh.
The opportunistic alliance between the JUI-F and following their recent decision to revive the five-party religio-political alliance, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), in the hope of avoiding yet another dismal electoral performance and the closeness of the PkMAP with the PTM could also come under strain due to their conflicting stand on the merger of Fata with KP.
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The JUI-F and Jamaat-e-Islami have agreed to pursue different stands on the Fata merger issue despite being part of the MMA that would contest the polls on a joint manifesto and election symbol, but this dichotomy would not be lost on voters, especially in Fata, and could cause tension in their ranks.
The PkMAP, which has no real vote-bank in Fata and KP, is anti-merger, but the PTM until now has remained neutral due to concern that a clear stand could cause divisions in its ranks. This issue could in future create distance between the PkMAP and PTM, though for now the two have opted to jointly focus on their larger agenda of speaking for the Pashtun rights.