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Pashtuns: Chowkidars or noble savages?

Published Jul 01, 2011 10:53am


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Writer Akbar S Ahmad writes in Foreign Policy Magazine (Code of the Hill May 6 2011), about the death of Osama Bin Laden and talks about his time posted in the tribal agency of Waziristan, a part of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata). He writes somewhat glowingly about the people of the region preferred honour over a life of paying taxes. He cites the Pashto proverb “Honor (nang) ate up the mountains; taxes (qalang) ate up the plains.”

He describes the society of which he is a product off as one where “people pay rents and taxes and live within the state system in hierarchal societies that are dominated by powerful feudal, political, or military authority”. Unlike in the mountain areas, leaders in qalang societies have their status bestowed on them by birth or through economic or political means. He then expands on this arbitrary distinction between societies of honour and societies of taxes by arguing that the Military establishment is a product of the “qalang” society. He then emphasises how societies of honour are freedom loving and the importance of honouring tribal identity when developing the region.

I write with respect for Akbar S Ahmad’s knowledge, personal ties to the region, long service in the tribal areas and Pashtun belt. However, I believe his article misrepresented Pashtuns of Waziristan and the tribal belt.

He tries to justify the present situation by citing the Pashtun honour code of Pashtunwali, of “doing Pashto” as the cause for the regions backwardness. This centuries old code advocates living an honourable life which honours oneself, being hospitable to strangers, punishes ones enemies and does not dishonour others. While the code does exist today in many variations, to assume that it turns Pashtuns into people to whom the normal rules of human life do not apply is misleading. This is a classic stereotype of the “noble savage” that has been promoted for long about Pashtuns. During the time of the British Raj, the closer the British got to the Frontier the more savage the local Pashtuns got; conversely the further away the nobler Pashtuns were perceived.

In fact, within Pakistan this stereotype often co-exists with the cultural one of the “ignorant chowkidar”. The ignorant chowkidar is mocked for his poor grasp of Urdu, his lack of intelligence and lack of interest in the trappings of modern society. Neither of these simplistic generalisations are true, it is just an easy way out of understanding complex societal structures.

Traditionally, Fata was a part of the country where the Frontier Crimes Regulation applied. Under Article 1 of the Constitution, Fata is a part of Pakistan; that was governed by political agents as the government representative working through government backed Maliks and jirgas.

It exists in an anomalous situation, where locals are subject to collective punishment, arbitrary arrests and in its time, the FCR gave the political agents unbridled power. In fact as per Article 247 (7) of the constitution, the courts have no jurisdiction over the region. Under these laws, children as young as two years old have been convicted under the FCR. Jurists like the late Chief Justice A.R Cornelius in 1954 described the FCR as “obnoxious to all recognised modern principles governing the dispensation of justice”.

The FCR, was brutally effective in ensuring state control of the region, if not its development. Things have since changed radically, the constant conflict in the region and deployment of the military has shifted power away from the political agents to either the military or militant leaders. Most major decision making is now in the hands of the military the old system has collapsed.

The factors contributing to this collapse are not hard to see, a generation has been depoliticised and radicalised, large numbers of locals are working in the Middle East, the old Maliks have been killed or forced to flee. Finally we have an international brigade of people from all over the world who have created an occupied emirate in Islam’s name using the locals as cannon fodder.

Akbar Ahmad argues “They should consult the elders and utilize the jirga in order to introduce schools and health schemes within their traditional systems so that the people of the nang areas have a sense of hope for the future.”

This would be possible has the old systems existed now, they do not anymore with militant commanders ruling parts of the region. The socio-economic figures on the region are even more shocking, the literacy rate in Fata is about 17 per cent and only three per cent of the total women population. The most recent 2009-10 census reported a school dropout rate of 63 per cent among boys and 77 per cent among girls, while 54 per cent children quit schools before completing secondary education. This is easily the highest dropout ratio in the country. So how does one invest in structures that barely exist anymore?

What is really needed is radical reforms in the region, allowing political party’s to operate in the region, opening up existing roads in the region to the locals, investing in the IDPs and investing in development like the, seemingly forgotten reconstruction opportunity zones. There are precedents that are worth studying closely, the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provincial government has successfully merged the former provincial tribal agency of Kala Dhaka into the new district of Tor Ghar (literally black mountain). They did this by working through the remnants of the old jirga system and in exchange offering large scale investments as an incentive.

