When Manzoor Pashteen gets nervous, his right eyebrow twitches. It’s almost unnoticeable; he himself claims to be unaware of it. He is also fidgety when he becomes nervous, especially with his hands. When television anchors expect him to prove his Pakistaniat, his patriotism — a hoop all marginalised communities are made to jump through before they are heard — you can hear the sustained tick tick, tick tick of the ball point pen in his hand.
Off camera, during his talks, when he is interrupted he uses his hands to wave down the chanters, the sloganeers. This is because he’s not a speaker who riles up the crowd using anger. His style is more bayaaniya — he will tell you stories that shrink and expand your heart, and make you understand how human the Pashtun pain is, how universal their demands are.
Pashteen, the leader of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), has not taken centre-stage to ask for separation; on the contrary, his demand is inclusion. He’s not here to ask for a change in the Constitution; he simply demands that the Constitution be upheld in FATA. His demands are basic: justice for the murder of Naqeebullah Mehsud; the formation of a judicial commission to investigate police encounters; the demining of FATA; a reduction of military curfews and check-posts in the tribal areas; and the return of the thousands of missing Pashtuns that are allegedly held by the army and its intelligence services. The formal list of missing people that the PTM has compiled has 1,200 names.
“We are not out here to ask for money, or schools, or even roads, our basic demand is the right to life,” he tells me during a series of phone conversations between us. According to the 24-year-old who is the eldest among his seven siblings, currently there is no certainty to life in his hometown in the Sarwakai district of South Waziristan Agency or other tribal agencies. “This is why we are protesting, we want the right to live without being disappeared, without losing limbs to landmines, without being shot in murky police encounters, without being abused and humiliated at every check-post,” he says to me. “Are my demands unconstitutional? Don’t you already have all these rights?”
When Pashteen speaks, you listen. At first I thought it was just me who was spellbound by his stories, hanging on to every word. But looking around, at a student rally in Garden Town Lahore, and then at a discussion at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) earlier this month, I realised that Pashteen’s storytelling abilities are at par with those of Scheherazade. After all both storytellers tell tales for the same reason: to stay alive.
Pashteen tells heartbreaking tales, in the simplest possible language. He talks of mothers who have missing sons. Of a 7-year-old girl who saw her mother being shot to death. Of how it feels to see a mountain of burnt books, Babylon style. Of families whose bodies were attacked and obliterated by drones, to such an extent that when the father wanted to piece his children together he had to sit down and think about which finger matches which palm. He tells stories about families that lost homes to bombardments and had no option but to set up camp under the shade of keekar trees, only to lose their daughter’s life to a snake that shared their camp.
But along with the logos — the cold hard facts — he also brings pathos, in the form of humour, to the table. Once your heart is heavy and devoid of hope, Pashteen will reveal his naughtier side and take a dig at someone. One of the devices that Pashteen uses is that of apophasis. This is when the speaker brings up a subject by denying that it should be brought up. Ideal for rhetoric in Pakistan. At a speech in Lahore, he says, “I won’t speak about how when we came back to our villages we saw our houses destroyed and the bricks of our houses used to build the Army Hospital. It might be dangerous to speak about this, so I won’t.”
He does it again on TV when a journalist grills him about his demand of relaxing the number of check-posts in FATA. “I won’t talk about the hanky-panky and double dealing that goes on at these check points. It might be dangerous,” says Pashteen. Even the grizzly journalist succumbs, and smiles.
Pashteen’s stories are not unheard. Unless you consciously chose to have your head in the sand, you would know about the brutality of the Frontier Crimes Regulations, the collective punishments, the landmines and so on. But then what is it that makes Pashteen’s retelling so moving?
One of his listeners, Rabia Saeed, a Lahore-based student whose family hails from the Orakzai Agency, has a few ideas about why Pashteen’s bayaan deepened her sorrow but lessened her pain.
“Pashteen made my hurt, our hurt as a community, real. I’ve heard these stories before, but I didn’t know that I was allowed to discuss them in public, nor did I know that I was allowed to feel pain about these stories,” she says. “The death and brutality were just facts of our lives. Pashteen turned them into tales that can be retold and spread.”
Pashteen says that for the last 16 years, talking about their trauma was a taboo, which he has finally broken.
