Pashtun nationalism is on the cusp of a new beginning. The ethnicity is waking up to the many ‘systematic’ injustices which, it believes, are the extension of Afghan theatre of war. There is also a growing realisation within the ethnicity that they have been suffering at the hands of the power brokers post 9/11.
The Pashtun sit-in in front of Islamabad Press Club for 10 days was the opening salvo of the ethnicity’s newfound activism. The awakening movement started from the Mehsud populated areas of South Waziristan under the banner of Mehsud Tahafuz Movement (MTM). The Mehsud residents of the agency, led by a 26 year old Manzoor Pashteen, had a litany of grievances. They claimed to be the victims of terror but treated as its perpetrators, a feeling almost universally shared by Pashtuns inside Pakistan.
It was not Naqeebullah’s extrajudicial murder that sparked activism. Manzoor Pashteen said in an interview, shared from his Facebook account, that he had planned the sit-in before Naqeeb’s murder. Mindful of the popular response he received beyond the narrow confines of his Mehsud tribe, Pashteen renamed MTM as All Pakhtun Qaumi Jirga (APQJ) and Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) respectively. The Islamabad’s protest sounded a clarion call to Pashtuns to arise from their languor.
Dozens of rallies and protests of Pashtuns and concerned citizens came out in support of their embattled brethren in Quetta, Karachi and elsewhere in the country. Rallies were also held in Kabul, Sydney and Washington DC to name a few places. Similarly, thousands of demonstrators registered their protest in Bajaur on February 20 after the murder of a Bajaur student allegedly in a fake encounter in Karachi on 16th of the month. They replicated their protest in front of Islamabad Press Club the following day. Swat, followed the suit.
On February 18, a large number of demonstrators agitated against strict checking and humiliating behaviour meted out to them at security check posts in Swat valley. The protest was triggered by the passing away of a sick baby on the way to hospital. The vehicle, carrying the baby patient, was stuck in the long queue to pass through a security check post. More, the PTM has also called for its first public gathering in Quetta on March 3.
Pashtun activism is a revolt against the extremely authoritarian and imperious policies of the state towards Pashtun populated northwest at least for the last 15 years. In the long run, it springs from a perception that Pashtuns are the target of organised oppression since April Revolution of 1978. On the first count, the common thread that runs through all shades of Pashtun opinion is the element of miseries that bring them on the same page. Since 2004, Pashtuns from tribal areas have been passing through the worst experiences of their existence since 1947.
As a regular visitor to the Pashtun Islamabad sit-in, what I could gather from interaction with the otherwise disparate crowd of Pashtun participants and intelligentsia from across Pakistan was the repetition of almost similar stories of suffering.
The rise of Taliban in Fata, the attendant drone attacks, curfews, numerous military operations, enforced disappearances and the plantation of IEDs were combined with internal displacement of millions of people to make life hell on the dwellers of the hinterland. What became common sights were long queues at check posts, humiliation suffered at the hands of security personnel, and passing through numerous entry and exit points in almost all Pashtun populated areas throughout Pakistan — all the trappings of a typical security state that is at war against itself!
Similarly, there is an understanding among the nationalist elites that the integration of Pashtun areas into Afghan theatre of war, in the wake of the nascent progressive communist revolution, was meant to push Afghans into the dark alley of retrogression. Ever since then, Pashtun areas in general and Fata in particular remain the reservoirs for proxy war in Afghanistan and freedom struggle in Kashmir, they maintain.
Intriguingly, the appearance of huge crowd of Pashtuns, both young and old women and men, in Islamabad sit-in from all four provinces and tribal areas, was a telling sign of the incipient activism that pervades the ethnic community. The participation of Pashtun women in the public gathering, generally considered as men’s exclusive preserve, has helped open new avenues of expression for female in a typically male-dominated society. The very civilised conduct of the dharna, managed by youngsters from tribal areas, laid bare the invalidity of the stereotypes that tribesmen are apolitical and not yet fit for democratic transition.
Neither spontaneous nor haphazard, the political awakening is not an abrupt outburst of anger directed against the state policies. Rational, the feeling among the Pashtuns that the ethnicity is the target of a ‘systematic’ oppression is the outcome of a process that has been maturing in the wombs of epochs. The feeling of being victim precedes activism on the platform of PTM, however. It is on the latter count that activism is spontaneous, having no stimulus from Pashtun nationalist political parties.
Seen this way, the activism is a case study of deep disillusionment both with the state and traditional Pashtun leadership. Unadulterated, it truly represents the aspirations of the oppressed and hapless public disowned by the triumvirate comprising ruling elites, Pashtun nationalists and Pashtun mullahs. Tribal maliks and mullahs deserted the movement right in the midst of dharna and nationalist high command paid a lip service to it. During Islamabad dharna, when I asked Pashteen if he was impressed of the nationalists’ response, his “no comment” reply spoke volumes about his disappointment with them.
There is no interface between the current Pashtun rights movement and secessionist tendencies. Nevertheless, before the movement could become a prairie fire, its democratic demands should be met. In the long run, there is a dire need of calling time on security state outlook and switching to one informed by the welfare of citizenry; the sooner, the better!