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Pashtuns stage anti-Pakistan protests: India must abandon 'soft-power' approach to Afghanistan, capitalise on 'historic' opportunity

India has a golden opportunity to renew its historic association with Pashtuns, who are a critical factor in ensuring peace in the Pashtun tribal heartland that straddles the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Events of the last few days in Pakistan have provided India with this rare chance to showcase the non-violent strand of its national character and diplomatic personality. The Narendra Modi government cannot afford to lose this historic opportunity to secure its national interests.

When the Pashtun tribesmen of Pakistan began a historic protest against the extrajudicial killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud, they could not have visualised that it would attract such a huge publicity and attention, both nationally and internationally. The protest ended on 10 February only after the adviser to Pakistani prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi assured the protesters of justice.

Mehsud, a South Waziristan resident, was among the four people killed in an encounter led by a high-ranking police officer, Malir Rao Anwar, in Karachi in mid-January on suspicion of being a Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) terrorist. Though, a high-level inquiry committee of police officials concluded that Mehsud was killed in a "fake encounter" and did not have any militant tendencies.

People chant slogans and hold signs as they condemn the death of Naqibullah Mehsud in Karachi. Reuters

People chant slogans and hold signs as they condemn the death of Naqibullah Mehsud in Karachi. Reuters

While it may be premature to declare the Pashtun protest march a success, its significance is unprecedented. Despite having no charismatic leader and no sensationalist sloganeering, the protesters were able to stay organised as well as peaceful. It also reflected their deep-rooted yearning for peace amid so much chaos, bloodshed and seemingly endless conflict.

It is no secret that Islamabad's ties with its tribesmen along the disputed Afghan border have remained largely transactional. Pashtuns living on both sides of the controversial Durand Line have never accepted the arbitrary demarcation of the boundary between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Pakistan has always struggled to define the basis of its nationalism beyond opposition to India. The division of Pakistan in 1971 and several ethnic movements have proved that Islam cannot be the sole uniting factor for the survival of a Pakistani nation. The absence of any positive strand in its nationalism has only led Pakistani rulers to buttress its Islamic credentials more ruthlessly. Its involvement in Afghan affairs is a testimony to this fact. Islamabad's flawed policy of looking at Kabul from the anti-India prism and as a zero-sum game has made the lives of millions of Pashtuns a living hell.

Pakistan's security establishment often views land-locked Afghanistan as Pakistan's fifth province. By seeking 'strategic depth', Pakistani generals want Afghanistan as its backyard. For this to happen, support of Pakistan's own Pashtun people is very critical. The Pakistani state has been manipulating the Pashtun population on both sides of the Durand Line for its stratagems against nationalist forces in Afghanistan.

Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA), which has been treated as a strategic playground, continues to witness a long battle between the Pakistan military and the anti-Pakistan militants. Pakistan has deliberately ignored the genuine demands of the people in FATA as the area has been used to mount attacks against Afghanistan.

The objective is simple: achievement of 'strategic depth'. Caught in the crossfire, the ordinary Pashtuns have been paying a very heavy price for Pakistan's treacherous games.

Many Pashtuns have been subjected to extrajudicial killings and arbitrary detentions. Thousands have fled their homes to safer places. The time has come for India to support Pashtuns in their legitimate struggle for peace and justice.

India's recent association with Pashtuns goes back to Mahatma Gandhi's non-violent struggle against the British rule in India. There have been very few political movements against tyrannical foreign occupations that remained largely non-violent in their vision and mission. The Gandhian struggle was one such movement that attracted disciples and associates from a variety of religious and regional backgrounds in the Indian sub-continent.

Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, widely known in India as 'Frontier Gandhi' and Badshah Khan or as 'Bacha Khan' in his native place, the North West Frontier Province, now called Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, was one such fearless figure who never gave up his commitment to peace and non-violence throughout his turbulent life. Challenging the stereotypes associated with his Pashtun or Pukhtun tribe, Khan dedicated most of his life teaching his fellow tribesmen the enduring value of peace and tolerance in their struggle against inhumanity and injustice.

The reason Khan wholeheartedly adopted the Gandhian non-violence was his firm belief that it resonated with the core Islamic values. The followers of 'Khudai Khidmatgars' (Servants of God), a nonviolent, democratic and secular liberation movement that he founded, struggled alongside Gandhi and the Congress party for a united and secular Indian nation. The Khudai Khidmatgars dressed in red to demonstrate they were willing to shed their own blood but not that of others.