In school Pashteen had the reputation of being an all-out nerd. Once accepted to Gomal Univeristy in D I Khan for his Masters in veterinary sciences, when Pashteen decided to run for president of the Tribal Students Organization in 2014, the buzz was that he’s not popular enough to be president. “He sacrifices his sleep to study, he’s too much,” they said. In his defense, he says his father, a schoolteacher, would teach him at night after completing his day’s work, and that is how his night-time studying habit formed, he says at a lecture at LUMS.
But why veterinary studies, I ask him. Does he have a particular interest in animals? In response, the leader of a movement — that is “an affirmation of life in the midst of death,” according to academic-activist Ammar Ali Jan — placidly says: “Walid sahib ney kaha tha, toh hum nay karliya,” [My father said I should do veterinary studies, so I did].
Pashteen’s father dissuaded him when he began campaigning and creating awareness for Pashtun rights, in 2014. But he thinks that secretly his father was happy and proud. Apart from the pressure Pashteen felt from his family and villagers, there was pressure to stop demanding the right to Pashtun life from colleagues as well.
It was after securing presidency of the Tribal Leaders Organization that Pashteen really began his career as a human rights activist. He organised the only way he knew: door-to-door. He knocked on tribal students’ doors to ask for support in raising a united voice for Pashtuns. They told him he was paagal [mad]. “You should go see a psychologist, they said” says Pashteen at LUMS. “Whenever Pashtuns have demanded their rights, they’ve been shot dead. You are nothing but the son of a common school teacher, you have no power behind you.”
They began helping people get over their fear of speaking truth to power by holding study circles. Then they expanded to small jalsas, protests at Haq Nawaz Park in D I Khan, demonstrations in Bannu; at that time, they were still only known as the Mehsud Tahaffuz Movement (MTM).
And then after four years of slow but steady activism, a few arrests and threats, arrived a catalyst — in the form of Naqeebullah Mehsud’s untimely and unfair murder. Everyone connects Pashteen’s popularity to Naqeebullah’s murder, but very few know that Pashteen had already chalked out the Islamabad Long March in the December of 2017, a month before Naqeebullah was killed.
There was something about Naqeebullah, his social media persona or maybe his aspirations to be a model that gripped not just Pashtun heartstrings, but those of the nation at large. So when Pashteen announced a jalsa and connected it to Naqeebullah, this time not in the tribal agencies or its surrounding areas, but in Islamabad, people came out in droves.
At the start of the ten-day sit in, journalists ignored it. Politicians looked the other way. But eventually the 6,000 non-violent protestors outside the National Press Club, in February 2018, could not be ignored. The jalsa no longer represented only the Mehsuds, so from MTM, the movement became Pakhtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM). Political parties came to give their haazri and eventually the government came too. They agreed to fulfill PTM’s demands and the jalsa dispersed.
The jalsa dispersed from Islamabad on Feb 10 but in the hearts of Pashtuns, the awakening had just begun. So the PTM and Pashteen have been holding jalsas and events in Lahore, D I Khan, Quetta, Killa Saifullah, Peshawar and all over social media. After 16 years of war and oppression, they have found a leader who looks like them, dresses like them and most importantly, dares to speak their truth.
Pashteen is not the only Pashtun leader who has risen in the last decade or so. To say that would be to erase the history of so many brave Pashtuns. Take Ali Wazir for example. He is vocal about the oppression of FATA, and has paid the price of losing 17 family members. But while Ali’s hurt is fiery and angry, Pashteen’s is calm and controlled. Pashteen doesn’t make his pain about himself, the PTM is about humanity at large; they have invited all the historically oppressed to his movement: Baloch, Hazara, women, and all Pashtun regardless of their tribe.
And they have all come running. When Pashteen arrived at Killa Saifullah earlier this month, he was greeted like a rockstar. While walking up to the stage, the crowd love-surged towards Pashteen so ferociously that his posse had to hold hands and make a human chain around him for protection.
Pashteen is articulate, educated, and fearless, but that’s not all. His appeal is also cultivated through details. For instance, the clothing he chooses. The red-and-black hat that he won’t be seen without has developed its own legend: it’s said that Pashteen received it from a labourer in his hometown. Now, his followers, including PkMAP’s Hashim Khan, don the Pashteen-hat with pride.
