This piece is based on conversations with relatives who had attended the Pashtun Long March (PLM) in Islamabad, their hopes at the ten (10) day sit-in and views about the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), almost two months since the protest in Islamabad.
In part one I will compare their views about PLM & PTM. In part two I will opine on the transformation of PLM into PTM. Finally, I will discuss the State’s response to both PLM and PTM and conclude with how the State and PTM treated the individuals discussed in the first part.
Part One: From Pashtun Long March (PLM) to Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM)
A young Pashtun from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Naqeeb Mehsud, was murdered in a racially profiled killing claiming him to be a terrorist. The murderer, a police officer, was not only known for extra-judicial murders but also widely perceived to operate under the patronage of the PPP, Pakistan’s largest secular, liberal and relatively pro-Western political party.
After growing social media outrage, a core group of Mehsud tribesman from FATA, took their peaceful and relatively small protest to the streets of Pakistan’s capital city, Islamabad. The protest, termed Pashtun Long March (PLM), grew and within days had amalgamated demands to redress injustices borne by Pashtuns in Pakistan. The protest eventually ended after a ten (10) day sit-in.
A Pashtun myself, an Afridi, I have extended family and friends who reside in FATA and many had made the journey to Islamabad to have their voices heard. I was fortunate enough to hear their first-hand accounts. To them, PLM was a chance for Pashtuns from various areas and walks of life to finally channel their grievances and call attention to the usurpation of their rights. They were full of hope and had a genuine optimism that finally their issues had a platform.
Views on PLM
Among those protesting was one of my aunts. Her youngest son had been a soldier in Pakistan’s military and had lost his life in an operation against terrorists who had facilitated an attack on Peshawar’s Army Public School (APS), slaughtering 132 children. She spoke to me with absolute pride in his son’s sacrifice and then chided the state because, despite his actions, his family in FATA did not have the basic human rights all other Pakistanis took for granted.
One of my uncles, a former activist for the Pashtun nationalist party ANP, was there. He had lost a son in terrorist attack in Kabul and two grand-daughters during the Pakistan military’s anti-terror operations in FATA. His younger brother was killed by an improvised explosive devise (IED) planted by who turned out to be Afghan terrorists sheltering in FATA. His brother was targeted because his son volunteered in one of FATA’s tribal levies, the khassadaars, fighting alongside Pakistan’s Army during the anti-terror operation that had taken the lives of my uncle’s grand-daughters. PLM for him highlighted Pashtun suffering. His most vehement criticism was for nationalists who had, in his words, prostituted Pashtun suffering to play power politics. Many like him had shot down ANP and PkMAP representatives who had belatedly attended the PLM to divert the protest to spew anti-military venom.
Also present was one of my cousins, a young lawyer and political activist who had assisted the Political Parties Joint Committee on FATA Reforms (PPJCFR). A fierce critic of Pakistan’s present PMLn government for first diluting and then shelving plans for FATA reforms. Two of his brothers had died in the past decade. One was assassinated as a retaliation by a rival tribe who had ‘lost face’ after PPJCFR recommendations were shelved. My cousin had negotiated their support for the reforms, assuring them, this time, the government was sincere. The second brother was abducted by masked men in military uniforms, one among the thousands of ‘enforced disappearances’. After years of effort my cousin was able to find his shallow grave. Abducted and killed by an Afghanistan based Uzbek terror-lord’s men in retaliation for Pakistan military’s operations against them in FATA. At PLM, as part of a group of lawyers, he had heckled Asma Jehangir, Pakistan’s eminent, now deceased, human rights’ activist, when she tried to colour the protest against the military. Having worked against done strikes and for FATA reforms, he and his companions were acutely aware of her role in playing down civilian deaths by US drone strikes and her newfound enthusiasm to defend Pakistan’s now disgraced Prime Minister who, on an individual whim, had shelved FATA Reforms in 2013. For him PLM was about FATA and the rights of Pashtuns, not a stage for anyone’s anti-military rhetoric.
Another cousin, a young human rights activist, was also at PLM. Educated in the UK she had returned to Pakistan to work for gender equality, education and the empowerment of Pashtun women. She had assisted several charitable organisations including the now widely recognised ‘Girls Aware’. Married to another Pashtun activist, the couple had refused to leave Swat during the worst of the Taliban oppression, survived assassination attempts and sheltered street-orphans throughout the eventual military operation. She had encouraged many Pashtun women living in Islamabad to participate in PLM. She saw PLM as a vehicle that would finally bring the plight of Pashtun women to the fore.