While we should not forget the past; we should not allow the memories of the past that Akbar Ahmed so deftly writes about, confuse traditionalism with a generation of radicalisation. Instead of Nang versus Qalang we should recall the poetry of the late Ajmal Khattak

Leave me alone if you will The modern (hypocritical) Aurangzebs haunt me still I am the Pashtun of my age

The truth is there is nothing noble about being radicalised or living a life of enforced deprivation and there is definitely nothing noble in being considered a savage.

Zalan is a free lance writer based in the UK with an interest in history and politics. He blogs at A tale by a takhalus.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.


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The writer is the founder of the social media forum, Qissa Khwani - @qissakhwani

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (20) Closed

Munir Jul 01, 2011 05:22pm
During the 60's and early 70's an entire generation of Pakhtoon's flocked to Peshawar uniiversity and elsewhere in Pakistan, and were consumed with a zeal to study and excel. They became doctors,engineers,civil servants and some joined the armed forces. The Soviet invasion and Zia's policies that ensued changed much of that zeal for education. As Imran Khan's coffe table book styles itself we became the "Warrior Race" , a nation of noble savages (mujahideen) who could be relied upon to take up arms and fight for the sake of fighting in pursuit of a goal that was never made clear to the participants themselves, other than the fact that they were fighting in name of Islam, and to uphold Pakhtoon honour.No need for a universitiy education, as a madrassah education was far more virtuous. Jihad became "wajib" only for Pakhtoon's whether in Kashmir,Afghanistan or anywhere else, as they were the warrior race.The rest of Pakistan could sleep, leave fighting to the Pakhtoon's. Let other Pakistani's bother with education and worldly matters. For the noble savage was taught his reward will come in the hereafter, and should continue his centuries old pastime of strife,intrigue and battle. Zalan is right that radical change is required, but it will take more than a little tinkering at the edges as he has suggested, but a wholesale change in mindset,the destruction of the cancer of the mullahocracy, and the abolition of the tribal belt boundaries and total integration into Pakistan. Then and only then will Pakhtoon's achieve their full potential
Zahra Jul 01, 2011 06:00pm
Excellent article.
alia Jul 01, 2011 06:34pm
Myself a tribal, I know who speaks for the privileged. Akbar S Ahmed was a bureaucrat and favours status-quo. I wish Zalan to continue writing to highlight what needs to be done because his is the right perspective.
Nadeem Ahmed Jul 01, 2011 06:43pm
The problem lies with rest of Pakistan, not with FATA or Pashtuns. Bandobasti areas or so called Qalang societies are not a role model for Pashtuns. Infact, before War, Tribal areas were often quoted as Free, Peacefull and Just societies. These presentations were absolutely wrong but people behind these lies were not Tribals or Pashtuns, they were intellectuals and elites of Bandobasti areas. It was such mindset that people like Imran Khan wanted it to impose tribal rules on whole Pakistan. To change the situation, Pakistan must become a law abiding society, secondly there should be no FATA and other such symbols of British Raj. There should be one people, one country, one constitution and one set of laws for whole Pakistan.
Daanish Jul 01, 2011 06:45pm
I have always knows Akbar S. Ahmed as a dim witted Anthro-panthro. His patronizing racist views on the pashtuns are hardly surprising. The fact that people like Imran Khan will also tout similar idiocies as Akbar S. Ahmed is hardly news as well. What is worrying though is that our civil service is full of budding Akbar S. Ahmeds, and drawing rooms with Imran Khans, who do have a very patronizing and racist view of the pashtuns. They will continue the colonial system of tribal areas, which must be dispensed with immediately if the people of those tribal agencies are ever to realize their full potential. This is a very good article which, raises an important point. I wish there was more discussion along these lines.
Owais Jul 01, 2011 08:17pm
Nice and true article.
Mohammad Ismail Jul 01, 2011 08:23pm
Nice work, Zalan! In the muddy, lantern-lit kitchen in the northeast remote tribal area of Pakistan known as the Mohmand Agency, the average young woman is up early to run errands for her family. She squats to flame the dung-cake fire with a puff to make morning tea and roast corn bread. What she calls a kitchen has no running water, gas, electricity or refrigerator. She has no school with which to get an education. Every now and then, militants blow up a girls school. The Taliban have particularly targeted women , schools and health clinics catering to their needs. To militants and most of tribal people, a woman's place is the four walls of her home. Her only job is to raise children and do day-long household work. The few women that go outside of their homes will be dressed in a head-to-toe burqa (local tribal attire of woman which covers her from head to toe). The life of a woman here is fear and a deep sense of deprivation. Mohammad Ismail Washington state US
