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The Pashtun Uprising in Pakistan: A Plea for Justice

Zainab Akhter is Research Analyst – Pak Digest at Manohar Parrikar Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
Yaqoob-ul Hassan is a Research Analyst at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.
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  • May 04, 2018

    The Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA), bordering Afghanistan, is considered one of the world’s most significant geopolitical regions. These tribal regions have been the scene of the world’s deadliest military operations, which started when the Taliban and affiliated groups established full control over this area. These terrorist groups let loose through a reign of terror by killing the maliks, the tribal chiefs. The operations undertaken by the Pakistan Army to push back the Taliban uprooted millions of people from this tribal belt, resulting in a sense of alienation and injustice. But successive governments in Islamabad failed to undertake measures for the social and economic uplift of the region, which continues to be governed by the regressive British-era law called the Frontier Crimes Regulation Act (FCR). Under this law, neither parliament nor the courts have any jurisdiction over the region. Although recently the jurisdiction of the Pakistan Supreme Court has been extended to FATA, there is still a long way to go before this becomes functional. Due to the lack of access to the modern legal system, the power to decide the fate of the people in the region lies with the Jirga courts which are governed by customary laws. These jirgas will continue to remain influential and may create hurdles in the way of the official courts dispensing justice. Although, the PML-N government proposed to review and revisit the FCR in 2017, as such, no attempt was made to persuade the local politicians to support the FATA bill which recommends the merger of FATA with KP. The mainstreaming of FATA will automatically scrap the FCR. Due to political expediency, however, the PML-N government dropped the FATA bill from the priority list in spite of the Pakistan military backing the merger.

    Grievances have been brewing among the Pashtuns since the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, when the Pakistan Army started military operations in the region to clear the area of armed foreign terrorists fleeing from Afghanistan. These operations turned the region into a war zone because of the local sympathy for Afghan militants in the region. On top of this, the media and political parties have maintained a long drawn silence over the atrocities faced by the Pashtuns especially in the Tribal area during the course of the operations of the Pakistan Army.

    It is against this backdrop that the Pashtun Tahfuz Movement (PTM) has emerged. Does its emergence represent the reckoning moment for the Pashtuns? Will this movement, led by the youth, unravel the already existing fault lines between the Pashtun people and the Pakistani military establishment? What previous movements or nationalist parties could not do, the PTM has done by emerging as a pan Pashtun movement, supported not just by the Pashtuns of the tribal area or of KP, but also those settled in Sindh, Punjab and the wider diaspora who are enthusiastically extending support for the movement. This can be gauged from the fact that the PTM was able to mobilise thousands of the people in Lahore and other areas of Pakistan.

    Origins of the Pashtun Tahfuz Moment

    While the Pashtuns have a long list of complaints, one particular grievance is their stereotyped image as terrorists. The extra-judicial killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud on 13 January 2018 was the tipping point that snowballed into a countrywide Pashtun movement. Initially, the demands of the PTM were specific: the removal of military checkpoints, an end to enforced disappearances, humiliation at army checkpoints and clearance of landmines laid by the Army. According to a report by the Pakistan Red Crescent Society (PRCS), more than 2,000 cases of landmine blasts were reported in FATA during the past two years.1

    The government acknowledged the Pashtun grievances and took a few steps to address their demands. Many persons who had disappeared but were in government custody were released, the Army started clearing the landmines and the Watan card2 was deemed as no longer necessary for the tribal people. These initial positive gestures were not, however, sustained and the Pakistan Army soon reverted to the old rhetoric and accused the PTM of being sponsored by foreign elements inimical to Pakistan.

    The Army’s change of mind had much to do with the growing popularity of the PTM. For its part, the PTM openly criticized the Pakistan Army and raised slogans such as, “Wardi wale Dashatgardi Nahi challayge (we will not tolerate terror of the uniform)” and “We have to identify the place that destroyed us. It is GHQ!” This seems to have touched a raw nerve in the Pakistan Army.

