Why Fata has remained the ‘Federally Administered Tribal Areas’ for so many decades is not difficult to understand if one looks in some detail at the many injustices inflicted upon the area.
The list of wrongs is too long so I will restrict myself just to the infringement of democratic aspects, and those too only from 1973 onwards when the country had been given a sparkling new constitution and affairs of state were supposed to be run under it, barring the periods of the two military interventions when the constitution was either set aside or changes made to it on the whims of dictators.
What happened to Fata during periods of martial law is understandable but what the political parties did to it under their watch is beyond comprehension. The first jolt Fata suffered was at the hands of political parties, which made Article 247 (7) a part of the first ever unanimously agreed upon constitution of the country. By virtue of this article the parliamentarians forfeited their right to discuss matters relating to Fata and, instead, handed the area over to the president to deal with as he pleased, or in real terms to be administered under the draconian provisions of the Frontier Crimes Regulations.
Records do not reflect any political party having staged a walkout from parliament in protest against an article which was not only a glaring violation of democratic norms but also a curtailment of the supremacy of parliament.
No effort was made by any political party to correct this anomaly at any time in the years that passed, not even through the subsequent amendments to the constitution. In fact at the time of the 18thAmendment when amendments incorporated during the two martial laws, which the political parties thought were contrary to the spirit of democracy, were expunged the horrendous one dealing with Fata was left intact. One wonders whether they really considered it to be consistent with the spirit of democracy or left it untouched, on the advice of unseen forces, to keep the people of Fata under tight control through the FCR.
They also added insult to injury when they imposed a ban on the appointment of governors from outside a province but conveniently ignored Fata. which comes under the administrative control of the governor of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
And recently when the prime minister constituted a five-member committee on reforms in Fata and it did not include a single person from Fata no political party spoke out against this injustice. As if that was not enough, they endorsed the recommendation of the committee to integrate Fata with KP without providing any proper opportunity to the people of the area to express their wishes in a democratic manner whether they wanted the merger of Fata with KP or not. The opinion of a few handpicked people was deemed to be the voice of the people.
The facts are different. The people of Fata are divided over the two options (integration with KP or separate province). This needs to be handled with care and in accordance with the principles of democracy if it has to be acceptable to all. Imposing a unilateral decision on them will have serious repercussions which, in the given situation at the western border, should be avoided at all costs.
How can our political parties justify this move if they truly believe in the principles of democracy? Where have their values of democracy vanished when a matter of monumental importance for the people of Fata is decided by outsiders? Why do they forget that the people of Fata are as much Pakistani as other citizens of the country and it is their basic right to decide matters which are of direct concern to them? Without conducting a free and fair referendum how can the government claim support of the majority for either of the two options?
One fails to understand why the political parties want to integrate Fata with KP without going through this exercise. If the majority really supports integration, as claimed by the committee, why is there hesitation in conducting a referendum? This reluctance by itself casts doubts on the committee’s claim. Otherwise why insist on unilateral imposition of integration?
Let those not favouring the merger be proved wrong in the referendum. This would not only vindicate the committee’s claim but also further strengthen its hands. Refusing to concede this basic principle of democracy amounts to the very negation of democracy itself by a democratically elected government.
This mindset needs to be discarded immediately and the matter left to the people of Fata. Unilateral decisions imposed by outsiders in the past have had catastrophic effects so let us not repeat those mistakes. Ascertaining the will of the people from that area is a must and this should be done before implementing any decision.
Fata is not the property of an individual or a group of selected people who can decide everything for the tribespeople. The over 15 million people living there have the inalienable right to be consulted on all important issues, especially one of this magnitude. Let them take a decision through a referendum conducted under the supervision of a reputable person from there. Whatever decision they take we should accept without reservations, since it will have the support of the majority and will leave no room for any dissent.
The writer is a former ambassador.