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Who decides Fata’s fate?

Fata deserves better than a repetition of Pakistan’s postcolonial mistakes

Who decides Fata’s fate?
Gatekeepers of traditions.

In colonial literature as well as in contemporary analysis, the tribal areas of northern Pakistan have been stereotypically represented. They are depicted as either a populace of permanently armed warriors who sit in jirgas all day or, as nomadic victims trapped in conflict under imperialist attacks and state exploitation awaiting rescue from donors, development workers and Phd documentary makers.

The Fata reform debate is predictably hinged on these two pivots of culture and conflict, as if no other framework may be imagined or voiced by the citizens themselves. In this postcolonial transitionary moment, the government may like to revisit its poor record in nation-building or territorial integrity, to avoid repeating historical mistakes.

Under the government’s proposed Fata reforms, why should the decisions of ‘Elders’ and not the ‘youth’ prevail in the re-structuring of the agencies? Why should women not be consulted and offered the extension of the progressive laws of Pakistan, if they are citizens of the same country?

Who benefits from the continuation of the rule of exceptionalism claimed by a majoritarian religion and military powers?

As spokespersons and gatekeepers of traditions, Elders may be wise in experience but they have also been allies in retaining the privileges of political agents. Such collusion is a legacy of the historical practice that embedded colonial and exploitative economic power in India. Bureaucrats, chieftains, religious leaders and donors only devise means of retaining the status quo and reaping profit. The leadership of the Fata Reforms Committee should not be decided on the basis of age or experience but in fact, for intrepidness. Why do we admire that quality in the young leaders of Kashmir but not for Fata?

Reform means more than just re-forming Fata’s institutional and administrative structures. There is a live debate amongst the people of Fata. It is not valued because it has no formal representative channel of communication. To include the voices of the young, women and multiple minorities in the new social contract for the agencies does not mean holding a referendum under the prevailing unequal political climate. This would only invite a perverse manipulation of ballots. Excluding the views of the displaced and dispossessed simply encourages simmering resentment, disconnection and rebellion in the long run.

Under the proposed reforms, why should the decisions of ‘Elders’ and not the ‘youth’ prevail in the re-structuring of the agencies? Why should women not be consulted and offered the extension of the progressive laws of Pakistan, if they are citizens of the same country? Who benefits from the continuation of the rule of exceptionalism.

It has been overwhelmingly clear for years that the FCR is an unacceptable feature in Fata and must be dismantled completely. This has opened up the important debate of whether the best option is to replace regulation with the proposed Rewaj Act.

Many liberals reject the ideal of a parallel legal system primarily due to the patriarchal nature of informal justice regimes and their bias against women and minorities. However, to align the justice system of Fata with the Constitution requires a better strategy than the unsuccessful attempt to simply outlaw jirgas, as in Sindh.

Members of Fata Reforms Committee.

Members of Fata Reforms Committee.

The significance of the recommendation for replacing the FCR with the Rewaj Act is that it calls for scrutiny of all judgments by the High Courts and Supreme Court, in order to ensure that no judgment can circumvent either human rights or Quranic principles. For some in Fata, this is a practical recommendation while for others it is a stalling strategy. Whichever prevails, the opposing voices must be given fair hearing.

There are also signs that this debate is gendered and generational. It is not urbane Pakistanis but the residents of Fata who are debating the value of tribalism and tradition, too.

Romanticising culture as an ideal becomes a lever of control that justifies the refusal to arithmetically account for citizens’ needs via a regular census. This makes it impossible to prescribe a uniform policy or a fair system of compensation of displaced or vulnerable peoples.

As the government attempts to finalise a political framework for Fata, the economic hitmen are preparing business briefs and loans under the guise of altruism. The favoured mantra is to foster the “resilience of the people”. Recovery, restoration, sustenance, assistance and rebuilding do not define the needs of the affectees but the priority of the specialist bent of the donor in question.

There is broad consensus that Fata should merge with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the FCR must be dismantled along with all its proxy political and economic powers and influence. Critically, the Fata Secretariat needs a very focused, professional and sustained strengthening process and not some ad hoc, throw-a-few-dollars triumphant development. If it is to function as the hub of policy and implementation then let the Secretariat be consciously supported by independent economists, intelligentsia, social workers and participatory processes throughout the transition period — but as a collective dialogue and not through individual non-representative consultancies.

Instead of centralised plans and international donor dependency, it is local government that is the most reliable and accountable litmus of efficacy in peoples’ governance. This must be strengthened.

A democratically imagined administrative structure that is invested in accountable and creative reform for the people is possible if there is no pandering and negotiations with some vague thing called traditional buy-in.

It is time to listen to the voices of reason from within Fata. As Sher Rehman from the remote Shawal district in North Waziristan says wisely, “Traditions don’t end just because new laws are passed.” And anyway….who fears rights-based laws? Only those players or practices that benefit from denial of these rights. Reform cannot be led by just men, money, mullahs and the military. Fata deserves better than a repetition of Pakistan’s postcolonial mistakes.

Afiya Shehrbano Zia

aafiya sheharbano
The writer is a researcher based in Karachi.

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