On January 27, the Peshawar police arrested Manzoor Pashteen, the chief of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM). PTM is a Pashtun human rights outfit that was formed in 2014. It was initially shaped as an initiative for removing landmines from the erstwhile Fata.
This area, which was only recently made part of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, has been the main theatre of a war between Pakistan’s armed forces and the militant Islamist groups that had come to dominate Fata in the early 2000s and onwards.
After 2007, the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) rose as a conglomerate of 13 Islamist outfits operating near the Pak-Afghan border. The umbrella group’s aims included the overthrow of the Pakistani state, and the consequent imposition of Sharia rule.
Apart from attacking state, government and civilian targets through suicide bombings and assassinations, the TTP also frequently indulged in kidnapping for ransom, extortion, robberies and profiteering from the flow of drugs through the territories that it came to occupy.
PTI needs to find common ground between Pashtun nationalism and the state’s evolving post-Islamist narrative
The bulk of TTP’s leadership and fighters came from various Pashtun tribes. So much so that, at one point, the organisation and its activities began to be described by some commentators as the new face of Pashtun nationalism. But from 2015, TTP’s dominance in Fata was greatly reduced through a concentrated military operation led by the then COAS Gen Raheel Sharif.
This war was a continuation of sorts of the manner in which various areas of Fata in particular, and KP in general, were unceasingly impacted by the tumultuous fallout of the anti-Soviet insurgency in neighbouring Afghanistan in the 1980s. The insurgency, bankrolled by the US and Saudi Arabia and directly facilitated by Pakistan, was promoted as a ‘jihad’.
PTM’s leadership and supporters are not comfortable with the fact that religious militancy in KP had begun to be described by some as the new face of Pashtun nationalism. PTM insists that this perception was engineered by those who were threatened by the original ‘secular’ Pashtun nationalism of men such as Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan.
There is enough evidence to demonstrate that, indeed, a large number of Pashtuns were involved in various Islamist outfits. But PTM has often responded to this by lamenting that the state of Pakistan, after ‘manipulating Pashtuns’ to fight a ‘holy war’ in Afghanistan, has usurped their constitutional rights in erstwhile Fata, especially after overpowering the TTP. It also accuses the state of allowing religious militants to operate in the tribal region.
PTM is, in fact, a contemporary version of classical Pashtun nationalism. This nationalism was overshadowed by the rise of political Islam and then militancy among various Pashtun tribes during the anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan.
PTM claims that ‘state-backed’ religious militancy was used to neutralise Pashtun nationalism and replace it with a narrative that explained this nationalism in the context of Islam. This, PTM believes, diverted the core intent of Pashtun nationalism (i.e., gaining Pashtun rights), and made it to mean a way to strive for an Islamic state, or something the state during the Gen Zia dictatorship too was claiming to formulate.
Interestingly, those at the helm of PTM today are calling for a military solution to the militant problem that had gripped KP and Fata. Therefore, the military operation which kicked off in earnest in late 2014, was applauded. The operation was unprecedented in its ferocity and managed to free large swathes of land that were once in the hands of militant groups.
The militants were driven out, but the areas in which the operation took place experienced severe population displacements and destruction of property. This is when PTM upped the ante and claimed that the Pashtuns of these areas were not only being abandoned, but that they were being treated as former TTP collaborators.
The state did win the war. But it seems unsure exactly how to formulate its approach towards PTM. Although still opposed to the classical idea of Pashtun nationalism, the state is now equally opposed to the militant religious dimension that was added to it from the 1980s onwards. So where to go from here?
The answer may lie in how, decades ago, the state and government amicably resolved the commotion caused by Sindhi nationalism. Sindhi nationalism had surfaced strongly in the late 1960s, thanks to the intellectual and political efforts of a literary organisation called Bazm-i-Sufia-i-Sindh. It was formed by a group of Sindhi intellectuals and headed by the Sindhi scholar and politician G.M. Syed.
The Sindhi nationalist sentiment rapidly attracted thousands of young Sindhis across Sindh. Nevertheless, during the 1970 election, a majority of Sindhis voted for the PPP, the left-leaning party led by Z.A. Bhutto. Bhutto, a proud Sindhi, was a federalist and a staunch Pakistani nationalist.
But despite the victory of a federalist party in Sindh, Sindhi nationalism continued to mushroom. In 1972, one year after the acrimonious departure of the Bengali-majority East Pakistan, Syed declared Bhutto ‘Punjab’s puppet’, and formed the separatist Jeeay Sindh party.
Julien Levesque, in his essay for the June 11, 2013 issue of South Asian Multidisciplinary Academic Journal, writes that, as a response, the Bhutto regime allowed greater cultural expression to the country’s ethnic groups, in a bid to bring them in the ambit of Pakistani nationalism.
Bhutto was particularly successful in appropriating the Sindhi nationalist narrative in the context of Pakistani federalism. This became apparent when, in 1975, his government held a large conference on Sindhi culture. Hamida Khuhro’s 1981 book, Sindh through the Centuries, chronicles the proceedings of the conference. From it one can see how, through intellect and dialogue, Sindhi nationalism was neutralised by the government.
Interestingly, it is also due to this that a majority of Sindhis see PPP as a bridge to the economic and political benefits of federalism.
From 2013, PM Imran Khan’s PTI has been popular in KP. Khan presents himself as a Pashtun. PTI thus could have (and still can) play the kind of role Bhutto’s PPP played in this context. The aim should be to amicably defuse the resurgence of classical Pashtun nationalism in the province.
But the problem is that Khan too reiterates the conflicted understanding of Pashtun nationalism which describes it as being a synthesis of Islamic and tribal conservatism. He needs to understand that PTM is trying to alter this very perception. PTM has constantly rooted its arguments in the constitution. Even though it is largely invested in reviving the classic Pashtun nationalism, its leadership has often suggested that the only thing that keeps Pakistan’s many ethnic groups together as a nation is the constitution. One wonders, how is this thinking seditious?
More than the establishment, it has to be Khan’s party that is still popular among Pashtun youth, to intellectually and politically engage with PTM and cordially direct PTM’s narrative towards the larger national narrative.
The state itself is trying to create a new post-Islamist narrative. Despite what some may insist, the fact is, there is now no dogma in this context. This should be seen as an opportunity by PTI to help find a common ground between PTM’s Pashtun nationalism and the state’s evolving post-Islamist narrative.
Published in Dawn, EOS, February 2nd, 2020