EGALITARIAN tribal societies tend to view all people as equal and prefer an informal leadership based on abilities as opposed to authoritarian structures.

Leaders in such tribal organisations gained their positions because of their expertise in mediating problems within the tribe and in organising wars. Their status was achieved; it was not inherited by their sons, for there were always potential rivals to seize any opportunity to replace the incumbent or his heir. Such a leader had limited inherent power because the ability to command without consent was severely limited. British India came in contact with the Pakhtun tribes after the annexation of Punjab in 1849. Having failed to overcome their fierce tribal resistance they introduced a system of indirect control of the tribes through their own traditional leaders called maliks. The British created a loyal and hereditary local elite that was rewarded with a special status, financial benefits and official recognition of influence over the tribes.

This was a departure from the norms of an egalitarian Pakhtun tribal society that had a transient leadership that had to prove its effectiveness in peace as well as in war.

According to Akbar Ahmad, former political agent and scholar: “The prejudice against ranks and titles and the hierarchy they imply is strong in tribal society and is summed up by the choice the Mehsud mashar [elder] speaking on behalf of the clan elders gave the British: ‘Blow us all up with the cannons or make all 18,000 of us nawabs’.”Lord Curzon, exasperated with the failure of maliki system remarked: “No patchwork scheme — and all our present schemes, blockades, allowances etc., are mere patchwork — will settle the Waziristan problem.”

Howell, the political agent of South Waziristan in the early 20th century admitted in the context of the nominated maliks, “Tribal society is not static, and a list [of maliks] that is perfect today will be imperfect next week”. Referring to the opinion of other political officials, he said the “maliki system was not really suited to the democratic Wazir tribes”.

Some scholars view the maliks’ role of representing their tribes as a misrepresentation of reality. The maliks were paid allowances by the British in return for controlling their tribes; their role can thus be seen more accurately as part of the colonial administration instead of the colonised.

The tribal system codified in the Frontier Crimes Regulation 1901 was, at best, useful as an ad hoc and temporary measure to provide a semblance of security. But due to its inherent flaws, the system never fully secured the area and the British faced a major tribal revolt every decade or two not only in Waziristan but across the tribal belt.

In 1950, Qazi Isa, a close associate of Jinnah, appealed to the government to change the system in Balochistan’s tribal areas. He wrote: “The only means of contact that our officials have got with the tribesmen is through the so-called tribal leaders — a much discredited lot imposed upon the tribesmen by the former alien government.” He offered his services to prove that direct contacts with the people can achieve a lot. But the bureaucracy shot down this proposal.

Successive governments in Pakistan continued to follow the British policy but, over time, the authenticity and legitimacy of tribal maliks further vitiated due to massive socio-economic changes, rise of the religious leadership and some government reforms.

Post-Independence tribal leaders mostly lacked the competence and statesmanship of their fathers and grandfathers. Many of them failed to acquire the education and skills needed to influence decision-making or the ability to address complex issues of the day.

Most of the traditional leaders sought personal economic gain at the expense of community interests thereby losing the moral authority and legitimacy to represent the tribes.

The increase in the educational level of the common masses and the rise of a large number of professionals also overshadowed traditional leaders in dealings with state institutions and the bureaucracy.

Large numbers of tribesmen moved to large cities of Pakistan and the Middle East for work where they were exposed to different environments which led to a significant change in their outlook on tribal governing structures.

The rise of a new moneyed class in tribal society posed new challenges to the traditional leadership. Some have enormous resources at their disposal to make the right contacts, influence people in the corridors of power and offer huge amounts to gain power as evident from the recent Senate elections.

From the end of the 1980s, a social system based on power-sharing among tribal leaders, the merchant class and religious leaders started to ultimately give way to one dominated by religious elements which altered the traditional balance of power.

The introduction of adult franchise in 1996 was a very important reform which brought about significant change in the socio-political life of the tribal people but it also undermined the influence of the traditional political leadership.

The extension of the Political Parties Ordinance 2002 to Fata will further erode the importance of Fata’s traditional leaders as people will develop linkages with national leaders independently.

The system of governance introduced over a century ago was unsuitable to the social ethos and egalitarian culture of the tribal society. It lacked the flexibility to adapt to changing socioeconomic and political conditions that affected the power of the maliks. The fact that Fata has lagged far behind in all fields of development and most of it is up in arms is proof of the system’s failure. The issue in Fata is not to revive the malik system but to integrate the people with the mainstream Pakistani society.

The writer is a retired army officer from Fata.

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