paatchu Jul 02, 2011 12:11pm
A separate state for Pashtuns is the only workaround to this problem!!...
Khan Jul 02, 2011 03:35pm
Nice effort by Zalan! I think it's not only Akbar S Ahmed but several writers, media persons and journalists who portray Pathans as illiterate, uncivilised, people with low IQ and backward and ironically all this is attributed to their Code of Pakhtoon Honour " Pakhtoon wali ". I am sure Akbar is one of those racist and baseless judgmental folk who in reality feel jealous but say things opposite to what they feel - this is called Reaction formation in classification of defence mechanisms (Psychiatry). However I do agree that our women are suffering as our friend Mr Ismail described in a such realistic way "in the lantern-lit kitchen when she squat to flame fire with a puff". Its a true picture of a helpless and a "backward" Pakhtoon women. An old " chawkidar ma ma" is also a harsh reality. Fighting with each other in the name of " honour" is also a heart breaking reality but "Pakhtoon wali" is not the cause of all these black realities. Infact the last few remaining breaths, a tiny hope and a ray of light in this deceived marshal race is due to "Pakhtoon wali". Pakhtoon nation is systematically destroyed and eliminated not by the lowest race of south Asia- the punjabi regime but also by their masters on the west and the US. Who portray my honourable brave and loyal Pathan as chawkidar in Urdu dramas? Who portray them as illiterate, uncivilised, cruel and backward? I tell you, it's the people who deprive them of of education, progress and law. What is FATA? Why can't they be part of settled areas ? Why can't their be colleges, universities and hospitals? It's really annoying when "they" taunt Pathans for being illiterate and poor but don't give them their rights of education and money.
Jabbar Mohmand Jul 02, 2011 04:09pm
Many became scholars without knowing anything. For many non-Pukhtoon, a good career is to produce some 'writing' about Pukhtoon, which brings them repute and money in the west. Pukhtoon are the most secular people in the region. Mr Akbar is an intentionally blind person, who is not even ready to confess how these people and their region have been treated like an orphan. Today I am happy that our region has many of the best educational institutes in the country. He may not know that the best merit competition happens between the candidates from KP... Mr Akbar should also tell if Pukhtoon has really those issues, which he mentions, then he should also explain something about interior Sindh, Balochistan, South Punjab, and even the environs of Lahore... He must explain why the whole country is backward...
Saqib Jul 02, 2011 05:00pm
FATA was never a free area. It was subject to more cruel and harsh laws than the settled areas. Compare FCR with PPC or Crpc and the difference would be clear. In addition to FCR, inhabitants of FATA were subject to Malik system which was devised to suppress the people. Despite all that, the tribal people were given a pseudo-pride that they are free. British kept this kind of enclaves everywhere on the frontiers of their colonies and the people of these corridors were used as grapeshot. Be it FATA or Gurkha land, it was the part of British forward policies. The only solution is the reversal of FATA status and their transformation into settled area with all political and human rights.
syed fahad iftikhar Jul 02, 2011 08:07pm
i agree with zalan abt what he has said abt pukhtoons.but i differ with him what he has said abt the pukhtoons of FATA.They r merciless butchers,illiterate and ignorant of modern day world.they forbid females from education.zalan tell me did u know what was the literacy rate in FATA particularly of females before 9/11.
Mikal Jul 02, 2011 09:54pm
That is a absolutely ridiculous idea, if a they were to receive a separate state the act in itself would inflame ethnic, sectarian, tribal (and so on) violence. Additionally it would lend strength to demands for separate provinces for each ethnic group, dividing the country along ethnic lines, that, would have untold consequences.
The Real Truth Jul 02, 2011 11:26pm
The tribes of the Pashtuns are Jewish in origin. They trace their ancestry to the first set of Jews way back in time. Therefore, they are by Genetics unrelated to the majority of Pakistanis. The wise among the pashtuns will agree with me on this. Anyway, for every person in this world, the biggest challenge is to break through the stereotypes that people before you sharing your ethnicity, language has created. Enjoy This is the real truth.
Ghazala Rahman Rafiq Jul 02, 2011 11:27pm
