POLITICS: DEMYSTIFYING THE PTM

Published February 23, 2020
Protest outside the Karachi Press Club on January 28, 2020, demanding the release of PTM leader Manzoor Pashteen | White Star
Protest outside the Karachi Press Club on January 28, 2020, demanding the release of PTM leader Manzoor Pashteen | White Star

The emergence of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) has generated serious political and academic interest over the past year. Unfortunately, constraints on media freedom have prevented an open, honest and informed debate on the nature and drivers of the movement. The situation has been compounded by the persistence of an Orientalist discourse regarding Pashtuns in the mainstream media and academia. Propagated mainly by western scholars and journalists and writers from mainland Pakistan, this discourse is based on a combination of colonial stereotypes about Pashtuns and a statist view of politics in the Pashtun region.

The state accuses PTM of being funded and supported by foreign powers and has relied on hard measures to ‘deal’ with the movement, but with little success. The single biggest takeaway from events of the past year is that hard and repressive tactics have neither weakened the movement nor reduced its support. Instead, these measures seem to have further radicalised the movement’s followers and strengthened its claims regarding ethnic discrimination by state institutions. A different and political approach is warranted to deal with PTM. In this regard, a sound understanding of the movement is necessary for those seeking to find an amicable solution.

Given that the PTM is a nascent and evolving movement, it is perhaps early to come up with a definitive and final analysis. However, some patterns and trends can be identified based on developments of the past two years.

A CRISIS OF BELONGING

PTM indicates the emergence of a new organic politics of belonging and resistance that has been brewing in the Pashtun region for the past two decades. Spearheaded by educated Pashtun youth, this politics is informed by and anchored in the individual and collective experiences of Pashtuns in the distinct sociopolitical milieu of the post-9/11 world. These are people who have experienced killings, displacements, enforced disappearances, ethnic profiling, humiliation, and destruction of livelihoods and way of life. The tormenting experiences of these people were made worse by what they believe to be the indifference and apathy of mainland Pakistan towards their plight. While nearly all classes and sections of Pashtun society have been affected by terrorism and the concomitant politics of fear and discrimination, Pashtun labourers, students and the salaried class have borne the brunt of the crises.

The most remarkable feature of the movement is the fact that educated youth belonging to middle and lower middle classes are at its forefront. Most of these young people had to leave their homes and spend formative years of lives in major urban centres of the country post-9/11 for livelihood and studies. The lives of these people became miserable as our policy of militant sponsorship began to backfire and militants started wreaking havoc in mainland Pakistan. Pashtuns living in urban centres bore the brunt of backlash by the state and society. Faced with a daunting crisis of existence and identity, most of the university-going students turned to books and study circles, and became politically active in the physical and digital space long before PTM came into being.

A sound understanding of the evolution of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement is a necessary first step for those seeking to deal with it

Furthermore, the proliferation of digital technology and social media enabled them to connect with Pashtun youth from other parts of Pakistan, most of who were going through a similar crisis of belonging and existence. The shared experience of negotiating through this crisis led to the emergence of a political consciousness that seeks recognition, fair treatment and peace for Pashtuns within the constitutional framework of Pakistan.

This political consciousness represents both a continuity and change in classical Pashtun nationalism. That the movement has a secular-progressive leaning, is critical of the military’s alleged support for Islamic militants, and appeals to Pashtun ethnicity to articulate key grievances and demands is a continuation of classical Pashtun nationalism. PTM’s narrative has been shaped largely by Pashtun nationalist parties who have been critical of Pakistan’s Afghan policy since the days of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and persistently accused the military establishment of harbouring Islamic militants as a tool of domestic and regional policy. PTM believes that the growth of religious militancy in the Pashtun region is primarily a product of decades of investment in Jihad and extremism.

A MOVEMENT OF HAVE-NOTS

In certain ways, PTM represents a deviation from classical Pashtun nationalist movement. First, PTM is led by Pashtun ‘have-nots’ both in the economic and political sense. Key leaders of the movement belong to lower middle class and hail from ex-FATA (mainly Waziristan) — a region that has remained at the margins of Pashtun politics for decades. Although the movement’s support base transcends tribal and geographical boundaries, it is strongest in areas that are least integrated in Pakistan’s economic and political spheres i.e. ex-FATA, southern parts of KP and northern Balochistan. This humble socioeconomic and regional background is one reason why Pashtun nationalist elites have a rocky and ambiguous relationship with PTM.

Second, PTM doesn’t draw its primary inspiration from abstract references to historical Pashtun territory, dreams of an imagined future homeland or romanticism of a ‘golden’ past. Instead, the movement’s political narrative is rooted mainly in the actual social and political experiences of Pashtuns in the post-9/11 world. It has brought forward the human element of war. It talks about the misery, destruction and disruption caused by war in a region that has remained non-accessible for media and independent researchers. The movement stands against the falsely-created binary of ‘pro-military operation vs anti-military operation’. Its leaders root their arguments in the Constitution of Pakistan. This breed of Pashtun political activists may not feel strongly about the Durand Line but they clearly want to revisit the current relationship with the Pakistani state. They don’t want to continue living as second-class citizens. They want a fairer and more critical engagement with the state and its version of nationalism. They are unequivocally clear and candid in their criticism of the hegemonic narratives of the state and the role of its ill-advised adventurous policies in creating and sustaining the menace of terrorism.

Thirdly, this young lot does not celebrate the Orientalist myths about Pashtun bravery, invincibility and hospitality. They have contested, both through words and actions, the characterisation of the Pashtun as a savage, naïve, revengeful and emotional creature — stereotype that first appeared in colonial ethnographic accounts and were subsequently reinforced by the postcolonial state. They insist that Pashtuns are a heterogeneous group of people like any other ethnic group and, therefore, don’t fit into any essentialist categories or frames.

PTM has not only rekindled the debate on Pashtun identity in contemporary Pakistan but also encouraged the revival of a genuine youth-led progressive and democratic politics at a time all mainstream political parties have fallen in line and abandoned pro-people politics.

It is time for genuine and meaningful engagement with the movement. This is a must not only for healing the wounds of people of war-torn areas but also for creating a truly inclusive, federal and democratic Pakistan. Cosmetic political measures and repressive tactics are unlikely to address the problem. The integrity and future of the country should be given priority over the ego of certain individuals or institutions. Pakistan first.

The writer is a public policy and development specialist from Balochistan and tweets @rafiullahkakar

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 23rd, 2020

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