From different news reports, it appears that the very fundamental reforms in Federally Administered Tribal Area are coming soon. The Fata Reforms Commission’s final report has been presented to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for onward approval by the Cabinet and then to be tabled in the National Assembly. This reforms bill is expected to change the status and the whole setup of Fata, bringing it out of the freezer it has been kept in for more than a hundred years.
To put the record straight, many reforms have been introduced earlier too, but they did not bring any real change. The introduction of adult franchise (2006), the extension of Political Parties Act (2011) and certain amendments in the Frontier Crimes Regulations (2011) were the changes introduced in Fata earlier. A sort of local body system was also tried earlier. These earlier reforms, especially the introduction of adult franchise and extension of Political Parties Act, did put a small dent into the socio-political system of Fata. They unleashed processes that made it difficult to keep Fata frozen in history for long.
The demand for change and mainstreaming has been coming from the people for long. Almost all political parties supported the mainstreaming of Fata. However, no progress could be made. The well-entrenched post-colonial bureaucracy and strategic considerations of the mostly undemocratic state successfully resisted all the attempts to change the status of Fata.
Education, jobs, business and modern communications had fundamentally altered the socio-economic basis of the administrative structure imposed by the colonial rulers and sustained by the Pakistani state. Thus, with the changing times, a serious contradiction had emerged in Fata’s socio-administrative system. This change had made the system hollow as the basis on which it was structured had altered. The final blow came with the arrival of Taliban in the wake of 9/11.
Taliban, a broader term referring to all those who believe in religious extremism and the use of force, started filling the vacuum. The international forces, especially the US, demanded the Pakistani government take action against safe havens in Fata that were used by the Afghan insurgents. These religious extremists also started terrorist activities inside Pakistan. Pakistan army entered Fata and carried out many operations, including the current Zarb-e-Azb operation.
Zarb-e-Azb has recorded partial, if not complete, success in the area. The question that arose in the wake of Zarb-e-Azb was who will fill the vacuum after the military withdraws from Fata. It was correctly assessed that the region cannot revert to the traditional ‘Political Agent’ system. It was vital to have a system in place for keeping extremists out of Fata when the military withdraws.
With this issue in mind, the federal government established a Fata Reforms Committee, headed by Sartaj Aziz. After a long deliberative process and meetings with different segments of Fata residents, it has come up with a scheme for mainstreaming Fata.
The proposed bill for reforms in Fata has certain positive points, along with some serious flaws and limitations. The positive points include Fata becoming part of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in five years, extension of jurisdiction of higher judiciary, holding of local bodies’ elections in 2017 and provincial elections in 2018 and end of FCR, including collective responsibility. The negative points include the replacement of FCR with another set of special laws based on Riwaj (traditions) and not normal laws applicable in the rest of the province or the country.
Jirga will continue, though now appointed by a civil judge rather than political agent. This seems to be holding back the administration of the area to almost the same FCR and political agent system with just a change in nomenclature. Bureaucracy retains most of the powers it had under the outgoing system.
The scheme also envisages a 10-year plan for socio-economic and infrastructural development, including the development of regular police. The committee also proposes a transition authority to supervise the process of gradual integration of Fata in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for five years. Thus, there would be no immediate merger and no immediate extension of higher judiciary to Fata. Applicable laws will continue to be based on Riwaj, though with a positive shift that completely abolishes ‘collective responsibility’. It provides that while applying Riwaj, care will be taken that it does not conflict with fundamental rights guaranteed in the constitution of Pakistan.
There is little catch in such a provision. A law not contradicting fundamental rights is not like the law that guarantees fundamental rights. A constitutional amendment to extend the jurisdiction of higher judiciary is proposed, however, it is not clear whether it will be allowed to implement fundamental rights or not. The argument for retention of Jirga system and more importantly the special Riwaj-based laws is that they cannot be abolished immediately. These laws will be done away with gradually. However, no timeframe is given.
The proposals are also silent on the office of political agent or changing the name and status of administrative units called agencies. This silence means their retention. This retention will have both practical and psychological implications. Even if Riwaj is retained for a few years, changing the terms used for administrative officer to DCO and Agency to District can go a long way in changing attitudes and preparing the area and its people for mainstreaming. Such a change will enhance the effect of replacing Frontier Crimes Regulations with the proposed “FATA Rewaj Act”.
The term Federally Administered Tribal Areas also needs to be done away with immediately for the same reasons. The proposals are silent on whether they would become Provincially Administered Tribal Areas or the merger would be deemed complete. By implication, one can deduce the area will be some type of PATA, with the federal government maintaining a controlling role in it.
As they stand, to some they will appear more as reluctant adjustments rather than a full-fledged fundamental change. To be more meaningful, the change should address the vague parts as well as the symbolic renaming of offices and areas.
All said, change is in the air, though reluctant due to strategic and security considerations. People of Fata may not see all heaven in their lives, but their struggle for a change for better and normal life will get a boost. The people of Fata will now become part of the democratic struggle in the country.