I liked this article (and the comments that followed) because it made me think more clearly about the way we stereotype people in Pakistan. Zalan and others reflected on the possibilities of a more equitable Pakistan. Can we together help bring this about some day soon? Its up to you and me.
fuzair Jul 03, 2011 07:21am
The FCR waw a colonial law that served its purpose well then and after 1947. The key point to remember is that the 'influentials' of that era and their mullah hangers-on were more than happy to take what Islamabad gave them and keep their peoples even more down-trodden and oppressed than the vast majority of Pakistanis. And on a per capita basis the level of spending on FATA areas was greater, IIRC, for most of the time than on the rest of Pakistan. It is just that it was almost all siphoned off by a few. Come on, every MNA has his own slush fund ("development budget"). FATA has disproportionately more MNAs than the rest of Pakistan. Where is the money gone? What "development" work has been done? How many of the "influentials" families live in Peshawar or Islamabad? Remember how the British fought (literally!) to build roads and lay telephone/telegraph lines in FATA? They were trying to civilize the place and the locals did not want to be civilized. Lord Curzon, then the Viceroy, said that it would take four or five trips by the Military Steamroller to 'solve' the Frontier Question, but he did not want to be the one to order it....
gina Jul 03, 2011 10:39am
The Afghan woman embraces century old village values. She is a wife to her mujhid husband being his comfort from the cold cruelties faced on the battlefield, she is a nurturer to her children. She is regarded as the most precious and important thing in his life other than his religion and children. She is protected because she is his prize. They live simply yes. She makes tea, flatbread, prepares whatever food there is to eat. In non war times, they could grow vegetables and fruits in the lush farmland in southern Afghanistan. There would be sheep and other animals that would be raised for food. The waters had fish in them. During the seize at Tora Bora, all the Afghans took in fighters for the night, gave them a hot meal, and a warm bed and blanket because they fought for them. That is the hospitality of these people. They are private, poor in resources, rich in spirit and hospitality. If the war would end, they could go back to farming, living a simple life. Yes the woman's place is in her home, raising her children and being there for her husband. She is his companion, the same as Eve was for Adam. Allah knows best.
AU Kakakhel Jul 04, 2011 02:40pm
The administrative system devised by the British for the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan has lost its effectiveness after the onslaught of the militants in the area and needs to be reformed. The system of administration was relevant when the two important institutions i.e. the tribal elders and the office of the Political Agent could work effectively in their respective spheres. An equilibrium was thus maintained which now stands shattered by the militants. The capacity of “collective responsibility” of individual tribes to ensure order and security in their respective areas has been severely weakened which has necessitated higher state presence in the Tribal Areas. Hundreds of tribal elders have been assassinated by the militants who want to create chaos and anarchy and thus achieve their objectives. In these circumstances the Politcal Agents in the tribal areas are unable to influence the turn of events in favor of the Government and the tribes have lost their capacity to protect their men and territories. Reforms in FATA administration would therefore be the most important measure which can bring peace to the region and strengthen Pakistan.
Hafsa Jul 10, 2011 10:55am
This comment reflects ignorance on FATA. FCR is an inhuman, oppressive law that is a major hurdle between FATA and its development. British had to spend meney on FATA, not to develop the area but to keep the people oppressed. Since the British were seen as occupiers/tyrants & rightly so, the tribes fought them. You are simply equating their freedom-struggle to savagery. Rest of Pakistan & India were not so happy with they British were they? Because both countries celebrate Independence days to commemorate freedom from British rule. FCR deprives FATA MNAs from powers in their local constituencies and therefore they debate national issues instead of local ones. FATA is controlled by political agent, not any democratically elected representative. Also, there is no judiciary or other state institution in FATA. You need to look into FCR and you'd know why large number of MNAs for FATA are not a solution to the problem, since they don't have any jurisdiction. Its interesting that you quoted Lord Curzon, a colonial Lord who clearly hates these people.
Hafsa Jul 10, 2011 11:01am
Education and economic development would imporve standard of life for women, just as they'd improve it for men in FATA. Introducing state institutions, police etc would also remove the possibiilty of militant presence there.