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Missing the point

January 14, 2018


THE year 2017 witnessed a heated debate about Fata reforms. All manner of people came forward to save the people of Fata from savage laws, poverty, deprivation and further exploitation.

The debate was kicked off by the report of the Fata Reforms Commission headed by Sartaj Aziz. He and his colleagues knew as much about Fata as they did about the Tutsi, Hutu and Twa tribes of Rwanda. Never­theless they attended over a dozen jirgas and met a cross-section of people and declared in the end that (in their view) merging Fata with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was the best option. The subsequent debate was mostly sterile and uninformed.

First, take the minority tribal MNAs who are championing the merger. I had an opportunity to ask Shah Ji Gul, the most vociferous of them all, for his reasons to plant Fata into KP.

He said that the existing system had failed resulting in unbearable loss of life and property, and the ignominy of eviction from hearth and home. It was particularly humiliating for Pakhtun men and women to take refuge in Punjab and Sindh.

Many do not know that the provisions of the FCR are in sync with local ‘rewaj’.

Did the system fail? No. We failed the system. The crucial decision to fling open the western border to foreigners was taken in Islamabad and not by political officers in Miramshah or Wana.

Weren’t the great warriors of Islam from Arabia, Central Asia, in fact from all over the world, encouraged to cross over in the insidious game of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds? The subsequent category-five tornado blew with such ferocity for years that no system in the world could have contained it.

The same storm which wreaked havoc in Fata also reduced Pata to nothing. Were Peshawar, Kohat, Mardan, Bannu and Dera Ismail Khan safe? Many, many families from Peshawar and other settled districts also chose to migrate.

The political parties that are jumping over each other to merge Fata with KP are doing what is good for their politics. Their chief reason is the relative backwardness of Fata which they want to bring at par with the rest of Pakistan.

The question is, how much have they done for settled Pakistan in terms of development and justice to people and provinces? What stopped successive governments from developing Fata? The settled populace suffered as much at the hands of the governing class as the tribal.

The world ranking of Pakistan on many scores is near the bottom.

Many do not know that the provisions of the Frontier Crimes Regulation are in sync with local rewaj. The British merely codified it and introduced jail terms and fines against violations in the protected areas while the tribal jirgas would sanction burning of houses and impose crippling fines. A former renowned chief justice of Pakistan admitted to me that extending the writ of the high court to Fata will be meaningless as the superior judiciary will not have a supporting mechanism in Fata to adjudicate cases. It will be a paper exercise.

What is missed in this debate is that the Fata question is more sociological and not just a shifting of administrative boundaries. Here are five million people who have lived freely in their land for hundreds of years according to their own indigenous system.

Admitted that human society evolves and graduates from one stage to the next, higher one but it does so in small steps. Before the Industrial Revolution, the steps were slow and infinitesimal. Post industrial and digital revolution, the pace is frighteningly fast, no doubt. Fata is still in a pre-industrial stage. The need is to hold its hands and guide it through but not in the manner of ‘now or never’.

Crucially, they and their way of living need to be understood. They need to be consulted at every stage. So far no effort has been made by any party to find out what the majority want and how much of their tribalism they want to leave behind. Referendum in an uneducated society may not be the appropriate way to go about it. For a start, a reputed national or international firm can be engaged to carry out a thorough survey to gauge the majority opinion of the people.

The chief justice mentioned here told me that in England when Her Majesty’s government wants to issue a mere notification, a committee draws up the notification and keeps it aside for a few days. Then they gather again and have another look at it. It is again made to rest and the same committee re-examines its various aspects after a few days. Thus after a thorough process it is finally issued.

The lesson of history is that whoever acts in haste shall live to regret it.

The writer is a former civil servant and former minister.

Published in Dawn, January 14th, 2018