Commentary: Analysing the Pashtun Long March

In the past few days, a hitherto unseen mobilisation took place among the Pashtun community, which held a 10 day long sit-in at the Islamabad Press Club protesting over the killing of a young Waziri man in Karachi. Rao Anwar, the SSP of Karachi’s Malir area, who had acquired notoriety for encounters (given the constant threat to his life and attempts on his life by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP), killed 26 year old Naqeebullah Maseed, along with three others on 13th January claiming them to be TTP members. Further, after Naqeeb’s murder, the Police had forged charges against him, accusing him of with having links with terrorist groups like Jashkar-e-Jhangvi and Islamic State.

Anwar has been absconding ever since, and is believed to have been provided safe havens by state agencies. It has been estimated that since 2011, Rao Anwar has killed close to 450 people in encounters and there is no evidence to verify how many of these happened to be genuine cases. Amidst growing pressure on the authorities over the haphazard way the police investigation was conducted, the Sindh government established an inquiry commission to reinvestigate his killing, whose finding stated that Naqeeb was innocent and killed in fake police encounter.

This was a rare show of solidarity as Pashtuns shunned their tribal differences and congregated for a common cause, where even nation’s leading intellectuals and women took part. The ‘Long March’ was announced on 26th January, under the banner of Pashtun Qaumi Jirga, and the Mehsud Tahafuz Movement, (which had been originally formed for clearing landmines from Waziristan) threw its force behind it.

The movement has caught attention of political parties as elections are nearing, and amidst Imran Khan’s waning popularity other political parties, especially the Awami National Party and Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PML-N) are aggressively vying to fill the void.

The movement, led by Waziri youth from Gomal University, began the march from Dera Ismail Khan - southern district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa - and joined by protesters from Lakki Marwat, Bannu, Kohat, Peshawar, Charsadda, Mardan and Swabi districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province. The protesters marched almost 350-400 km from the Dera Ismail Khan District to Islamabad Press Club, where a sit-in was staged to demand justice for Naqeeb and point the state’s attention towards the overall apathy against the Pashtun community.

The protestors had put to the government, namely:

1. Police officials who killed Naqeeb Mehsud should be brought to justice;
2. A judicial commission should be made for the extrajudicial killing of the Pashtuns and the Chief Justice of Pakistan should directly monitor it;
3. Present all missing persons in courts;
4. Remove landmines from FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas);
5. End the imposed curfew policy after every terrorist incident in FATA.

The nature of these demands is evidence of the anguish among the community. While Naqeeb’s killing may have been the trigger, the mood of the protesters, in the larger picture, highlights the grievances the Pashtuns have faced, especially since 9/11. Ever since the fall of Taliban forced the extremists to take shelter in the Pakistani territory, the Af-Pak border, especially the parts of FATA and KP, were turned into battle zones between the Pakistani Army and extremists, with the overall population being at the receiving end. The absence of legal provisions and virtually absent governance structures enabled the security forces to operate in the region with impunity. For instance, use of the draconian Frontier Crimes Regulation, especially its provision form collective punishment in the tribal areas wherein the whole family/tribe is made responsible for a crime committed by a person, concentration and arbitrary exercise of powers by the Political Agents, presence of a large number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and deployment of mines across Waziristan are the issues that the FATA suffers from.

Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi sent his envoy, Pashtun leader Amir Muqam (also President of PMLN’s KPK chapter) to pacify the angry protesters. The protests ended on the 10th day, with the written assurance that “Naqeebullah’s killers would be brought to justice, South Waziristan and rest of the FATA would be cleared of landmines through 10 demining teams made available by the Pakistan Army, and victims of violence would be compensated”. However, the protesters have maintained that if their demands are not met within 30 days, the protests would resume.

The turn of events raises some crucial questions, especially regarding the sustainability of these protests and reaction of the agencies. While it is too early to predict whether the agitation may sustain or not, what is noticeable that the anger has seeped into the community, which is probably the reason why the Pakistan Government avoided taking any stand that might contribute to the existing anger. Also, such mobilisation could take place because the movement was largely free of any violence and not directed against the Pakistani state. The protestors shunned any efforts of outreach by the Afghan government and even rejected the moral support President Ghani offered. Nevertheless, this comes as a warning call for the establishment, which has long neglected the FATA, although efforts are being made to bring its residents into the mainstream. Some positive steps have been taken, beginning with the extension of Supreme and High Court’s jurisdiction to FATA, along with recommendation by National Implementation Committee on FATA Reforms (headed by the Prime Minister) to merge FATA with KPK. It remains to be seen how far the government would go to address the long pending grievances.

(Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the VIF)

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