Khan did not agree to British India's partition on religious grounds and the consequent creation of a Muslim state, Pakistan, as he believed that people belonging to different faiths can live together peacefully. He told Gandhi: "We Pakhtuns stood by you and had undergone great sacrifices for attaining freedom. But you have deserted us and thrown us to the wolves".

Though the sense of betrayal was deep, it did not let him break his association with India. Following the creation of the theocratic state of Pakistan, 'Frontier Gandhi' had to suffer at the hands of Pakistan's authoritarian regimes, which accused him of spreading separatist tendencies. But despite being continuously victimised, his faith in non-violence never wavered.

Unsurprisingly, his political journey and the values he represented are almost absent from Pakistan's history books. But what is deeply surprisingly, and disturbing, is the manner in which the Indian state has forgotten the Pashtun champion of non-violent struggle. Although the Rajiv Gandhi government bestowed upon him the nation's highest award, the Bharat Ratna, in 1987, India could not utilise its long and proud association with Khan for its soft-power diplomacy in the last two decades. It must do it now, and aggressively.

India and Afghanistan, except the brief Taliban era, have had very warm relations. Besides having long historical and cultural ties, common opposition to Pakistan's destructive policies is another reason why the two nations have maintained cordial relations. Who can deny this historical reality that Pakistan represents a territory which was carved out of India and Afghanistan? And now, this territory is being utilised to spread terror and mayhem across South Asia and beyond.

The Afghan president Ashraf Ghani did try his best to build bridges with Pakistan after being elected but had to turn to New Delhi for help after Islamabad's security establishment failed to deliver on its promises to bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table. Ghani rightly believes the fighting in Afghanistan can be stopped only if Pakistan reins in the Afghan Taliban insurgents operating from its safe havens.

Bushra Gohar, the vice-president of Awami National Party has termed the recent non-violent protest demonstration as a "historic step forward" for Pashtuns. She said, "I see it as a continuation of the non-violent resistance against the British by Khan and his followers, the Khudai Khidmatgars. The peaceful resistance has broken the myth that Pashtuns are violent or support terrorism."

On 8 February, the Afghan ambassador to the United States, Hamdullah Mohib, tweeted:

Echoing this sentiment, Ghani also tweeted:

Washington policymakers must stick to the template outlined by President Donald Trump in August last year and repeated in subsequent speeches and tweets. Trump's new Afghan policy has put Pakistan on notice against harbouring terrorists while asking India to increase its supportive role in Afghanistan.

Since Pakistan has failed to deliver its end of the bargain in Afghanistan, New Delhi must join hands with Kabul to convince the United States to use a range of robust diplomatic, economic and military coercive tools at the American disposal against Pakistan's security establishment.

On 14 February, the United States director of National Intelligence Dan Coats clearly told a hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee that despite America's frequent requests to act more, the Pakistan military is only trying to appear tough against the Afghan Taliban: "Pakistan-based militant groups continue to take advantage of their safe haven to conduct attacks in India, in Afghanistan, and including US interests therein."

Though the Afghan security forces are fighting valiantly against the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network, the former cannot be expected to succeed in neutralising the latter tucked away safely in Pakistani cities.

As Khan was buried in the Afghan city of Jalalabad in 1988, India and Afghanistan have one more historic link that unites them further. Khan deeply desired a united India. Only when he failed in his mission, he began to demand autonomy for the Pashtuns of Pakistan. It is time for the Modi government to support the Pashtuns in their legitimate struggle for greater autonomy which cannot be achieved without countering Pakistan's dangerous geopolitical manoeuvrings.

Since the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001, India has pursued a 'soft-power' approach in Afghanistan by steering clear of an overtly security-centric role. As Pakistani Pashtuns have mocked Islamabad's security establishment by showcasing the power of nonviolence, India must also step up its diplomatic efforts to engage the prominent Pashtun leaders, not only from Afghanistan but also from Pakistan, to emphasise the commonality of their non-violent struggle against repression and injustice. This soft-power diplomacy has the potential to be the best antidote to Islamic radicalisation of Pashtuns, represented by the Taliban and engineered by Pakistan.


Published Date: Feb 14, 2018 15:17 PM | Updated Date: Feb 14, 2018 15:17 PM

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