The long awaited Fata reforms have been made controversial. They were neither handled with due care nor in accordance with the well-established norms of democracy.
The first step towards that direction was taken by the reforms committee which proposed the integration of Fata with KP without ascertaining the wishes of the majority of the people in that area. Based on limited exposure to Fata during its whirlwind visits, the committee thought it understood the dynamics of the region and was in a position to suggest changes in its status.
That was not the right thing to do and that is where the problem lies. They should have left that to the people to decide through a referendum or should have deferred the decision till the next general elections which are just around the corner. That is the only way to find out which option – merger with KP or the establishment of a separate province – has the support of the majority of people from Fata. But this was not done and instead an undemocratic way was exercised, which has caused a stir in the otherwise dormant community of Fata. And since then heated debates are taking place in the print and electronic media as well as in Fata and in other cities, including Peshawar and Islamabad.
The people are now clearly divided into two groups; one supporting the merger with KP and the other striving for Fata’s status as a separate province. Those supporting the merger are bent upon imposing their wishes without giving a chance to the people of Fata to vote on the issue while the others want the matter to be decided through democratic means to ensure it is acceptable to all the people there.
In order to find out what the people of Fata want, Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party Chairperson Mehmood Khan Achakzai convened a tribal jirga in Islamabad in January which was not only well-attended but was truly representative of Fata as all members of parliament from there, with the exception of two people, along with other people from the region participated in the proceedings. They unanimously rejected the concept of merger and demanded a separate province for Fata instead.
The demand for a separate province has valid reasons and is based on facts from the last 70 years. Out of 32 governors that were appointed to the region, 25 belonged to KP; some of them were stalwarts of major political parties that were ruling the country at that time. Had they been serious about developing Fata, they could have done that easily. However, since they did not, people of the region have no confidence in them. The people do not think that a merger with KP will bear any fruit or lead to the development of Fata and so wish to form their own government. They believe once Fata becomes a separate province, it can progress faster and can be brought at par, in no time, with the rest of the country.
It goes without saying that if Fata is made a separate province, the benefits people of the region will reap from it will be far greater as opposed to if it is merged with KP. It will have 23 senators (each province has 23 senators) instead of the present eight and will receive a share of five percent, if not more, from the NFC Award. In addition, it will have its own public service commission and other institutions that will deal with the recruitment of people from within Fata to various services there. Above all, the people appointed to the positions of chief minister, governor and provincial minister will be from the region. Seventy years is long enough to teach people the lesson of serving under others.
As far as the rest of the recommendations of the Fata Reforms Committee are concerned, there is unanimity between both groups. The only bone of contention is the merger. This issue should be decided in accordance with the well-established principles of democracy and not otherwise because that is the only way of dealing with contentious issues in the civilised world.
One wonders how our political leaders who are putting their weight behind the merger change their stance so quickly. Till yesterday they were advocating for the democratic rights of the people of Fata – the right of the people to decide all the matters that concern them – and today, those political leaders changed their stance and asked for a merger of Fata, against the wishes of the people there. This is not the stance a true political activist will ever take; he/she will not say one thing to fellow citizens in settled districts and quite the opposite to those in tribal areas.
These leaders should be advised to refrain from this unless they want to play the role their elders had played in 1973 by incorporating Article 247 of the constitution that had denied the democratic rights to the people of Fata or unless they want the people there to remain dependent on them forever.
Furthermore, imposing the wishes of one group on the other will not be tolerated: it is neither good for the people of Fata nor in the interest of the country at this particular time. To save the reforms from being jeopardised, it would be fitting if a limited number of people, from both sides who are well conversant with the subject and whose objective is nothing but the welfare of the people, are asked to sit together and work on a proposal that is acceptable to both sides.
The next important point to note is that the implementation of these reforms should not be left to those who have harmed Fata in the past. The task should be executed by people from Fata and parliamentarians from the tribal areas. This is the only way to ensure that the right kind of projects are selected for Fata and that the funds that are earmarked are spent on them rather than going into the pockets of those who have never been held accountable.
The writer is a former ambassador.