It is perhaps their inherent sense of pride and overtly masculine demeanour that prevents the Pakhtun from crying out loud in the open for the death and destruction they have endured at the hands of foreign powers and the machinations of the local elites. The common Pakhtun have suffered hugely in the past many decades and continue to suffer across both sides of the Pak-Afghan border — the Durand Line. Entrapped in a hardwired mesh of race and religion, those Pakhtun with virtually no stake in the power structures of the state, and without any association with the Taliban or similar insurgent groups, are killed, wounded, maimed, looted, displaced and profiled. Those poor and dispossessed Pakhtun from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) in Pakistan have their perils compounded by virtue of belonging to one of the main preparation or battlegrounds for wars in neighbouring Afghanistan over the last 40 years. To add insult to injury, they are still governed under draconian regulations that were introduced by the British colonial rulers in the 19th century and, therefore, do not enjoy an equal citizenship in Pakistan that would have ensured — at least legally — their individual human rights.

It was the cold-blooded murder of Naqeebullah Mehsud, a 27-year-old father of two, at the hands of the local police in Karachi some weeks ago, that proved to be the tipping point and caused the floodgates of emotion to open. The Pakhtun, young and old, with some companions from other communities who supported their cause, took to non-violent street protests in the country — with the main assembly in the capital city — asking for the racial profiling, discrimination, disappearances and fake encounters by security agencies to end. Unfortunately, the authorities saw a non-violent protest — which was completely non-intrusive in the routine public life — with a lot of suspicion. A part of the affluent-middleclass-dominated social media was mobilised to declare the protesting Pakhtun anti-state.

Not only to understand what has taken place in our region over the past few decades with the broader historic context of the last 200 years serving as the backdrop, but — more importantly — to know how to get ourselves out of this quagmire, Iftikhar H. Malik’s Pashtun Identity and Geopolitics in Southwest Asia: Pakistan and Afghanistan Since 9/11 is just the right book to have appeared on the scene in 2016. Malik is a leading academic historian who specialises in South Asian history, political Islam and Muslim communities in the West. His book brings forth the intricate interplay between civilisational history of the Pakhtun and the lands they inhabit, British colonial view and treatment of the Pakhtun and their various tribes, the romanticisation of a rugged warrior and the demonisation of a semi-civilised alien in the Western mind, the Soviet and the American invasions, and the rise of the Taliban with the undercurrents of Pakhtun nationalism.

In this highly informative and insightful narration, Malik establishes the case for peace in South and Southwest Asia by being compassionate and objective at the same time. Another distinguishing aspect of this work is that historicity and contemporariness work in tandem with each other. While a humanistic account of the suffering of the victims of terrorism is offered on the one hand, strategic solutions are offered to policymakers to end the long, mindless war waging in the region. Malik also reasserts the demand made by concerned academics and writers on Pakistan and India time and again: unless these two countries come to understand the dividends of peace, the whole region will remain unstable and ordinary women and men, children and young people will continue to suffer for no fault of their own.

Raza Wazir, in his op-ed article in The New York Times published early this month, mentions one such ordinary woman from the Swat valley. She has lost her eyesight,

but continues to search for her sons who vanished after being arrested by police in Karachi. She says: “I won’t be able to see them now. But I would recognise the smell of my sons.”

The writer is a poet and essayist based in Islamabad

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 25th, 2018

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