The schism among tribespeople on the integration of Fata with KP came to the fore during a seminar arranged at the Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar on December 3 where Governor Iqbal Zafar Jhagra, who is also a member of the Fata Reforms Committee, was the chief guest. The division over the subject was understandable, but nobody could have envisaged that the well-attended seminar would turn into a pandemonium, forcing the organisers to conclude the event before it could even begin.
Immediately after the recitation from the Holy Quran, one of the tribal notables stepped up to the rostrum and started addressing the gathering, ignoring requests from the organisers to let the governor and others speak first. He strongly criticised members of the committee for portraying tribespeople as traitors in their report. Nothing could be farther from truth and more insulting to the valiant tribespeople than being labelled traitors. They have always defended Pakistan. But instead of appreciating their sacrifices, they are now being dubbed traitors. This is wholly unacceptable.
The tribal leaders tore copies of the reform committee’s report and said it was a joke with the people as many of the region’s inhabitants are still languishing in the slums of other cities as IDPs. The committee should have paid more attention to their rehabilitation rather than worrying about the imposition of an unpopular decision on them.
The situation turned ugly when a few students, who had been sitting silently till then, got up and started chanting “Go FCR Go”. Sensing danger, the security staff evacuated the governor from the hall. It was the first time in the history of the country, I believe, that the tribespeople vented their anger and forced the governor to leave without uttering a word about the subject.
This has been a classic example of those at the helm of affairs dealing with Fata without understanding the psyche of its people. Had they adopted a more judicious approach from the onset, the Fata reforms would not have become such a controversial matter.
Through my articles, I have been highlighting the fact that the people of Fata are divided over the two proposals: (a) making Fata a province (b) merging the region into KP. Due care and proper handling were needed to address such an important matter. But that was not done and, now, the result is before us. The issue has not only highlighted divisions among them but has also belittled the claims of the committee of having the majority’s support to integrate Fata with KP.
If such a display of disapproval could take place in Peshawar, one can easily imagine the consequences when the matter is taken to the tribal agencies, where most people are still not fully aware about what is in store for them in the committee’s report.
The geo-strategic and geo-political importance of Fata cannot be over-emphasised. Situated on the border with Afghanistan, a country with which our relations are at the lowest ebb these days, a little spark can put the whole region on fire. This requires every effort to be made to avoid such a situation or else it will become difficult to control. Whatever changes are to be made should be implemented in close consultation with the people of Fata. Anything imposed on them from outside will have serious repercussions and should be avoided at all costs.
It was, however, encouraging to see the new army chief visit Fata on the very first day after taking over command of the army. During his visit, the new army chief paid rich tributes to the people of Fata for the sacrifices that they have rendered and assured them of all possible assistance to resettle them “respectfully”. There is no doubt that such consoling words have a soothing effect. But it is always when words are followed by action that they really matter. And that is what the people of Fata are waiting for.
Fata has generally remained poor and its inhabitants lag behind, in every sense of development, compared to their brothers in other parts of the country. The long years of war and instability have made them poorer than they were before. Around 73 percent of the inhabitants are living below the poverty line compared with 60 percent just a few years back. If urgent steps are not taken to rehabilitate the IDPs and develop the area to provide employment opportunities at their doorsteps, living in Fata will become difficult if not impossible.
Since the military side of Operation Zarb-e-Azb has been declared over and the phase of rehabilitation and reconstruction has started, one expects the army chief to focus more on taking the people out of the situation that they are in today. The establishment of cadet colleges, roads and hospitals has, no doubt, left a good impression. But this alone will not suffice to win the hearts and minds of the people. One has to go an extra mile to show the softer side of the security forces and avoid conducting unannounced search operations. The manner in which people are dealt with at checkpoints and other public places also needs to be improved. It is time the people of Fata were given the respect people from other parts of the country are accorded. That is what will greatly contribute to bridging the trust deficit between them and the security forces.
Bringing change in their lives of the people of Fata through political reforms is the need of the hour. This change must be introduced but with the consent of the people of Fata and their active involvement in its implementation. They are mature enough and know how to steer their region out of a crisis if the government reposes its trust and confidence in them to directly handle all matters in the area.
Various governments have ignored Fata and kept its people away from power for the last 70 years. This has done more damage to them than anything else. Such attitudes need to change and the people of Fata empowered. That is what will change their hearts and minds, heal their wounds and help them forget the ugly past. And that is what will ensure the return of peace to Fata – and the country.
The writer is a former ambassador.