Pakistan's move to 'merge' FATA with rest of country may be smokescreen to hide attempt to quell Pashtun protests

History is being crafted in Pakistan. The last colonial construct in South Asia has formally ended, and whether it yields positive or negative results is yet to be seen. The tribal lands called the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), once ruled directly from Islamabad, with an archaic governance system inherited from the British, have now been virtually incorporated into the neighbhouring province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. There is reason to see this as a historic change. No one really knows when was the last time the tribal areas were brought under the mantle of any government. The tribes who are celebrating this watershed merger probably owe it all to one young Pashtun who had the temerity to question the might of the Pakistan Army. Politics also played a hand, as it always does.

The tribal lands have long had a reputation characterised by tales of valour and violence in equal parts. Every invader, from Cyrus the Great to Alexander, moved through the tribal lands to reach the rich valleys of the Indus. From the east, the empires of Kanishka and the Sikhs swept into and over the tribal lands, to be followed by the British. The likes of Colonel Lawrence Kipling and Winston Churchill cut their teeth here, but at the cost of the Pashtuns. The British had used various questionable methods, including draconian Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) to control this area while instituting “the Great Game” against Tsarist expansion. Later, Pakistan began its own game in Afghanistan which is yet to end. Through all this, the tribal people have been facing hard times. The largely Pashtun population has had to undergo ingress of jihadis of all kinds, sophisticated weapons, and all the baggage that is associated with narcotics smuggling, including a debilitating addiction rate. At last count, Pakistan had 6.7 million addicts and the country consumed about 44 tonnes of processed heroin annually, more than twice that of US consumption.

Pakistans move to merge FATA with rest of country may be smokescreen to hide attempt to quell Pashtun protests

A demonstration against the constitutional amendment altering the status of FATA in Pakistan. Reuters

Pakistani adventurism, launched through various extremist groups like the Haqqani network, resulted in activities by a variety of intelligence agencies, including those belonging to China, in the area. This free-for-all resulted in a spate of violence that led to the Pakistan army launching its first ever military operation into the area. Fourteen years later, it is still at it, using methods like air strikes, artillery and enforced disappearances to ‘control’ a problem which has its solution in Islamabad. That is precisely the platform on which a young twenty-something son of a school teacher, Manzoor Pashteen, launched his Pashtun Tahfuz Movement. The movement began with just eight people, but later spread to several thousands. Pashteen is unabashedly against the Pakistan army, whom he accuses of setting a trail of violence and abuse in his lands. He receives support as people see this as the truth. After trying all kinds of ingenious ways to clip his wings, including flooding a rally ground with sewage water, it seems the Pakistani establishment has hit on a remarkable way to get this stubborn thorn out of their flesh. Overturn history and bring in Pashtun lands into Pakistani control.

The “FATA Interim Governance Regulation 2018”, signed into law by the president of Pakistan, at first glance appears to allow the merger of the tribal lands with the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. This, however, requires constitutional changes, since FATA is listed and treated separately from the rest of the country in legal terms. The thirty-first constitutional amendment passed by the provincial and National Assembly provides just that, and only awaits the president’s signature.

According Pakistani media sources familiar with the presidential order, the new law may be even more draconian than the existing Frontier Crimes Regulation that it seeks to replace. First, the all powerful Political Agent who runs the province under the direction of the President (read Army) is only renamed as Deputy Commissioner and he and his entourage remain judge, jury and just about everything else. Though Parliament passed the “Supreme Court and High Court (Extension of Jurisdiction to Federally Administered Tribal Areas) Act 2018” to much acclaim, a close reading indicates that it is the government’s wish when and whether it chooses to extend this jurisdiction to parts of FATA or the whole. In addition, no civil court in the country can question anything done in the region. Even more surprising is the (reported) clause that no new villages may be set up close to the border, and the state retains the right to relocate any such existing or new village. The old “rewaj’ (customary) system of the tribal areas continues, though it is unclear to what extent. The jirga system also continues, as does the system of “collective punishment” which means an entire village can be fined or otherwise punished for the actions of a few. All of this means that the laws of the land will remain entirely different from that of the rest of Pakistan. Then what or where is the merger?

The answer lies in the praise that is being accorded to the Pakistan army for having pushed the legislation through despite the reluctance of politicians. It is true that a committee headed by the formidable Sartaj Aziz had provided a detailed report on a future FATA merger to the Prime Minister’s Office in 2016 and that nothing was heard of it thereafter. It is also true that once the merger went through, various political parties — particularly Imran Khan and his Tehreek E Insaaf — have come forward to claim it as their victory.

In sum, it appears that the FATA merger is nothing but a shrewd move to cut the ground from under the rising Pashtun resistance movement, and provide the legal cover for even more ingress by the Pakistani security forces and their backers in the bureaucracy. Imran Khan, meanwhile, will be allowed to claim a victory on the merger. Two birds with one stone may seem a great idea at the moment. In the future however, wait for a tidal wave of disillusionment.

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Updated Date: Jun 01, 2018 20:01:34 IST

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