The tribespeople of Fata are fully committed to reforms in the region and the abolition of the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR). But they also deserve the democratic right to be consulted and associated with the process that directly affects their future as an integral unit of Pakistan.
Fata was not an integral part of British India and the future dispensation of this area was not specified in the plan for Partition. The tribes wanted to become part of Pakistan. The tribespeople have never wavered from this commitment and have constantly proved their loyalty to Pakistan.
The future of Fata’s people is presently being debated by all and sundry, except those who will be directly affected. They have neither been consulted nor have their wishes been ascertained. The government had formed a commission of six wise men who reported that they had consulted a cross-section of the tribes. The commission claimed that the views expressed by this cross-section of Fata’s tribespeople indicate a strong desire for a merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. It would not be improbable if another six-member commission – with greater knowledge of the people of the region and their needs – were to undertake a similar exercise and come up with an entirely different set of recommendations.
There is a general aversion among the tribespeople to a merger with KP. Many of them believe that Fata’s integration with KP will relegate their political influence. They are also aware that the province primarily accords priority in all fields to Peshawar and neglects other areas. The experience of integrating Pata and the consequent upheavals that occurred and the demand for a separate Hazara province is not lost on them. Since they are in the minority, the tribespeople will remain captive to any legislation that will be enacted even if it is against their interests.
There is no guarantee that their interests will be safeguarded, and they will suffer perpetual domination by the majority. We can only hope that, with time, political maturity will prevail and ethnic considerations will become subservient to the general wellbeing of the people. There are other options to the merger which have their pros and cons and must, in all fairness, be given due consideration. We must remember that the stakeholders who primarily matter are the federal government and the citizens of Fata. As a result, their mutual interests are vital.
Fata lags behind in terms of economic development and its inhabitants have expectations of a concerted development effort that can compensate for the decades of neglect they have suffered. There is a fear that meeting these expectations may be beyond the capacity of KP. Their hopes are vested in the federal government meeting their needs and aspirations. The 10-year grace period for special development in the region appears attractive on paper. But such measures have, in the past, provided ample cause for suspicion as policy changes can and do occur. The decision to withdraw incentives to entrepreneurs for setting up industrial units in Gadoon Amazai is a case in point.
The previous general elections exposed the lack of interest shown by the political parties in the integration and mainstreaming of Fata. The parties are now belatedly championing these causes. Owing to the absence of any regular political activity carried out by the parties in Fata, almost all candidates were elected as independents.
No recognised leader of a political party attempted to visit the region for canvassing purposes and to claim political strength even though the Political Parties Act had been extended to Fata.
However, this should not be construed as the rejection of political parties by the tribespeople or vice versa. Instead, it is a sad reflection of the attitude that political parties have towards their tribal brethren. With time – and especially due to the efforts being made by political parties – there is every reason to expect a more positive response in the future for the mature political integration of the tribes into the body politic of the country. The integration of AJK and Gilgit-Baltistan into the political mainstream of the country proves that it is not necessary for a region to be ‘merged’ before being recognised as a political entity.
These factors are important. But the major issue relates to the wishes and democratic rights of the people of Fata. How best can their wishes be ascertained? The issues involved concern the future of a large population and a sensitive region which deserves serious consideration. Putting all issues aside, nobody can deny that a democratic dispensation should be the underlying principle to decide such a serious and sensitive matter. The wishes of the people must be ascertained and respected. A committee – comprising a few political parties, elected representatives in parliament or any other entity – cannot usurp this right.
The ideal solution would be to hold a referendum. But the time, logistics and finances required to implement this strategy will make this impractical. A suggested solution to this problem entails holding local government elections – which are, in any case, mandatory. The next step should be to have the elected members – either as a whole or through representatives – and members of the National Assembly and Senate form an assembly for the specific purpose of deciding on the question of Fata’s merger and debating other options such as a separate Fata province or establishing a dispensation akin to the one in GB.
Questions over which law will be applicable to replace the FCR should also be debated and finalised – even though it will always remain a contentious issue – instead of the Rewaj Act being imposed on them. As an interim measure, an order could be issued to ensure that all decisions in judicial cases under existing laws must be appealed before the superior courts of Pakistan.
Fata is currently administratively divided into agencies and frontier regions (FRs). The latter are attached to the districts of the KP and administered by the deputy commissioners. These FRs suffer from neglect and are accorded the lowest priority by the district administration. These semi-tribal areas deserve to be merged with the adjoining agency as their overall administration will undergo a change for the better.
This proposal will meet the requirement to take a democratic decision on the various options available for the future of the tribal region. The assembly could be tasked with submitting proposals for the abolition of the FCR, the legal framework for Fata’s future and any other issues regarding the region which the government may want to take decisions on. The decisions arrived at could then be submitted to parliament for ratification.
The writer is a retired chief
secretary of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.