The Fata reforms package, which has been under consideration since the PML-N government came into power, could have been the signature achievement of the ruling party. Instead it is increasingly looking like the package may never even be implemented. Part of the Fata reforms bill, including extending the writ of the Supreme Court and the Peshawar High Court to the tribal areas, was on the agenda for the National Assembly session on Monday. A last-minute decision to remove it led to a walk-out from the opposition parties and brought a premature end to the day’s proceedings. The next day, too, the opposition parties walked out and said they would boycott the session over any further delays to the bill. On Tuesday, the Jamaat-e-Islami took out a long march in favour of the reforms. As it reached Islamabad, others like the PPP’s Khursheed Ahmed Shah joined it. There is a broad consensus that the cruel Frontier Crimes Regulation needs to be repealed and Fata merged with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa so that it is brought under the protection of the constitution. Although the government has claimed that the delay in the bill is due to some technical errors, it has been unable to explain what those errors are. For many political analysts, the reforms are being withheld to keep the JUI-F happy since the party, along with the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party, is the only one that has opposed the Fata reforms bill. Its reasons for doing so are purely parochial. The JUI-F does not have a support base in Fata so making the tribal areas part of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa could dilute the party’s support in the province.
One would think that, on its own, the JUI-F shouldn’t have the power to bend the PML-N its way. But the ruling party is also in a bit of a dilemma – and needs to stop bleeding support. Five of its own members have announced their resignations from the National Assembly and Punjab Assembly. Attempts to reach out to the PPP have been rebuffed. The JUI-F is one of the only parties left in the PML-N camp. That, though, should not be enough to cause the death of the Fata reforms bill. The bill itself is imperfect since it delays the merger of Fata and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for five years and replaces the FCR with a similar law for an interim period. Even passing the reforms bill will only be the start of a long process that requires the Council of Common Interests to decide how much of the divisible pool should be allocated to Fata. But taking that first step is essential. The opposition parties have now formed a committee to discuss Fata reforms with the government and devise a solution. The government should work with the committee to ensure the passage of the reforms. The PML-N government had claimed to be committed to the people of Fata and their rights. It is time to make good on that promise.