Deciding the future status of Fata took a new turn when JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman demanded that the opinion of the people of the tribal belt must be sought in this matter.
This is quite important because the people of Fata are the real stakeholders and their opinion should be the deciding factor. Any opinion about the matter that emanates from other parts of the country has little value as compared with the views of Fata’s people.
A referendum is one of the main instruments to seek public opinion on an issue. In Pakistan, a few leaders rejected the proposal of a referendum on Fata’s fate on the grounds that such instruments have a tainted history in our country. These reservations are justifiable. But when rigging allegations were hurled against a majority of national elections, did we stop holding elections? There is a process of continuous reforms in the electoral process. In a similar vein, a referendum in Fata can be held in an open, organised and transparent manner.
An argument against holding a referendum is that other areas of provinces – such as Hazara or southern Punjab – will also demand a referendum. There are many ways to determine the opinion of people. Opinion polls and surveys can be conducted by a respectable organisation to determine the opinions of people through a representative sample.
Fata has an area of 27,220 square kilometres of area. It has an estimated population of between five to 10 million people. It is strategically located and six out of seven tribal agencies are situated along the border of Afghanistan. Fata has hundreds of schools and dozens of colleges. Its mineral resources have not been explored. There is a clear-cut process prescribed in the constitution of Pakistan to deal with this and therefore any referendum in Fata cannot be used as a precedent.
One argument that has been put forward in support of Fata’s merger with KP is that members of the National Assembly who belong to the tribal belt are in favour of the merger. In the 2013 elections, Fata had an extremely low voter turnout and the participation of women remained limited. Moreover, these elections were not held by giving a mandate to Fata MNAs to decide the future status of the tribal belt.
The third option is that a grand tribal jirga should decide this issue. Historically, a jirga is an integral part of Pakhtun culture whereby disputes are settled. The credibility of a jirga depends on the honesty and integrity of jirga members. Due to the decline in values, there are reservations on the decision of a jirga. In a male-dominated society, a disputing party often has a woman from their tribe married to man from the opposing party to settle disputes. In the tribal areas, the decisions of a jirga are influenced by the political agents and no member of a jirga can go against the PA if he has to survive in the area.
The future status of Fata should be decided in a peaceful manner and not through the threat of dharnas. Maulana Fazlur Rehman has a strong influence in certain districts of KP and South and North Waziristan. He also has a large following among madressah students. ‘Mainstreaming’ Fata is not possible only through a merger. If people think that a merger will stop terrorism, they should consider the example of Swat which witnessed a terrorist uprising twice even though it is in the settled areas of KP.
A few political leaders even think that the transitional period of five years for the merger is unnecessary and the tribal belt should be merged with immediate effect. Even if there is a consensus on the merger, different systems operate in both KP and Fata. This could result in a series of differences that will take a long time to reconcile.
The merger of East and West Germany and Hong Kong and Mainland China serve as useful examples. Hong Kong still enjoys a special status in China even though it operates under a democratic system that is fundamentally different from the latter.
The future status of Fata must be decided by the main and primary stakeholders: the people who are living in the region. The decision must be taken in a peaceful manner. The people of Fata should be responsible for their destiny and their resources. This will put an end to the controversy once and for all. Any turmoil in this strategically sensitive region is not in the interest of the country.
The writer is a Peshawar-based academic.