A close friend of Pashteen’s, Raza Wazir, says that his appeal comes from the work he has done at the grassroots level. When no one was working for the Pashtuns, it was Pashteen who was recording the names of the those who had been forcibly disappeared, or those dead by landmines. “He was providing food and ration to families that had lost everything,” says Raza. But Pashteen’s true appeal, in Raza’s opinion, lies in his vast vision. “Most leaders work for their village, their tehsil, their tribe. Pashteen invited all Pashtuns,” he says. “And made them feel welcomed, important and heard.”
Pashteen can’t say why he is receiving this attention. He does say that he derives his energy from the mothers whose sons are missing and fights for their right to life. “Laapata is such a small worthless word. It doesn’t carry the pain of a missing family member,” he says. “When your son is laapata, your trauma has no wound so it can never heal.”
Pashteen claims to not have any mentors. When I ask him who he looks up to, he laughs awkwardly. “You are right, most leaders do have someone to look up to, but everyone we looked up to has been killed,” he says. He’s speaking of FATA’s local masharaan [leaders]. In his stories, Pashteen pays homage to how they continued to dare to speak truth to power — despite knowing the costs — until there were no masharaan left. He says instead of learning from books of philosophy or literature, he has learnt from his own experiences of living in a warzone.
In a recent opinion piece, he says that people tell him to read the history of Pashtun people, to prevent repeating the same mistakes. A friend recently gifted him Dr King’s A letter from Birmingham Jail. But he hasn’t yet found time to crack it open. He says, instead, perhaps it’s time for the Pashtun to make history of their own. Since the pain is their own, only they know the prescription.
He doesn’t think that no one can replace him, nor does he care about who leads the PTM to success, as long as Pashtuns are awarded the right to live. In this sense, he can be regarded less as a leader, and more as the first among equals.
According to journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai, the army is watching the PTM and Pashteen closely. “They aren’t acting yet because perhaps they are waiting for Pashteen and his excitable colleagues to make a mistake themselves.”
Activists are not politicians; they aren’t trained about what they shouldn’t say to the media. Already, the PTM has made some mistakes. In Killa Saifullah, earlier this month, Pashteen and others were booked for raising anti-army slogans.
A second fear for PTM is pressure from Pashtun ethno-nationalist parties. At first, they supported him and the Pashtun Long March, but now, Yusufzai says, they may be feeling threatened by the PTM. “Just last week a member of the PTM, Mohsin Dawar, who is also a member of the ANP, was removed from ANP’s youth committee. He was told that since he is part of another [PTM] group he can’t hold a position in the ANP,” says Yusufzai.
On his part, Pashteen negates the idea of him entering parliamentary politics. But who is to say that in the upcoming election, the PTM won’t garner support for certain parties over others? Already, under coercive pressure from television talk show hosts, Pashteen has admitted that on a personal level he wishes FATA to be merged with KP.
Yusufzai also predicts “in the future, there may be infighting in the PTM, especially at the tribal level”.
But even with these fears looming large, PTM’s demands are steadily being met. The demining of South Waziristan has begun. Rao Anwar was arrested last week. Although the naysayers say the arrest has nothing to do with PTM, many such as Yusufzai and activist Jibran Nasir believe that PTM’s pressure had a lot to do with Anwar’s arrest. Even disappeared Pashtuns are being sent home, others are being presented in court. The numbers are small, mere hundreds in light of the missing thousands. But it’s a start.
In another life Pashteen would’ve opted to be an Air Force Pilot, but when he saw the Air Force dropping bombs on him, he gave up that dream. Then he thought, maybe the system could be changed from the inside? He thought about joining the Public Service Commission and even took the exam, he scored a 150 — you only need 124 to be called in for an interview.
Unfortunately, the date of the interview clashed with a national event he had arranged — the Long March — and he chose consciously.
“I wish I had a chance to live a normal life, who doesn’t?” he says. “Your capability is one thing, but the halaat around you also define your life choices.” Recently he’s made another choice he wishes he didn’t have to. His baby girl is one month old, but he hasn’t been able to carve out time to sit with his family and choose a name for her.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the location of Gomal University which is in D I Khan.