By: Suraya Raiszada
One of the most important developments in Pakistan in last two years is the emergence of a powerful but nonviolent civil rights movement among the country’s long-suffering Pashtun minority. The movement, popular and led by youth, is known as the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) or Movement for the Protection of Pashtuns.
Manzoor Pashteen, 27 years old, is leading a growingly powerful movement in Pakistan that claims justice for the Pashtuns, a population which counts tens of thousands of victims of terrorism and its repression since 9/11.
Events over the past year have shown that this organic grassroots movement hasn’t been a temporary outburst of youthful unrest and anger in a war-ravaged and marginalized community. Instead, the PTM has come to represent a resilient, peaceful, and popular initiative that has withstood extensive state repression, persecution, and a media blackout since its inception.
The movement has consistently but peacefully protested against Pakistani state policies that have imposed an armed conflict on the underdeveloped Pashtun homeland in Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and southwestern Balochistan provinces.
The early January 2018 murder of Naqeebullah Mehsud, a young aspiring Pashtun model, in a fake police encounter in Pakistan’s southern seaport city of Karachi triggered an explosion of anger in the western districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, formerly called the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). This anger among the Pashtuns had built up over decades through various cycles of the Afghan war and the so-called War on Terrorism after 9/11. These events brought the Pashtun people the three Ds: death, destruction, and displacement.
In an earlier article published in Diplomat, a PTM leading member Afrasiab Khattak said that the Pashtun Long March, prompted by Mehsud’s murder, proved a rallying cry for Pashtuns, adding that they were sick and tired of the war and the disempowerment imposed on them by decades of the Pakistani security establishment’s misguided Afghan policy.
The protest that originated from the South Waziristan district went from Dera Ismail Khan through Peshawar valley, the Pashtun heartland, to Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, in the first week of February 2018. After a few days of pressure and persuasion, the traditional tribal elites left the protest, which resulted in the young leaders of the PTM taking over. The movement’s charismatic leader, Manzoor Ahmad Pashteen, has successfully navigated troubled waters.
The Islamabad sit-in gave birth to the country’s most dynamic, active, and nonviolent youth political uprising. It has taken the Pashtun belt in Pakistan by storm and mobilized Pashtun diasporas in several countries on an unprecedented scale. In massive protest gatherings, it has successfully taken its message to the big cities of Pakistan like Karachi, the eastern city of Lahore, Quetta in the southwest, and the northern metropolis of Peshawar.
“What we witnessed over the past year shows that the PTM braved all hurdles on its path, holding big protest rallies in places like the northwestern Swat Valley, Swabi, and Karachi. Its recent rallies in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s southern cities of Bannu and Tank have been particularly impressive. Pakistani political observers have been pleasantly surprised by women’s participation in public meetings in conservative areas like Bannu,” Khattak said.
It is believed that the movement has given voice to the voiceless people of former FATA, who for decades were at the receiving end of extremist violence and state oppression. But the PTM’s anti-war narrative has resonated with Pashtun masses in neighboring Afghanistan and elsewhere. Despite promises at the highest level, the Pakistani state has failed to effectively address grave abuses such as enforced disappearances, landmines, and mistreatment by security forces.
The no implementation of legal and administrative reforms outlined at the time of FATA’s merger into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa last year has left more than 6 million Pashtun residents of these regions in legal limbo and an administrative vacuum. Since military authorities run the day-to-day administration in the area without judiciary and other civilian institutions, voices are raised against the uniformed bureaucracy during the agitation, which invariably attracts its wrath.
Pakistani military leaders have issued several public warnings against the movement for crossing what they said were undefined “red lines.” But PTM leaders have emphasized the need for respect of the fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution. They complain that Mehsud’s murderers roam free after more than a year of calling for justice.
Recently the man leading protests accusing Pakistan’s army of human rights abuses has been arrested for alleged criminal conspiracy and sedition. Manzoor Pashteen was taken into custody in Peshawar along with nine others from his Pashtun Protection Movement.
A fellow protest leader said he was being punished for simply demanding human rights. The powerful military, unused to criticism, denies wrongdoing. Pashteen, a charismatic former veterinary student who shot to prominence two years ago, has become the face of the Pashtun Tahaffuz (Protection) Movement (PTM), in a country where few openly challenge the military.
The policy of harassment and oppression adopted by the country’s security institutions toward PTM isn’t expected to bring positive results. Banning its coverage by the mainstream media hasn’t been able to stop the movement from delivering its message to the masses.
Historically in Pakistan such movements have often fizzled out or been co-opted by the state – but the PTM has grown and grown in strength. All the while its 27-year-old leader with his trademark red cap has steadfastly maintained a modest lifestyle – he doesn’t even have a security detail to speak of.
The state seems to have been unsure how to act against him, and the decision to detain him appeared sudden. Charges were laid on 21 January, but it took a week to make the arrest.
Almost laughably, the reason cited for the move is him speaking in an insulting manner about Pakistan and refusing to accept the constitution, when he has often stressed in his speeches the need to uphold the law.
Now the state has finally made its move, how will the PTM respond? Manzoor Pashteen ensured that while he led the movement, no violence took place. But will his supporters now show the same discipline?
Meanwhile the Afghan government considering the Amnesty International call, has asked Pakistani government to encourage and support civil demonstrations rather to suppress and arrest the civil activists.
After four decades and the deaths and displacement of millions of Pashtuns, Pakistan has gained little. The PTM, a manifestation of Pashtun social awareness, is likely to remain a major political player. Pakistan has lost its friends in Afghanistan as most Afghans see Islamabad as the primary source of their misery.
It is the time that the generals in Rawalpindi to address historic wrongs and choose the right course. Honest answers to the PTM’s demands — through the formation of a truth and reconciliation commission that the movement has called for — would be a good beginning.
A strategic shift, leading to a focus on Pakistanis’ welfare rather than endless war, is needed.
Trying to suppress dissent through threats is likely to result only in instability and greater alienation of the Pashtuns and other minorities.
It’s time for the Pakistani generals to embrace the best course for their country rather than their interests. They must accept the supremacy of the Pakistani Constitution and heed the rule of law.