Fata occupies a unique position in the history of Pakistan as a no-man’s land and the least understood part of the country and generally forgotten in all things. No government in the past has bothered to change the status quo. Indeed, since the inception of Pakistan in 1947 there has been no clear long-term policy of our government regarding the tribal areas.
The tribes of Fata had entered into treaty obligations first with the British and then the Pakistan government, ensuring their independence and separate status. Quaid-e-Azam had assured tribespeople of all the tribal agencies at a jirga in 1948 of two things: One, that the people of the tribal areas would live under their own separate system of ‘Rewaj’ and would, for all practical purposes, be independent of all government control under this system.
Two, that this unique and special status will not be changed until the people desire so, and that any change in the system would be undertaken only after due consultation and agreement of the tribespeople.
Two conflicting approaches to Fata have developed over the years.
a) Separation: the independent status of people of the tribal areas to be ensured at all cost and the people be left to live under their own system of customary laws ie ‘Rewaj’. The federal government was to ensure this status by providing all funding to run the administration and plan for the socio-economic development of the area.
b) Assimilation: to end the separate status of the tribal areas once for all and assimilate the area and its people into the mainstream of national life.
These were exactly the two policies followed by the US government vis-a-vis Native Americans. In just over 200 years, Native American have today lost their identity as a separate people and as the original owners of all the land that is now known as the United States. No doubt there are some camps of Native Americans still around but these serve more as remnants of traditional American culture and history, so as a source of tourist attraction.
This is precisely what is in the minds of most supporters of this system in Pakistan – the end of the special status of the tribal areas and, hence, the end of their separate identity and their traditional culture.
Some non-tribal experts have, over the years, often harped on about how to end the ‘special’ status of the tribal areas. However, it is clearly evident that such people have no understanding of the rather unique position of Fata or its traditional setup.
Most recently some others have lent their voice to the amalgamation of Fata into the adjacent province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. These people are mostly retired or serving bureaucrats (generally not hailing from Fata); political leaders of different parties who have their own agenda as to how best they can use these poor people for their own ends and for party politics; a few so-called elected members of parliament from Fata who have no standing whatsoever in their traditional setup. Apart from them, there are some members from the legal community who – though they hail from the area originally – are simply bent on the extension of the legal system to Fata so that they can make easy money from the gullible tribespeople. The proponents of this argument also include some of the younger elements in society like students who have no real understanding of matters as yet. And then we have the so-called Fata Reforms Committee Report under Sartaj Aziz (which had no member from the tribal areas).
All these people seem to be adamant about the immediate amalgamation of Fata into KP and are in a desperate hurry to do this; some even threatening to block Islamabad if this is not done.
All this seems strange to say the least and may lead to bitter agitation as there are now over 10 million tribespeople in Fata. The best and only solution to the matter will be to hold a referendum on the issue once the people of the tribal areas are safely back in their respective areas and can stand on their own feet.
All talk of merger with KP should be stalled for now and – as was said by Quaid-e Azam – the people of Fata must be consulted in the matter. Surely the people of Fata count as human beings and citizens of Pakistan, and deserve and must have this basic democratic right in a matter that will alter their entire status and position in the national setup. This much is indeed also the demand of justice and fair play.
Also, it must be stated in very clear terms that the merger of Fata with KP will not be in the interest of either area. Fata, with its huge area and population, will be an added burden for the cash-starved province (KP). Above all, its people will also be deprived of a share in the federal government revenues.
Again, the merger of the ‘princely states’ of Chitral, Dir and Swat into KP in 1969 has not been a very happy experience and the people there still remember their rulers with respect, if not outright love and affection, for the security of life and property and the availability of quick and easy justice that they offered.
Finally, what real good do we offer the people of Fata through a merger with KP? Will the government machinery – the administration, police, revenue and the courts (both civil and criminal) – offer a better and more secure life to the people of the tribal areas? Will there be easier justice based on the law?
The ultimate question, and one which surely needs to be answered, is what right do we have to change the present system of Fata – without the consent of the people who live there – if we cannot provide them a better system than what they have at present?
The writer is a retired federal secretary.