The killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud, a young Pashtun from Waziristan in Karachi on January 13, 2018, opened the floodgates of protests by the Pashtuns, giving rise to the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), which roughly translates into ‘Movement for Safety and Security of the Pashtuns’. The movement’s main aim was to highlight the plight of the Pashtun community, the second largest ethnic group in Pakistan, constituting nearly 15.42 per cent of the population.
Since its beginning, PTM has organized protest rallies in most of the major cities including Quetta, Peshawar, Lahore, Swat, Karachi, Dera Ismail Khan, Swab and Bannu. The latest rally was held in Tank, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, on January 13, 2019, to observe the first anniversary of the killing of Mehsud. Against the backdrop of the tight scrutiny from the government of the media coverage of the PTM protests and arrest of prominent Pashtun leader and Member of Parliament Alamzeb Mehsud on January 21, 2019 under the provisions of the anti-terrorism law, this article seeks to place in perspective the significances of PTM in Pakistan’s overall political landscape.
Pashtuns mostly occupy the north-western part of the country and have the second largest representation in the Pakistan Army as well. As an ethnic community straddling two sovereign countries — Pakistan and Afghanistan, Pashtuns share common nationalist feelings. Given persistent ethnic and familial ties between the Pashtuns in both countries and intermittent demand from Afghan leaders for a greater Afghanistan comprising of the Pashtun areas in Pakistan, any manifestation of Pashtun nationalism in Pakistan is a point of worry for the Pakistani authorities, as it is often construed as a potentially disintegrative development.
The Af-Pak border region has been in turmoil since the days of the Afghan jihad, when the Pakistani tribal areas along the border hosted the mujahedeen fighting the Soviet forces. Post-9/11, the tribal areas again came under focus as Al Qaeda terrorists and Taliban cadres fleeing Afghanistan landed up there forcing the Pakistan Army to launch multiple operations to either eliminate or flush out these elements. In the days since, the whole area dominated by the Pashtuns has witnessed armed action leading to death, deprivation, disappearances and large-scale displacement of civilian population. The resultant anxieties and concerns have naturally flown into the movement that we see today in the shape of the PTM.
The movement led by Manzoor Pastheen gained lots of traction in January 2018 and triggered protests in big cities like Lahore and Karachi where PTM leaders addressed huge public rallies. This was seen as the largest non-violent protests in Pakistan and thus attracted considerable international attention. Although there was only sporadic and controlled reporting of the movement in the Pakistani media, the international media covered the issue in greater detail. This encouraged PTM members to organize more rallies and reiterate their demands, which included the removal of the draconian Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR), the release of missing persons, stopping the humiliation of Pashtuns at security checkpoints, and removal of landmines in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
The pressure on the Pakistan government was such that it had to give in to some of the movement’s demands. Firstly, it agreed to no longer impose curfews in the region and promised to develop a mechanism to find the missing persons. Most important of all, the FATA Interim Governance Regulation 2018, signed by the President of Pakistan on May 28, 2018, replaced the FCR and outlined how FATA would be governed, “within a timeframe of two years”, even as the region is merged with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP).
Interestingly, this new interim regulation placed a check on the actions of the security forces that previously operated in the backdrop of the prevailing lawlessness in the region. Thanks to the PTM, the public pressure around the Naqeebullah case was such that the then Senior Superintendent of Police of Karachi’s Malir District, Rao Anwar Ahmed Khan, who led the fake encounter of Mehsud, was forced to go into hiding. The movement became so prominent that some analysts in Pakistan as well as outside predicated that it could turn into a political party. Riding on the high tides of the PTM, Pashtun leaders Alamzeb Mehsud and Ali Wazir fought the general elections of 2018 as independent candidates and secured their respective seats in the parliament. They kept supporting the PTM and voiced the rights of the Pashtuns at the political level and therefore faced the wrath of the PTI government.
By over-emphasizing the negative role of the Pakistan Army in the region, the PTM unwittingly let the movement lose steam a few months later. The overuse of the term, Yeh jo dehshat gardi hai, iss ke peechhay wardi hai (‘Behind this terrorism is the uniformed army’) by PTM protesters irritated the Pakistan Army, which, in turn, accused the PTM of being a tool of anti-Pakistan forces at the regional and international levels, alluding to the involvement of Indian agencies. Therefore, rather than addressing PTM’s genuine grievances, the then PML-N government went on the defensive. With Imran Khan’s government, which assumed power in August 2018 and is regarded as an extension of the Pakistan Army, there is very little attention being paid to PTM and its demands.