They inspired my twitter thread. They had all borne the brunt of suffering and injustices befallen the people in the Pashtun dominated Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province and FATA. Despite this, they were exceedingly optimistic that finally an avenue had become available to channel their grievances and ask for their rights as Pakistanis and, above all, as human beings. PLM was a movement devoid of the power-political nationalists, hate-filled anti-military activists and cheap publicity seekers. PLM was fiercely proud of the numerous sacrifices Pashtuns had made, as civilians, soldiers and volunteers, for the defence of Pakistan.
PLM was a movement about ‘their’ rights and grievances.
Views on PTM
Two months later, another protest was held in the city of Peshawar. I spoke to them all again. They discussed PLM’s transformation into the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) which held the Peshawar rally. I was taken aback by their views and it prompted me to write this piece.
My aunt recounted how she had heard about the APS massacre of 132 children in Peshawar, how her son left home with barely a word about his deployment and how she had been informed he had fallen but there would be no burial. He had lost his life on foreign soil in an operation that targeted one of the key facilitators of the APS massacre. When she spoke of PTM her rage was barely containable. She spoke of the slogans being pushed by senior PTM members. Openly stating on numerous occasions that Pakistan’s military had itself massacred the 132 children at APS to gain sympathy. I was barely able to hold back my tears as I heard the disappointment and anger in her voice.
When I spoke to my uncle he broke down. He recalled how various fellow nationalists had visited his son in law’s home in Peshawar and made passionate declarations about his grand-daughters’ deaths. Lifelong nationalist friends had even said the girls’ father, a police officer, was in essence working with the ‘enemy’ who had killed his grand-daughters. How he had thrown them out and accused them of playing anti-military politics on the deaths of his grand-daughters. He tearfully recalled that these same people were now marching for PTM, sloganeering against the sacrifices made by countless others like his nephew who still volunteers as a khassadaar. Amid his tears he cursed the nationalists for hijacking the only hope that had arrived in decades. The man who had been so upbeat during PLM was now unable to stem his tears.
My cousin spoke about how the main culprits in the shelving of FATA reforms had shared the stage with PTM’s leaders, who embraced them without any shame or remorse. How PTM balks on FATA reforms. He recounted PTM’s leaders meeting those who had actively supported militant outfits in FATA. He began to name lawyers, politicians and journalists who had been vocal in their support for US drone strikes that killed so many FATA civilians and had ridiculed him and other activists who opposed drone strikes by a foreign government. In his words, the PTM is now indistinguishable from those who had been baying for the blood of FATA civilians to please the US government. The PTM for him was playing on ethnic tensions and the legitimate grievances of FATA’s people but seemed uninterested in working with anyone to find solutions. His depressive summary of PTM was such a contrast to his near euphoric optimism at PLM in Islamabad.
“These are not the people I stood with in Islamabad. They are now among those who I had stood against. Its politics now, plain and simple. FATA and its people are all but a prop; forgotten”.
The most stoical conversation was with my cousin who told me that she had seen this happen so many times. She said the problem lies with the way basic grievances are projected, propagated and used to mould then drive narratives in Pakistan. She spoke in detail about how she saw this happen to an organisation she had once been very proud of. When it began ‘Girls Aware’ was all about the empowerment and life-choices for girls and young women in the Northern areas. This was an honourable cause and many idealist young women like her had flocked to assist. As there is no effective state-umbrella that could seed, germinate and assist such honourable efforts, the organisation looked towards donors, domestic and foreign, to facilitate its good work. At the outset only some of the donors’ initiatives found a small but negligible place in the organisation’s work. Overtime, as the reliance on the donors for funds, propagation and international recognition grew, so did the portion of the donors’ narrative. When she stopped assisting Girls Aware, the original cause was a dwindling facade that stood ahead of a narrative almost entirely driven by the donor aspirations. In her words;
“In the beginning Girls Aware was about us, women like me, and the difficulties we face in reaching our potential. It’s now about what the donors wish to talk about, it’s no longer about us”.
She claimed PTM was the latest in a long line of narrative usurpations in Pakistan’s civil discourse. Those who coat-tail donor narratives will promote PTM and those who suspect everything, good or bad, donors push will brand PTM as traitors. The cycle will repeat itself irrespective of the original cause’s purity. She ended on the depressing note that in the absence of indigenous mechanisms to channel grievances, the ‘narrative-industry’ will remain the primary actor in Pakistan’s civil society and opposed by self-branded ‘patriots’.
In little more than two months, a movement that had inspired so much optimism amongst these four people has left them feeling irrelevant, angered and even betrayed. The demand for their right or the need for their grievances to be heard has not changed for the better, but the movement they thought would amplify their voice has changed for the worse.