IT’S taken 70 long years for Pakistan to recognise the people of Fata as equal citizens. At last, the jurisdiction of the superior judiciary has been extended to Fata, a first step in a 1,000-mile journey, and for this the government deserves applause and the people felicitations. However, the dreaded Frontier Crimes Regulation is still intact.
The tribes have lived under the FCR since the British Raj, so it is surprising that they are now anxiously campaigning for reforms. People ask why they can’t live with it for a while longer. Down-country Pakistanis and foreigners wrongly assume the tribal people are gun-toting zealots. Decision-makers don’t know much about Fata, nor do they care to know.
It was said that law and order in Fata was better than in the rest of country before the war against terrorism – the crime rate at one Peshawar police station was more than in all of Fata. When the government extended adult franchise to Fata in 1996, the administration opposed it saying it might lead to large-scale conflicts. But no election-related violence was reported in the 1997 elections. There was no trouble when the Customs Act was extended to Fata, whereas when it was extended to Malakand Division, there was so much agitation it had to be withdrawn.
Of late, the tribes have fully supported the government’s decision to fence the border with Afghanistan. Incredibly, they have even vacated their houses and lived as temporarily dislocated persons when called upon. They have endured immense pain in service of their country. Why, then, are such noble people — who suffered silently when ignored and discriminated against, their name and their land used for illicit activities – now suddenly agitating for change?
Why is there now such urgency to mainstream Fata?
Many won’t know of recent changes in Fata and how they affect the tribes. The proposal to mainstream Fata in the National Action Plan, for example, wouldn’t have been possible without disarming the tribesmen, a blessing in disguise. After many military operations, Fata has at last been de-weaponised. But under the FCR, the tribes are responsible for any offence committed on their land (territorial responsibility), a cruel colonial legacy. How are they expected to protect their land against well-armed and well-trained militants? The government ought to have extended administrative and judicial reforms before disarming them.
Take recent events in North Waziristan. When a young second lieutenant and a sepoy were martyred near Tappi, the tribe responsible for security in the area was given hell. A curfew was imposed, and the rest is history. Both the army and the public suffered for the government’s inefficiency. Before this, a motorcycle bomb went off in Eidak. That tribe met the same fate. A repeat of such events has triggered panic among the tribes. How can they fight a ruthless adversary without weapons? Hence their demand for immediate reforms: to relieve them of the responsibility of securing the area.
As always, the government’s response was either slow or altogether missing. The governor was unable to reach out and reassure the tribes and the army that no matter how much Pakistan’s enemies conspire they will not divide us. It was only due to the personal capabilities of the GOC, 7th Infantry Division that the matter was resolved, since for the first time people came out in protest and the situation could have turned ugly.
For now, we must either absolve the tribes of territorial responsibility or return their weapons so that they can discharge their duty; it has to be a complete package either way. Returning weapons might not be possible after so many sacrifices by civil and armed forces, and so the only way forward is to immediately bring reforms in matters where there are few disagreements.
Secondly, the government was to give the tribes unhindered access down country by eliminating all permissions and octroi. After losing most of what they owned, they need livelihood opportunities. People are sick of waiting for the political agents’ offices to grant permission for every small item coming into or leaving Fata. During a recent visit to Miramshah, I was amazed to see tons of construction material on the roadside. I came to know that, on pressure from the army, the government had exempted construction material from permits. If so, why not exempt food items — why not all items? The argument that funds allocated for administration are not enough is unacceptable.
Now that the first step towards reforms has been taken it is expected that more will follow. Resolving the FCR issue and territorial responsibility must be prioritised. The tribes cannot be expected to defend their territory without weapons from militants who are challenging the regular troops. Islamabad should realise this before the tribes start leaving Fata out of sheer frustration.
The writer is a former bureaucrat and author of Cheegha, The Call.
Published in Dawn, January 18th, 2018