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Reforms in Fata

October 25, 2011

THE extension of the Political Parties Act to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) is a development of historical proportions.

The political agency system started shaping up in the 1870s when the British occupied some Afghan territories and lumped them with British India.

Colonial authorities chose their finest military and civil officers to craft an administrative system that could cater to their interests in an area considered a ‘frontier’ of the empire with czarist Russia. Fata was first and foremost to be an additional buffer behind the buffer state of Afghanistan. So it was important to vigilantly guard it against political movements and influences.

The whole design of Fata was aimed at keeping the area as a political ‘non-conductor’ like a piece of dry wood that is not a conductor of electricity. One has to accept the fact that this colonial design succeeded to a great extent. Fata became more of a ‘strategic space’ than an area inhabited by people who could aspire to fundamental rights.

Fata proved itself effectively as a buffer zone by blocking the impact of social and cultural reforms introduced in Afghanistan by the modernist king Amanullah Khan and preventing these from entering eastern Pakhtun society. Similarly, Bacha Khan’s political movement remained confined to eastern Pakhtuns and could not penetrate Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, Fata could not be decolonised even after the departure of the British as the pro-West rulers of Pakistan decided to maintain the status quo. History vindicated the wisdom of the colonial strategies as politically dormant Fata was used for launching attacks against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the West’s war against the erstwhile Soviet Union. National and international terrorist groups have turned Fata into a no-go area and a black hole. The people of Fata are the worst victims of terrorists. Their tragedy is largely unregistered and unrecorded.

Political parties have had a de facto presence in Fata since the 1970s. Some groups were even able to get their nominees elected to the National Assembly and the Senate. But they could not contest elections as representatives of Pakistan’s political parties and were considered to be ‘independent candidates’. Now after the extension of the Political Parties Act to Fata, political organisations are legally within their rights to hold political activities in the area.

A meeting was convened by the governor of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Barrister Masood Kausar, to discuss a proposed code of conduct for political parties in Fata on Oct 14, 2011. Representatives of 10 political parties took part in the brainstorming session. It was pointed out during the discussion that conducting political activities involves the implementation of fundamental rights like the right to association, the right to freedom of expression, the right to vote and the right to access to information.

The aforementioned fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution of Pakistan are justifiable through higher judiciaries of the country. Since Fata is out of the jurisdiction of the higher judiciary, who will ensure the implementation of fundamental rights there? The governor of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assured participants at the meeting that his administration would leave no stone unturned to implement the people’s fundamental rights.

Political parties resolved that they would not allow armed people to join their public meetings and that they would refrain from indulging in hate speeches. The governor assured the participants that the political administration would also entertain the pleas of local political leaders for the resolution of day-to-day problems faced by the people. He asked all the political parties to introduce two representatives each in every political agency as their focal persons for coordination with the administration.

Initially, some religious parties will have the upper hand in terms of organising political activities as they are less likely to attract terrorist attacks (the Jamaat-i-Islami has already held a few public meetings). But in the long term, matters are expected to change completely as there is a lot of reaction in Fata against the brutal suppression of the local population by the extremists. Since some of the religious parties are closely identified with extremist militants, the Fata population holds them responsible for their agonies.

Apart form political parties, other elements present in civil society also need to be strengthened in Fata. Media networks and press clubs have mushroomed in Fata on an unprecedented scale but a number of Fata journalists have also been murdered or kidnapped. The state should be pro-active in providing security to journalists. A free media will play a very important role in the transformation of Fata into a modern society.

It goes without saying that socioeconomic and political development is possible only if the government is able to cleanse Fata of terrorism and reconcile the alienated tribesmen. Similarly, one would hope that the government will not wait for another 64 years to usher in the next instalment of reform to properly integrate Fata with the Pakistan state system.

The writer is a member of the Pakistan Senate.