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The Pakhtun awakening

The resentment of Pakhtuns has found a language to express itself and a popular counter narrative in contrast to Pakistan’s national, ideological and institutional narrative is in the making

The Pakhtun awakening

Having a false notion of bravery and heroism about themselves, Pakhtuns are practically the most wretched people in today’s world. Both politics and geography account for their miseries. If we take a longer view of the Pakhtun landscape, hardly a single period without socio-political vicissitudes could be presented.

However, the crises since 9/11 outweigh all other events in magnitude and length of time.

In terms of time, the problem spreads over, at least, two decades. A new generation has grown up in a situation of haplessness, discrimination and uncertainty. And the degree of pain and despair reflects the fact that it has been experienced across gender, age and class. State institutions and non-state perpetrators both within and outside Pakhtuns’ lands are believed to be responsible for this state of affairs.

The feeling of helplessness is further aggravated by outsiders’ extremely negative attitude towards Pakhtuns — manifested in things like racial profiling and socio-cultural exclusiveness.

A new generation has grown up in a situation of haplessness and discrimination. The degree of pain and despair reflects the fact that it has been experienced across gender, age and class.

The fundamental human rights of Pakhtuns have been violated. They have been surrounded by uncertainties with respect to their subsistence, health and education. Since the people seem to have lost dignity and respect, an appalling sense of alienation and deprivation has been generated. The prolonged silence which had prevailed due to fear and suppression came to an end with Naqeebullah’s killing in Karachi a few months back.

The ongoing developments, variously termed strikes, Pashtun Long March and national resistance, intend to put an end to this age of terror. In the whole phenomenon resonates people’s resentment, annoyance, anger and above all a resolution to struggle for their rights to which they, as human beings, are entitled.

The movement — or strikes, resistance, treachery, label it the way you like — is important from multiple points of view. And their appreciation in a mature manner is a sheer call of the time.

In the first place, the whole phenomenon is the ultimate manifestation of a memory ghost — the decades-long bitter experiences. The resentment of people has found a language to express itself through the victims themselves rather than via armchair human rights advocates. And herein lies the importance of the current developments.


People, irrespective of rank and file, are in the vanguard. As it is the people who make their own representations, there is hardly any room for vested interests to benefit from the situation. Hence, all that has been going on is pretty beyond manipulation by ordinary politics. Parliamentary politics, in such a situation, seems trivial and parochial and utterly fails to contaminate or hijack the politics of survival and fundamental human rights.

Furthermore, we need to gauge the intensity of people’s resentment which has found expression in the current movement. The declared perpetrators are state institutions, Punjab and Punjabis and even politicians. This is what people and their posts, likes, shares and comments on social media say.

A popular counter-narrative in contrast to Pakistan’s national, ideological and institutional narrative is in the making. Not only state institutions are being questioned, the very national symbols and constructed memory are under severe attack. And all this provides us our last, but crucial, point of analysis.

There is no denying that memory assumes critical importance not only in formation but also in dismemberment of states and nations. States and nations everywhere diligently invent memories aiming at buttressing integration and consolidation. Pakistan has also been vehement in this regard from the very beginning. The state version of history, full of polemic memories, exclusive philosophies and ideological symbols, enjoys wide popularity in the country. Rival memories in the form of ethno-national movements have persistently, and with great success, been suppressed.

Unfortunately, Pakhtuns are being given a new memory. A memory which is, at the same time, personal, experiential, genocidal and popular. Since it has, simultaneously, been experienced by different generations of Pakhtuns, it is plausible to term it a multi-generational memory.

This multi-generational memory can play havoc in the long run, like the one which caused the debacle of Dhaka. It also may not be considered just a passing sentiment. This memory embodies not only cultural purges but an encroachment on human rights as well.

Since human rights have attained a universal language, the representation which Pakhtuns make of themselves is gaining in moral strength. And Pakhtun intelligentsia, civil society and literati are conscious about stark violation of both the culturally particular norms and values and the universally accepted human rights. They have made their bitter experiences immortal in literary works, public speeches, scholarly publications etc. Even there are calls for preserving these memories by keeping diaries. And above all, folklore, which never dies, is also playing an important role in this respect.

All this said, let us think about what needs to be done. Purges do not always successfully work. So, the only way out is to correct the wrongs of recent decades (though some would contend that wrongs of the past cannot be corrected).

Studies have recently appeared from across the world that deal with the concept of memory and justice. Some argue that for future peace, forgetfulness is vital while others stress the importance of remembrance for achieving a better society and system. Forgetting the past wrongdoings is, no doubt, not totally a futile idea; however, ‘remembering past pathologies’ is more crucial and effective.

Critical voices of philosophers, for instance Adorno and Habermas, sound sane in this respect. Their insights such as ‘self-critical “working through” of the past’ and ‘the responsibility for a shared history’, respectively, are of great help in our context.

Throughout the world retrospective justice is being dispensed, arguably not out of remorse but in the context of new challenges that modern nations face. Some examples of acceptance of the past wrongdoings are: ‘the Pope’s apologies to Jews and Aboriginals, “sorry” from Japan’s prime minister for his country’s crimes during World War II, “sorry” from the Canadian prime minister to his county’s indigenous population.’ We also have instances of acts of retribution and fact-finding commissions in this connection.

All this is done not for nothing. The purpose is to create and promote mutual understanding, safeguard human rights and achieve socially legitimate democratic societies. Pakistan needs to follow suit. Strategies other than this are destined to failure ‘particularly now in the context of the globalisation of the language of human rights and the importance of memory as a source of collective identity’.

Pakhtuns and others who feel disenfranchised, stigmatised and victimised, must be assured about protection of their human rights. No doubt, without dispensation of social justice, patriotism, consolidation and development remain hollow mantras and pious wishes.

Rafiullah Khan

The author has done his PhD in History/ Archaeology. He is serving as Assistant Professor at Taxila Institute of Asian Civilizations, Quaid-i-Azam university, Islamabad.


  • So well written! A great policy paper for the State, if it has any sense!

  • Zahid Khan Kakar

    Awesome piece of writing. Unfortunately the state is ruthlessly doing their deeds with out taking care of Pashtun sentiments. They have launched FIR against peaceful Pashtun.

  • Very well written and a must read for every Pakistani. As a pashtun I think Pakistan is my motherland but I am overused to bring peace to the country. I think every Pakistani (Punjab, Sindh) should contribute equally in terms of the suffering which came to Pakistan because of fighting the war of US. We should not allow anyone to tell us what is jehad and what is not. I also think that some high-ups in the Pak army are playing games just like politicians to gain dominance or stay dominant.

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