LISTEN to their cry of pain. Listen to the multitudes demanding justice and a life lived with dignity. They are young Pakhtun men and women who grew up in the midst of conflict and were uprooted from their homes. They saw their near and dear ones being blown up in the war or becoming the victims of enforced disappearances.
They say they are angry with the state for allegedly sponsoring militant proxies for decades that have brought death and destruction to their cities and villages. The fire of religious extremism and bigotry instilled from outside has threatened their culture and values. Now these young men and women want to take destiny into their own hands. They want to be treated as equal citizens. They don’t have guns in their hands; they believe in nonviolence. It is the Pakhtun age of enlightenment; a rejection of obscurantism and oppression.
But the authorities are apprehensive. Instead of listening to them, there is an attempt to stifle their voices. There has been a virtual blackout by the mainstream media of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) rally in Peshawar on Sunday. Interestingly, not long ago, the same media was obliged to broadcast the statements and interviews of extremist groups responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent Pakistanis especially Pakhtuns. Perhaps we are not willing to learn from our own history.
It was the killing of a young Pakhtun Naqeebullah Mehsud in a staged police encounter in Karachi earlier this year that triggered the current wave of protest and brought to the surface the simmering anger below. The incident exposed the plight of a community that has long been caught in the middle of a war between the militants and the security establishment.
It is the Pakhtun age of enlightenment; an age of rejection of obscurantism and oppression.
That also led to the Pakhtun long march led by few young men mostly from the tribal areas that have suffered the most in a decade of bloody conflict. The four demands at the Islamabad sit-in early this year that continued for several days were simple and genuine. They included bringing to justice the police officers involved in Naqeebullah’s murder; ending discriminatory treatment of the tribespeople; the recovery of the missing; and the removal of landmines from the tribal areas that have made life hazardous for those returning to their home in regions cleared of the Taliban.
It was a peaceful and disciplined protest; there was no blockade of the roads or obstruction of traffic. The demands were supported by all mainstream political parties across the spectrum. Indeed, the government, too, responded positively and accepted most of the demands. Some of the missing persons did return home. But it was not the end of the matter. The causes of discontent run deeper. The Islamabad sit-in provided an impetus to a nascent group of young activists who organised themselves under the banner of the PTM. Predictably, the ‘movement’ has turned into a tide rallying around it people ranging from educated urban youth to tribesmen and disenchanted political activists.
Most amazing is the participation of large numbers of women as seen at the Peshawar rally; this is quite unprecedented in a province considered socially the most conservative in the country. Women have suffered most in the conflict that has gripped the region for the past many decades. The rise of the Taliban and militancy has affected them most. Displacement from their homes during the military operations has taken a massive toll on women and children.
A major cause of mass discontent has been the apathy of the state towards the hundreds of thousands uprooted from their homes. Those returning find their villages devastated by the bombing. Indeed, some reconstruction work has been done but it will take years to completely rehabilitate them. After the Islamabad protest, the security forces have started removing the IEDs that are still left but it will take time to clear the entire area.
Indeed, the problem of missing people has remained an explosive issue not only in the tribal areas, but also in the settled districts. Undeniably, many of them could have been involved in militancy, yet there is no justification for keeping them in detention without formal charges.
The PTM is also a protest movement against the existing Pakhtun political leadership that the younger generation feels it has been betrayed by. They are not just the religious parties but also the so-called Pakhtun nationalist and other groups that have shared political power. Not surprisingly, these groups, too, are scared by the Pakhtun awakening. Although it is essentially a rights and democratic movement, it is bound to have a significant impact on the course of politics in the province.
Another major issue fuelling discontent is the government’s backtracking on the plan to mainstream Fata and integrate it with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Even some of the minor reforms, such as the extension of the superior judiciary to Fata, have not yet been implemented. The notorious Frontier Crimes Regulation is still enforced in the region thus denying the tribespeople even basic human and political rights. All promises of development and making the tribal areas economically at par with other parts of the country have remained unfulfilled.
The rising Pakhtun enlightenment could well be a harbinger of change — and not only in KP; it could also provide impetus to progressive democratic movements in other parts of the country. The PTM reflects growing Pakhtun sentiments against violent religious extremism in the province. Incidents like the brutal murder of Mashal Khan at the Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan have shaken the Pakhtun youth.
They have little trust in the security establishment that they believe still has not broken away completely from its erstwhile militant clients. The fact that Ehsanullah Ehsan, the former Taliban spokesman who claimed responsibility for the death of thousands of Pakhtuns, was perceived to be declared as almost kosher after he surrendered has added to the anger.
Instead of listening to the voice of the discontented youth, the authorities have resorted to their old ways of blocking them. Heed their cry before it is too late.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, April 11th, 2018