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“A decision must be taken on Fata”

In the aftermath of the Dec 16 attacks in Peshawar, senior journalist and analyst Rahimullah Yusufzai talks about the importance of reforms in the tribal areas

“A decision must be taken on Fata”
— Photo by Rahat Dar

The News on Sunday (TNS): You have said in your recent interviews on television that the terrorism problem in Pakistan cannot be tackled without first deciding about future of the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (Fata). In the post-December 16 Pakistan, is that an important consideration for the decision-makers and is that a decision whose time has come?

Rahimullah Yusufzai (RY): A decision must be taken with regard to the future of Fata in consultation with its people, and more importantly, about the much-needed reforms in the tribal region. It needs a very comprehensive set of legal and administrative reforms, and that can only happen if there is a constitutional amendment. Article 247 that actually states the tribal areas will be exclusively governed by the country’s President must be amended and instead the Parliament has to be empowered.

Fata has been neglected for too long. There have been only a few reforms in the last 67 years and those too could not be properly implemented. It was only in 1997 that the people of Fata were given the right to universal franchise by President Farooq Leghari despite reservations by members of the bureaucracy. Before that merely the tribal leaders could contest elections or vote. Then, in 2011, President Asif Ali Zardari amended the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) and also extended the Political Parties Act (PPA) 2002, allowing the political parties to operate in the tribal areas. Though this effort to introduce reforms in Fata was significant, it still was too little too late. Almost four years on, these have not been really implemented because of many reasons; among them are the ongoing military operation and the reluctance of bureaucracy to bring change.

Basically, a plan for the future needs to be devised for Fata, in consultation with the local people, with a timeline that iterates when reforms will be introduced and implemented.

TNS: Is it the lack of consensus among the political parties, the absence of political will or the imbalance in civil-military relations that are disallowing Fata to move forward?

RY: We cannot say that there’s one reason for disorder in Fata. All these three and a few more are holding the region back. It’s really the lack of attention that is an impediment for Fata to move forward. The President of Pakistan, who is also the administrative head, seldom visits the area. Zardari, during his tenure, may have visited Peshawar to hold a tribal jirga instead of travelling to Fata to interact with even the tribal elders what to speak of the commoners. Since the census has not been held in the last 16 years, we do not know the exact population of Fata and this also makes it challenging to cater to the needs of the people and plan for the future. The Political Parties Act was extended to Fata in 2011, but most political parties are yet to benefit from it and become active due to their own organizational weaknesses and insecurity. And because the country’s laws do not extend to Fata, militants are finding refuge there with much ease. Now, this cannot go on forever. We must understand that Fata is significant in terms of its location. It is small in area and population but is strategically very important. We must work towards providing better facilitates in health, education, means of communication, etc because the socio-economic indicators are the poorest here. Fata needs attention.

TNS: Article 247 is understood to be a blot on the country’s constitution. How would you like that law to be amended and are the changes suggested by Senator Farhatullah Babar enough?

I expect the people of Fata to vote for a separate province. It will be interesting if the political parties play a more active role in creating awareness about the advantages of Fata merging with KP.

RY: Senator Babar’s proposed amendment to Article 247 (7) of the Constitution, which presently bars the Supreme Court and high court from exercising any jurisdiction in tribal area, is a good start. He means well. But I’m a bit sceptical. For his proposed changes to be successful, the president, the prime minister and the military will have to agree to make these amendments. I don’t see that happening any time soon. In my view, one of the solutions to Fata’s problems lies in empowering the tribal people through local government system and their members of Parliament. Fata has 12 national assembly members and 8 senators. That’s an important block of votes. They ought to play a more significant part and highlight issues through private members’ bills as Senator Babar did. Once the tribal MPs are empowered, they could make laws for Fata.

TNS: Your comment on the Frontier Crimes Regulations… How have these added to the country’s terrorism problem?

RY: FCR is a controversial law. Political workers, members of the intelligentsia and those who have suffered due to FCR want it to be scrapped.  However, tribal elders and some commoners think it should be amended instead of being scrapped. Opinion is rather divided on FCR. So, we need to decide FCR’s fate keeping in view the wishes of the tribal people and the needs of Fata in context of security.

The recommendations made by Justice (R) Mian Mohammad Ajmal, a former Supreme Court judge who also served as Chief Justice of Peshawar High Court, and his 12-member FCR Reforms Committee sought to make FCR a more humane law in line with the Constitution of Pakistan and the principles of human rights. Under these reforms, the Fata tribunal’s powers were made parallel to that of a high court and the collective responsibility clause was amended to exempt the children, elderly and women from inhumane punishment and punish the culprit and his immediate family instead of the whole tribe. However, these changes have not been implemented in spirit. The composition of the appellate tribunal generated controversy and its performance left much to be desired.

TNS: The presence of banned militant groups in tribal region is established. Do you think the state will be able to destroy that stronghold through Zarb-e-Azb – and Taliban will be denied the space to exist and multiply?

RY: Zarb-e-Azb is essentially confined to North Waziristan. It may have denied space to the militants but the security forces have not got rid of them completely. After all, not many militants have been killed; most have escaped to Afghanistan or other tribal areas. They are still likely to launch attacks in Pakistan from Afghanistan. And, if the security forces are not strong enough or are pulled out, the militants may return. Therefore, cooperation between Pakistan and Afghanistan is important to deny space to the militants on both sides of the Durand Line border. Also, funds must be poured into Fata to change its socio-economic fabric. Presently, I do not see a quick solution to this problem.

TNS: The 11 points recommended by the joint committee on Fata reforms seem like a good starting point. What would be your blueprint for reforms in Fata?

RY: Some of the proposed reforms are doable under a timeframe, others would take time. We do need to come up with a more realistic agenda for Fata. Reform should be an ongoing process. We cannot have a status quo in any case as lack of attention to Fata brought the tribal region and Pakistan to a situation that continues to pose security challenges to the country.

TNS: The joint committee on Fata reforms suggests that it should be left to the people of Fata to decide whether they want to be part of KP or stay independent. What is your sense about their possible decision? What are the people of Fata going to vote for if asked?

RY: I expect the people of Fata to vote for a separate province. But it will be interesting if the political parties are able to play a more active role in creating awareness about the advantages of Fata merging with KP…  I, personally, would like to see Fata eventually becoming a part of KP. This would also help overcome the administrative division created among the Pakhtuns by the British colonial rulers. The people of Fata and KP come from the same ethnic stock and share the same history, language and culture. Also, at this stage Fata is not rich. It is said to hold oil, gas and mineral resources, but these cannot be exploited unless there is peace and the required funding is made available. For Fata to sustain as a separate province in case its people want this might be difficult initially, but a few existing provinces too depend to a large extent on the federal government to run their affairs. So in a democratic Pakistan, the wishes of the people of Fata should be respected and they should be given a province if they want it. In return, they could agree to live under normal Pakistani laws that may be attuned to their special needs.

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