Rethinking Fata

May 28,2018

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The Ilaqa-e-Ghair – the alien territory – is no longer ghair (alien). Through the 31st Amendment to the constitution, parliament ended Fata’s ‘special’ status last week. It is an occasion to celebrate, but it is also a moment for soul-searching, particularly on the part of those who have been, or are, at the helm of the state in Pakistan.

Why did it take us three generations to make such a common sense decision? How and why did we accept the British colonial explanation of the culture of the area, based on sheer stereotyping? Why did we not bother to develop our own knowledge and understanding of Pakistani cultures and people? How did those sound cultural reasons for the unique governance structure of Fata evaporate overnight? How did this area turn into an ungoverned space that went into the hands of insurgents and had to be re-conquered through military means? Why did we have to wait for the people of the area, and a good part of the country, to go through a trial of fire before making this decision? Finally, are there other Fatas in Pakistan hiding in plain sight?

Let’s start with the problem of the “alien gaze”, ie looking at our own people with the lens of a powerful outsider. There is a famous travel writer who writes about Pakistani people and places with the arrogance of a 19th century European explorer. He happens to have a background of government service. More or less, this is the attitude of most officers in the service of Pakistan. This attitude, inherited from the British at the time of Independence, has continued without much alteration.

Talk to an officer of the elite District Management Group (DMG), for example, and he will tell you about the people of his district quoting some centuries-old British gazetteers. It is one thing for people to have stereotypes, it is quite another for state functionaries to perpetuate and propagate them, and govern using these stereotypes. Fata existed for seven decades because our rulers foolishly believed, or cunningly assumed, outlandish cultural assumptions that cannot stand the scrutiny of social sciences.

The people of Fata have suffered from this stereotype-based ‘knowledge’ as the foundation of policy. These stereotypes are not completely external. Many of these stereotypes have been fully internalised by the people themselves or, as some researchers have shown, they started as internal stereotypes and the British used them for their own objectives. Pakhtuns saw themselves as warlike while outsiders either respected them for this stereotype or turned this stereotype upon them by branding them as irrational, headstrong and violent.

These stereotypes were peddled to justify a governance structure that was based on the strategic needs of the British Empire. Fata was crafted as a ‘frontier’ of the empire with Czarist Russia – an additional buffer behind the buffer state of Afghanistan. It also served as a buffer from the unrest in Afghanistan. For strategic considerations, these areas were insulated from political movements in British India and, later, in Pakistan. In fact, adult franchise was extended to Fata in 1997 and political parties were only allowed to work in the tribal belt in 2011 when the PPP government introduced a set of reforms and extended the Political Parties Act to the region.

The first serious effort to reform governance in Fata was made by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1976 when he formed a committee under Gen Naseerullah Babar. The committee included Hafeez Pirzada, Rafi Raza and Dr Mubashar Hassan and was given the task to create a framework so that Fata could become a part of the then NWFP.

Under Zia, Fata was turned into a strategic space once again which provided Pakistan with plausible deniability for its involvement in the Afghan jihad. However, Fata was not just a strategic space, it was also the bureaucrat’s kingdom where officers ruled with the grandeur and glory of the colonial era. There was no job more coveted than the office of the political agent in the tribal region. A job in Fata offered access to limitless power, unaudited state resources and a share in the huge crime economy. Officers would return from Fata with riches that could be laden on dozens, if not hundreds, of camels – all at the cost of the common man in the area who lived a life that was worse than the citizen of a famine-stricken country. (Kindly see the human development indicators if you find this statement exaggerated).

In Fata, the social contract between individuals and the state did not exist. In fact, the individuality of a citizen was denied through the FCR, which made the whole tribe responsible for the actions of an individual. It was an ominous reminder of the period of Jahiliya, the pre-state age in the Arabian Peninsula that Islam ended fourteen centuries ago.

While political parties and the civil society were locked out, religious groups, the uncivil society and criminal gangs flocked to the region and thrived in this poorly governed space. It became a hub of smuggling, narcotics and violent religio-political movements. Thanks to Fata, Pakistan became a major exporter of narcotics to the world. Whenever an individual was abducted or a car was stolen in any part of the country, there was always a good chance that they could be found in Fata. More recently, it became a sanctuary for terrorists from all over the world.

Pakistan’s achievements in its war against terror may be unparalleled, but, at the same time, it will be hard to find a parallel to such self-defeating policies. In Fata, the state gave away its monopoly over force – the very basic definition of state.

While we integrate Fata, we must debate the fabric of the Pakistani state and its colonial heritage. Dozens of Pakistani institutions and hundreds of Pakistani laws are colonial fossils that have no purpose other than to serve elite interests. It is time to wake up because they can no longer serve elite interests.

Pakistan’s system of law and order, and its justice system, are the heaviest colonial millstone around our necks. The failure of our justice system can be easily linked to the rise of terrorism. Reforming the police, laws and the justice system should be a top priority. The municipal problems do cause diseases, but they do not cause terrorism or threaten the very existence of the state. The failure of the justice system does that.

Lack of evidence-based policy results in the allocation of resources on the basis of patronage. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the developed areas get the lion’s share of resources while the least developed areas have to depend on crumbs. This situation has only worsened under the PTI government. Is there a guarantee that subsequent KP governments will not treat Fata in a similar manner?

The bureaucratic state of Pakistan suspects the civil society and human rights defenders, while it feels more comfortable with the conformist and backward-looking uncivil society. Will Pakistan’s real rulers allow the civil society to thrive in the integrated Fata regions or the rest of the country? Before we end our discussion on Fata, we must start debating Gilgit-Baltistan. Why has Pakistan’s paradise been in a constitutional limbo for seven decades? Must we wait for the people to rise before we undertake serious reforms? Can’t we find a way to integrate GB without sacrificing our national interests?

The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.


Twitter: zaighamkhan


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