Mainstreaming or cornering Fata?

October 26,2016

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Fata, known for its elusive terrain and fabled tribesmen, has been turned into an untenable area purportedly to eliminate terrorists’ cubby holes. The success of Operation Zarb-e-Azb, launched in 2014, served as a finale to the already impoverished area. Fata now awaits its next blowback in the guise of reforms and a possible merger with the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Fata comprises seven tribal agencies: Bajaur, Mohmand, Khyber, Kurram, Orakzai, North Waziristan, South Waziristan and six tribal areas known as the Frontier Regions (FR).

Since the advent of British colonialism, the region has been administered on the basis of pursuing the geo-strategic interests of the ruling powers – resulting in immense human, social, cultural, economic and political costs paid by its dwellers.

Historically, Fata remained the battlefield of the Great Game, cold war post World War II and the current ‘war on terror’, reducing the region into a strategic black hole and preventing any socio-economic and political reforms. The British imposed administrative tribalism in the form of the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) initially in the vast adjoining North West and South West regions mainly populated by the Pakhtuns. The FCR is now reduced to Fata.

I call it administrative tribalism because the tribes lost their political and cultural freedom when the all-powerful ‘political agent’ surrogated the authority of appointing Maliks and jirga members, answerable to the political administration instead of the people. The system was imposed on the people and reforms were denied to Fata due to geo-strategic considerations.

The push for Fata reforms found a new momentum in the aftermath of the Army Public School (APS) tragedy whereby the prime minster of Pakistan appointed a Fata reforms committee headed by Sartaj Aziz. The committee submitted its findings and recommendations last August.

Unfortunately, as has often happened to Fata reforms initiatives, the committee’s findings are accurate as far as diagnosing the syndrome is concerned. But its recommendations are no more than prescribing the same treatment which caused the problem.

The committee considered possible scenarios: ‘(i) maintain the status quo but introduce judicial/administrative reforms and increase focus on development activities; (ii) create a Fata council on the pattern of Gilgit-Baltistan; (iii) make Fata a separate province; and (iv) integrate Fata with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’. The committee chose the last option of merging Fata with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa but its recommendation for the Tribal Areas Rewaj Act obscures the government’s real intentions.

As the proposed Rewaj Act incorporates the institution of officially appointed jirgas along with other components of the FCR, except the section of collective responsibility, the abolition and continued enactment of the latter challenges the efficacy of the ‘betoken’ reforms. The merging of Fata into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in such a way will be an imposition of the retrogressive form of Pata, relegating it to a dark corner of the province (In 1992, the Supreme Court of Pakistan passed a verdict declaring the Pata Regulation ultra vires to the constitution).

In substance, the proposed reforms will only do away with the nomenclature of Fata and some sections of the notorious FCR that deal with collective responsibility which holds the entire tribe responsible for any breach by individual members. But the officially appointed jirga system will be retained to dispense justice in civil and criminal matters.

The committee does not recommend anything new or progressive but replicates the fiasco of Pata in a more retrogressive form. The former princely states of Amb, Dir, Swat, Chitral along with Malakand Agency, Indus Kohistan, Kala Dhaka, Battagram and Allai incorporated into the Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (Pata) were governed by the Pata regulation, which invested administrative and judicial power in the district administration. The disposal of justice was entrusted into the hands of an officially appointed jirga headed by the deputy and assistant commissioners. As a result, instead of bringing other areas at par, Swat lost its hard-earned development, particularly in the communication, education and health sectors along with forests due to incorporation in Pata.

The system resulted in resentment because, unlike the traditional jirgas functioning under the code of Pakhtunwali, the officially appointed jirgas were neither representative nor answerable to the people but to their appointing authority. The situation was exploited and manipulated not only by the administration for its vested interests but also by Sufi Mohammad and Mullah Fazlullah (FM Mullah), the consequences of which are not a distant memory.

The committee recommended that by merging Fata into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, as Pata, the people of the region would also elect their representatives to the provincial assemblies. What would be its efficacy under the proposed reforms if Fata takes the form of Pata? Its provincial legislators, like the current Pata, will take part in legislation but laws passed by the provincial assemblies will not be directly applicable to the region until extended by the president through the governor of the province. Various laws passed by the provincial assembly are yet to be extended to the current Pata.

One of the reasons highlighted by the committee’s findings and recommendations is the abysmal poverty and under-development in Fata, which needs special measures and initiatives to bring it at par with other parts of the province. But the question is: how is it possible through a merger? It is no secret that the bulk of the provincial development and special funds go to the home district and adjoining areas of whoever the chief minister of the time is. So far no special initiative has been taken for the existing Pata, particularly extremely backward areas like Indus Kohistan, Shangla and Battagram.

If the intended reforms are meant to redress the injustice suffered by the people of Fata through political, legal and developmental initiatives, instead of the phased relegation of Fata as a dark corner of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the president and parliament should consider the option of an elected council in Fata and governor, or a separate province as central or middle Pakhtunkhwa.

The elected council should be empowered to legislate and reform the administrative and judicial system for the region. But a separate province seems to be a permanent and plausible solution not only for rapid socioeconomic but also political development. As far as the sustainability of a separate province is concerned, if the former NWFP and later the province of British Balochistan could be carved out and sustained at the beginning of the 20th century, why can’t the same happen with Central Pakhtunkhwa in the 21st century with the initial support of the federal government?

The reforms intended by Sartaj Aziz can best be explained by a Pakhtun anecdote: In the absence of his father a child was named donkey by the village Malik. But when the child grew up he desperately wanted to change his name. The young man was advised to consult the Malik; the Malik renamed him foal. The child informed his father with excitement that the Malik had changed his name to foal. “What is the point? After three years you will again become a donkey”, replied the father.

The tribals should have a separate province to reform themselves. Otherwise, they are just being renamed from donkey to foal. With these reforms, Fata might be safe from drones but not from the likes of Sufi Mohammad and Fazlullah.

The writer is a freelance
contributor. He tweets MirSwat


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