Charging the PTM of being supported by an external hand, Pakistani authorities have restricted the coverage the movement’s activities get, both in local as well as international media. Radio Mashaal, a Pashto language broadcaster funded by the US, was banned and blocked for covering PTM’s activities. Voice of America’s Urdu Language website, Deewa, which primarily catered to the Pashto-speaking audience in the border regions near Afghanistan, was sporadically blocked in October 2018 and then permanently dropped by various service providers in December 2018. Additionally, various police cases were filed against journalists covering the local rallies of the PTM.
These bans and coercive scrutiny of the media came at a time when the Pashtun activists were charging that freedom of expression in Pakistan was under severe attack. Alamzeb Mehsud and Ali Wazir were stopped from travelling to Dubai to attend a Pashtun Cultural event and their names were put on the Exit Control List (ECL). The recent arrest of Alamzeb on the pretext of rioting and inciting hatred at a PTM protest demonstration in Karachi yet again reflects the coercive strategy of the government to muzzle the movement.
The balance sheet of PTM after one year of rallies and protests is not as impressive as it promised to be. Although it has been able to mainstream the Pashtun issue in Pakistan and inspired popular empathy, its anti-establishment thrust has made it a soft target of the pro-establishment media and political actors. The perception created by the state that it is acting as a proxy of outside powers, especially India, to de-stabilise Pakistan, has made it lose steam too soon. Even if the allegation has no evidence whatsoever, it has deep resonance in Pakistani society, where anti-India sentiments have been periodically mobilised by the security establishment as a rallying point to stave off the efforts of ethnic groups demanding their rights.
While Manzoor Pastheen and PTM were given wide space in the Pakistani media initially, there was a complete ban on the coverage of its rallies after rumours of it being sponsored by foreign agencies did the rounds. The international media was not granted access to the Pashtuns. Soon, the PTM’s demand to try and punish Rao Anwar, who led the fake encounter of Naqeebullah Mehsud, was ignored by the media. Instead of taking any action against the erring policeman, the state has allowed him to go underground. Rao Anwar has been allegedly provided a safe haven by the Army, according to Pakistani media.
Against this backdrop, the recent protests in Tank, KP, was a bit of a surprise. The massive gathering of Pashtuns in Tank to observe the first anniversary of the murder of Naqeebullah Mehsud signalled the persistence of Pashtun nationalist sentiments and the continued existence of a sense of grievance among the Pashtuns vis-à-vis the state of Pakistan. Addressing the gathering, Manzoor Pastheen reiterated his resolve to continue the protests “even if it takes hundred years” to seek justice through peaceful means.
However, predictably, there was no coverage of the event in the Pakistani media. The international media also seems to have lost interest in the issue. Only sporadic amateur videos shot by the protesters are available in the social media in Pashto language. In an interesting article in Al Jazeera, Taha Siddiqui, who fled the country after abduction attempt, and is now living in exile in France, argued forcefully that efforts by the Pakistani government to silence the movement have backfired. He stressed that as a “result of this state-led harassment campaign, the PTM gained more traction and its gatherings are becoming larger than ever”. He cautioned the government that this movement, although nonviolent until now, has the potential to become violent, if the government continues with its heavy-handed tactics to suppress it.
At the political level, the PTI governments in KP and in Islamabad have raised the aspirations of the people but not done anything to fulfil them. The presence of a large number of protesters in Tank may also indicate popular disillusionment with the way the present government has treated the Pashtuns. In this context, it remains uncontested that the PTM is a grassroots movement of the Pashtuns demanding basic rights within the constitution. It thus has the potential to transform itself into a political party. But if the Pakistan government continues to handle the Pashtun issue with an iron fist, the movement has the potential to transform into a violent struggle in an environment where gun-culture reigns supreme. A lot will thus depend on the state’s overall policy towards the Pashtuns in general and the PTM in particular.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.