The unlettered scholars

September 20,2016

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Reducing knowledge to what is written in the text is, in all fairness, a form of ignorance of the modern man. Some of those who have never been to schools and have no academic laurels would outsmart those with formal qualifications in analysing and solving social problems.

I call such people scholars of context who, unlike their academic counterparts (scholars of text), learn through experience, reflection and extensive interaction with others. They learn from the open book of history and from their surroundings.

Where should one find the scholars of context? They can be found in such remote and rugged rural enclaves as Fata. I have had frequent interactions with such scholars in Nihagdara (a remote area in Dir to which I belong and which has profound cultural similarity with Fata) on different social issues and have always found myself totally overwhelmed.

Locally called Malaks (chieftains), they are endowed with all the essential qualities of a typical leader – wisdom, courage, humility, and the ability to inspire and persuade others.

The Malaks derive their wisdom by internalising and relating traditions, values and historical records to different situations in a way that harmonises change with order. For dispute resolution, for example, they complement their contextual knowledge with public trust by consistently applying Jirga rules across situations and by participating in almost all events/ceremonies important to people.

By making effective use of rhetoric, aphorisms, and stories, they are able to persuade rival tribes and groups to accept and implement their verdict in letter and spirit.

It was probably for this and other reasons that the British used the jirga system (a grand assembly of Malaks) in Fata to maintain law and order in the tribal areas and dispense justice there. The Malaks acted as intermediaries between the government and the people in all important matters.

Despite some inherent flaws in the system and existence of such draconian laws as the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR), stability and order prevailed throughout the tribal belt. After independence, Pakistan followed the British model with somewhat more focus on socio-economic development of the area and some necessary reforms in administration.

For good or bad, the authority of Malaks and the autonomy of Fata have now come under scrutiny following the military operations against militant groups. The emergence of these groups and their subversive activities in Pakistan, many people believe, have to do largely with the special status granted to Fata. This now needs to be done away with through political and social reforms as a permanent solution to the problem of terrorism.

One can contest the basis of such assertions but no one can argue against the need for genuine reforms which would require, among other considerations, consensus-building in Fata by involving the scholars of context – the Malaks – at every stage.

It would be certainly naïve to expect any reforms to yield the desired results without understanding the context in which they are introduced. One can say with conviction that no politician or bureaucrat sitting in Islamabad, with the advice of consultants from donor agencies, can ever come up with an effective reform model.

Top-down reform models are generally good on paper but real problems crop up once they are put into effect. After accession, the states of Dir and Swat were brought under the judicial and administrative system of Pakistan without allowing sufficient time for their psychological transition from one system of governance to another. This led to the birth of the Tehreek-e-Nefazi-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM) in Dir and the rise of Mullah Fazlullah.

If the government is serious about reforms in Fata and is not interested in a replay of what happened in Dir and Swat a few years back, it should let local leaders decide the nature, scope, and pace of reforms. Imposing an order that does not fit into the local context or which lacks the backing of the locals is likely to prove counter-productive.

The most challenging task for reformers, therefore, would be how to strike a balance between the universally accepted fundamental human rights and the customs, traditions, and values prevailing in Fata.

The writer teaches at the Sarhad

University. Email:


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