The current situation in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) and the ensuing debate surrounding its merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is a clear example of the populism versus rationalism approach.
Populism can fire the imagination through demagogic rhetoric which is aimed at the soft belly of vulnerability. It banks upon sentiments, especially sharpened by the deprivation syndrome. Such phenomena can create a situation where ground realities are overlooked at the altar of illusive promises and a fictional future. Priti Khosla, an academic, argues that “it…becomes much [more] convenient to be swayed by populism without examining the authenticity, need, and consequence of such an idea”.
Fata comprises seven tribal agencies and six frontier regions (FRs). The region was a colonial strategic enclave carved out as a launching pad to promote and protect the interests of the colonisers at a great cost to political and human development. After Partition, Pakistan inherited the region whose status, though, remained the same as it was under the British.
The wave of suffering faced by the people of Fata was further aggravated by the draconian Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR). So far, there is an across-the-board consensus on bringing a change in the status quo. But the processes and proposed options that could replace it remain hotly contested.
The prime minister appointed a committee on the Fata reforms. In a report submitted in August 2016, the committee proposed the merger of Fata with KP. The tribespeople have contested the nature of the committee as it did not include any members from Fata and was statistically accurate. For instance, the committee reports that the population of Fata is 4.8 million. However, Ayaz Wazir, a former ambassador and native of South Waziristan, revealed in a press conference held at the Islamabad Press Club on January 23, 2017, that a conservative estimate of the region’s population is 15 million. He elaborated that only one million people were displaced by North Waziristan during Operation Zarb-e-Azb. This is just the tip of the iceberg and reflects the extent to which facts about the region have been misreported.
The proponents of the merger are trying to manipulate the sentimental, populist wave against the status quo in favour of a merger. This is largely being done to serve their short-term political interests at the cost of the future of Fata’s people. They have shown little or no concern with the inclusion and exclusion of Fata’s people in the overall process, the nature of the envisaged reforms and the broader consequences on the region and its people.
Those who question the exclusion of the primary stakeholders – ie the people of Fata – and the decision to opt for a uni-linear solution in the form of a merger sans an explicit outline have been portrayed as supporters of the status quo and the FCR. Senator Hilalur Rehman, while speaking at the press conference at the National Press Club in Islamabad, contested the the reforms committee’s consultation process with the people of Fata. He was also sceptical about the proposed merger.
According to the senator, the report proposed a one-line solution that the areas would be governed under the rewaj act after the merger. He said serious reservations were raised about this as no specific details were provided about what constituted rewaj. The senator said the new system appears to revive the FCR under a new cover. The region will be transformed from the federal to the Provincially- Administered Tribal Areas (Pata). Unfortunately, the proponents of the merger did not encourage a rational debate on this aspect of the proposed merger.
The ANP, which sided with the merger, was in a better position to initiate a rational discourse on its consequences mainly because of the practical experience that the party has gleaned from governing KP for five years. Instead of focusing on short-term political gains, they should have discussed the rewaj act and its political and governance fallout.
KP has faced turmoil due to the legal and governance vacuum created in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision to declare the Pata regulation null and void in 1992. Various extremist elements have operated within this vacuum. The proposed rewaj act seems more retrogressive than the Pata regulation. If the region comes under the jurisdiction of a high court and the Supreme Court, how will it withstand judicial review in the presence of judicial precedent? Moreover, how can it be guaranteed that vested interests will not exploit the vacuum?
The provincial government could not mainstream Pata due to these entrenched vested interests. The merger of Fata under the rewaj act is likely to add another layer to the conundrum.
An interesting aspect of the current reforms is the tacit support shown towards the vested interests of the political administration and its patronised maliks who have vehemently opposed any change to the FCR in the past. The reforms committee mostly consulted those elements in the tribal agencies’ headquarters – which are mostly located outside the agencies.
This was criticised because the consultation process excluded the voice of the people of Fata on vital decisions regarding their future. This provides a clear indication that vested interests will continue to have an impact after the reforms are implemented.
Senator Hilalur Rehman revealed in the press conference that the names and signatures of Fata’s parliamentarians, affixed to the previous Fata reforms committee, were added to the annex of the current committee’s report.
At the same press conference, Mahmood Khan Achakzai announced that a Fata conference will be held on January 30 in Islamabad to enable the people of Fata to express their views regarding their future. The government should also encourage direct communication channels with the people of Fata regarding vital questions over reform initiatives. The people of Fata should be able to decide their future and so ensure sustainable peace and prosperity in the region.
The writer is a freelance contributor.
He tweets MirSwat