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Pashtuns: Chowkidars or noble savages?

July 01, 2011


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.