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After the deluge

Updated March 19, 2018

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CARRYING on a reasoned debate in the era of hot takes, context-less sound bites, screenshots and social media lynch mobs in a society as polarised as ours is something of an extreme sport.

The simple is obscured; the complex reduced to binaries. Logic is drowned in a tide of whataboutery and false correlation. Straw men abound, and unlike the scarecrow in Wizard of Oz, they are happy to be without a brain.

With this in mind, let us turn to the debate on the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) and its young, charismatic leader Manzoor Pashteen, whom I interviewed a few days back. Clear in his beliefs, Pashteen speaks with the passion of a man who has grown up seeing nothing but war and devastation.

For those of us in ‘mainstream’ Pakistan, his is an experience we cannot relate to. We cannot walk in their shoes, feet blistering as we shuffle in lines at checkposts, tread carefully along tracks for fear of IEDS, cannot know what it is like to live in fear, tormented by the Taliban and cowering under drones and artillery fire.

The PTM’s demands are the bare minimum.

Even when they leave their homeland, they face discrimination, suspicion and suffer the atrocities of a hundred Rao Anwars. This is quite apart from the draconian FCR, under the yoke of which generations have lived their lives. Had we suffered a tenth of a tenth of what Fata’s people have, we would consider the ramshackle ‘system’ we shelter under to be a utopia.

Now, finally, Fata is emerging from the fog of war — one fought as much in the shadows as in the open. A war fought against an elusive enemy, one made all the deadlier because of the hand we ourselves had in creating the enemy. If the PTM seems sudden it is because we were not watching the cracks develop in the dam, and are now amazed at the flood. Their demands are the bare minimum that citizens can ask from their country.

These have been detailed at length in Khurram Husain’s ‘The Pashtun spring’, and for the sake of brevity suffice it to say that I agree with him in full: the removal of landmines, the status of missing persons, extrajudicial killings, the streamlining and improvement of checkpoint procedures (using military for policing must be avoided), the impotence (or collusion) of the state when it comes to Rao Anwar … all these and more are points on which the majority of Pakistanis support the PTM, regardless of ethnicity or political affiliation.

Some issues have been addressed in part, as Pashteen confirms, but major demands remain unaddressed and the pace is slow. Had these demands, first articulated at the peaceful Islamabad sit-in, been taken seriously we would perhaps not see the rallies being held now. But then, we tend to ignore wounds until they become gangrenous.

As the rallies and meetings were largely ignored by mainstream media — that seems to be changing — most clips and information come from social media, where the debate is ongoing. Typically, there are biases and agendas that are being reinforced and peddled but by and large the response is positive, with some important qualifications. Here we come to the controversial bits — those inconvenient things highlighted by PTM opponents to discredit the movement, and ignored by supporters in the fear that addressing them will delegitimise the PTM.

Take the demonstrably false claims regarding the APS massacre by a speaker at PTM rallies — claims devoid of proof that are sourced from a single TTP propaganda video (in other videos the TTP proudly claims the massacre). This was pointed out to Pashteen and one hopes he will consider that he has been misled, and that a position of leadership demands greater rigour.

This is important because: one, as any movement picks up pace it gathers not only adherents but also those who seek to exploit it. Second, many who fully back the PTM’s demands balk at such wild claims, and their concerns should be addressed. Supporters who ignore these for fear of damaging the cause are, in fact, doing just that: playing into the hands of those who would discredit it. With sorrow I must say that the very space that allows such views to flourish is also due to the shameful ignoring of the demands of the parents of APS victims by both military and civilian leadership for a judicial inquiry and for the report on the attack to be made public.

The greater responsibility is on us to listen to, answer and embrace the protesters but as the movement gains strength it is also incumbent on it to address the concerns of its well-wishers and focus on its legitimate goals. If this movement fails, it will be a loss for every Pakistani who prays for a justice-based system.

The writer is a journalist.

Twitter: @zarrarkhuhro

Published in Dawn, March 19th, 2018