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The Pakhtun spring

April 08, 2018

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AN incredible series of events is unfolding in the aftermath of the murder of Naqeebullah Mehsud. A group of young Pakhtun men and women, have found their voice, and in growing numbers, are stepping forward to tell their tale.

Their stories are finding so much traction in the wider society, that the beginning of a grass-roots movement appears to be in the making. What is particularly interesting about this movement is that it is spontaneous, and has an amorphous leadership drawn from a younger generation with no links to organised politics. What is dismaying to see is how their efforts have been ignored by the big mainstream political parties, as well as the mainstream media.

Going by the name of the Pashtun Long March, or the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), their demands are simple. They want the rights that the Constitution guarantees them: the right to be secure from arbitrary detention, the right to peaceably assemble, to speak their minds. The roots of the movement go back in time to the discontentment that was brewing in the camps set up to house IDPs from the military operations in the tribal agencies, as well as Swat, in the 10-year campaign against the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan. The discontentment grew out of a sense of humiliating treatment by state authorities, whether at any of the myriad checkpoints or at Nadra centres when applying for a national identity card. In addition, they have lent their support to the recommendations of the Fata reforms committee, finalised in late 2016 (and yet to be implemented).

Listen to the voices at the sit-in they held in Islamabad. Listen again to the voices that spoke at their events in Zhob and Qila Saifullah last week, or in Quetta this Sunday. Listen also to the voice of Raza Wazir, writing in the New York Times, describing what it is like to grow up a Pakhtun amid the ‘war on terror’. Fortunately for us, social media recorded these events even as mainstream media chose to focus its attention on the Senate elections.

Listen to their voices, and you will not believe that they are describing the same Pakistan that you and I live in.

Listen to these voices, they are not hard to find, and your ears will not believe that they are describing the same Pakistan that you and I live in. The stories they tell sound more like those one hears coming out of active war zones like Iraq and Sudan, and one is hard-pressed to believe that an entire generation has grown up with the horrors of such an enormity as a basic fact of their lives.

Read: How the British kept the Pakhtuns divided

Consider this: anybody below the age of 30, who is from any of the tribal areas, Swat, or even Peshawar or Quetta, came of age during the war that began in 2001, a little more than a decade and half ago. A 10-year-old in 2001 would be 28 years today. If lucky, this child would have completed schooling, and college by now, and reached the stage in life when one is full of optimism as one goes about the task of building a life, family, career, job, business. But for a young man or woman who has reached this age, and succeeded in not getting sucked into the war as a combatant or as a victim, the experience of this age is very different.

What is even more terrible in seeing this unfold is the memory of the enormous sacrifices made by the people of Peshawar, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa more broadly, as well as Quetta during the ‘war on terror’. We have forgotten the early years of the terrible conflict with the TTP that got going following the Lal Masjid operation, when bombings in Peshawar had become an almost daily occurrence, including, in one case, targeting a market frequented by women and children specifically.

“An enormous strength of character is shining through,” went an editorial in The News at the time, hailing the stoic strength with which the people of Peshawar and the rest of KP braved the terrible rain of calamities coming down upon them with ferocity. Thousands died in that rain of bombings that stretched for years after Lal Masjid, but not once did we see the people or the leadership of this great province plead for mercy.

This is not the first time we are hearing these tales. Only a few years earlier, a marvellous rebel emerged from Quetta city, telling a story very similar to the ones being told by the young men and women of the PTM. He had lost a son apparently in a counter-insurgency operation and resolved to walk from Quetta all the way to Islamabad, stopping in towns along the way to meet small groups of people and tell them what was happening in his province. His name is Mama Qadeer, and his long march was one of the earliest of these grass-roots voices to emerge from the depths of a conflict that the rest of us know little about.

Along the way there have been others, farmers in Okara, families asking after loved ones gone missing, each asking for nothing more than justice, for their rights, for inclusion as equal citizens in the social contract that ties us all together.

What is sad to see is how the play of democratic politics has missed these voices almost entirely. The self-correction of democracy, one of the most powerful social forces in the world, relies on harvesting these grievances and channelling them into the mainstream political life of the system. But when democratic politics is disfigured by the constant play of unelected forces, it responds less to the demands coming from below, and more to the pressures coming from above. The recent Senate election, which happened at the same time as the PTM march, was only the latest instance where this disfigurement of our democratic polity was plainly in view.

The writer is a member of staff.

khurram.husain@gmail.com

Twitter: @khurramhusain

Published in Dawn, March 15th, 2018

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