    Manzoor Ahmed Pashteen, the leader of the PTM, is a 26 year old youth activist from the South Waziristan region of FATA. He first founded the Mehsud Tahafuz Movement in 2014 as an organisation for protecting the people of his tribe, the Mehsuds. When the Pakistan Army launched its operation against the Taliban in 2009, the Mehsuds were displaced to the neighbouring districts. In the name of the war on terror, the Pakistan Army not only displaced millions of Pashtuns but also killed thousands and ‘disappeared’ many others. It is this campaign during the course of the last 15 years that created resentment and anger among the Pashtuns. Pashteen claims that it is this human cost of the conflict that propelled him towards activism and, later, the fight towards the rights of the Pashtuns. According to Pashteen, he was forced to abandon his hometown, kept in unlawful detention and often harassed for suspected links with armed groups in Pakistan and those across the border in Afghanistan. Naqeebullah Mehsud’s killing united all the Pashtuns to fight against state injustice towards the FATA region and its people. With the ever increasing support and swelling number of protesters, Pashteen changed the name of the organisation from the Mehsud Tahafuz Movement to Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, a Movement for the Protection of Pashtuns.

    Another reason why the Pakistan Army is hostile to the PTM is the sympathy that the latter has received from Afghanistan. The President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, has stated that the movement is ‘historical’ and termed it a positive initiative against fundamentalism.3 Lawmakers in the Mesharano Jirga, Afghanistan’s Upper House of Parliament, wore the red and black-patterned Afghanistan-made Mazari caps — made famous by the PTM leader Manzoor Ahmad Pashteen and now also known as the Pashteen cap — to express support for the PTM’s campaign and demands. The ex-Chief of NSD Afghanistan, Amrullah Saleh, who is known for his open criticism of Pakistan, tweeted about the PTM’s success, further angering the Pakistani military establishment.

    Media Bias

    The mainstream media in Pakistan has not given any noteworthy space to the emergence of the PTM phenomenon and the people of Pakistan have remained mostly unaware of developments in FATA. It is the PTM’s activism on social media platforms that forced the mainstream media, particularly the English and electronic media, to reluctantly provide some coverage for the protesters led by PTM.

    Even the attempt by mainstream political parties – their warning to Pashtun members and affiliates that participation in PTM rallies would lead to expulsion – has not been able to hamper the protests. In particular, the participation of women in the recent Peshawar protest was a surprise element, keeping the conservative Pashtun culture in view. Manzoor Pashteen has suggested that “if by banning the media from covering the movement, Pakistan believes that it can crush and fizzle the movement, it’s mistaken”. It has to be noted here that international media organisations like the Voice of America, BBC, and Aljazeera are covering the movement on a large scale, and additionally, PTM is using social media to disseminate news about the movement to the outside world. The Pashtun diaspora is very actively following this movement. Through social media, the Pashtun diaspora has successfully internationalised the predicament of the Pashtuns in Pakistan.

    PTM’s Political Prospects

    Although the PTM is a still a movement, it has all the ingredients for graduating into a political party representing the Pashtuns. Apart from massive public support, the PTM has raised popular issues which mainstream parties, particularly the nationalists, had failed to address. Sensing the support PTM is getting, other political parties such as Awami National Party (ANP), the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PMAP) and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) initially supported it. But later they distanced themselves from the movement and also advised their party activists not to attend PTM gatherings because the latter’s ultra-ethno-nationalist views were eroding their own political appeal and agenda.


    It is too early to expect that the PTM will shape up as a viable nationalist movement, the kind seen in the past when the Pashtunistan movement was at its height. The reason for this scepticism is on account of the fact that the Pashtuns are fragmented along tribal and sub-tribal lines. In the past, this division has made them vulnerable to manipulation and left them at the receiving end of state repression. Another division among the Pashtuns is ideological in nature. They are divided between progressive and extreme conservative/ideological orientations, with no meeting ground between these two groups. This fragmented nature of their society differentiates them from the Bengalis of East Pakistan who successfully started a movement and were able to establish an independent state.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.