On May 29, a human rights activist Sardar Charanjit Singh was shot dead by unknown persons in Peshawar. While condoling with Sikh elders at a local Gurdwara, I asked one of them whether any political party had ever shown solidarity with the Sikhs in the face of the increasing religious violence and structural inequality they have faced in recent years in Peshawar. They pointed only to the Awami National Party (ANP) and the Bilour family, particularly Haroon Ahmed Bilour, stating that he like his brave father Bashir Ahmed Bilour had never made the Sikhs feel alone in Peshawar.
This sort of relationship with people across linguistic, religious and sectarian lines is what that has determined the Bilours’ politics, and this is what they have paid a heavy price for. This cost Bashir Bilour his life six years ago and recently also took the life of his son, Haroon Bilour.
Haroon Ahmed Bilour, 48, was killed in a terrorist attack on July 10, as he was about to address a corner meeting arranged for his election campaign for a provincial seat in Peshawar. A barrister by qualification, Haroon was also the ANP’s spokesperson for the party’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa chapter.
The Bilour family and the ANP are used interchangeably for a single political entity in the daily politics of Peshawar. Mamun Pashtuns by origin and Hindko-speaking Peshawaris by socialisation, the Bilours have distinctively focused on living amongst people and sharing the joys and sorrows of the people of the city and its adjoining areas, irrespective of whether they are in government or not. In so doing, they have always ruled the heart, if not the administration, of Peshawar.
Despite representing a ‘federationist’ face of the ANP in the country’s politics, the Bilours have been under sustained terrorist attacks only for the fact that they have successfully managed to secure the party’s political base, Peshawar, for over four decades. The enemy is, however, well aware of the fact that the ANP can only be destabilised in Peshawar by eliminating the Bilours from the political landscape of the city.
Nevertheless, the nature of the Bilour family is as complex as the nature of ‘national democratic’ politics like that of the ANP. The Bilours do share the idea of sociability and the tradition of sustained outreach to society. But they don’t seem to share a single line of thinking in issues of a strict ideological nature. Each of them has developed his own public persona. Bashir Khan, for instance, remained a bold representative of the secular politics of Bacha Khan and Wali Khan. But, the public image of the Bilours’ family elder and political leader, Haji Ghulam Ahmed, has largely been constructed around some of his extremely controversial and religiously driven statements that have appeared again and again in complete contrast with the secular outlook of the ANP.
Yet, what is most distinctive in the Bilours is their shared political position of being always on the frontline in the ANP’s fight against terrorism. They have sacrificed more than anyone else for the cause of peace and prosperity for the Pashtuns.
Now the most important, but less debated, point is how – despite its bold stance over the issue of militancy and terrorism and its immense sacrifices for regional peace and cooperation – the ANP has never received any considerable support and appreciation from mainstream Pakistan. The party that continued to be mercilessly victimised for its nonviolent and secular principles has also been subjected to unproven mass-mediated corruption allegations. This is where the sense of alienation and victimhood arises among ANP workers – and this is where they feel that the politics of reconciliation badly failed between the state of Pakistan and ethnic Pashtuns.
The state has badly failed in accommodating the moderate resolve of the ANP, resulting in the emergence of a radical face of Pashtun nationalism which too has so far not been allowed to be considered as something deserving to be seriously taken.
However, it’s no more a secret that the root cause behind the ANP’s continuous marginalisation lies in the anti-colonial legacy of Bacha Khan and his Khudai Khidmatgar Movement. This also shows that the process of decolonisation is yet to be initiated. The ANP being accorded the image of a ‘suspect’ political entity for its struggle for an oppositional Pashtun identity formation vis-à-vis the hegemonic state identity shows how fixed the nature of the federation and democracy is in the land of the pure.
When a proxy war in Afghanistan was initiated as part of the proverbial ‘greater national interest’ in the 1980s, the ANP as a party representing nonviolent political ideals and Pashtun nationalism was ideologically supposed to deconstruct that imposed proverbiality. It strove to stop bloodshed in the Pashtun homeland and enmity towards neighbouring countries.
Post 9/11, the ANP appeared as the first and only political party that publicly championed the anti-Taliban narrative and then made it an official policy of its provincial government from 2008 to 2013. For that, the ANP sacrificed hundreds of its workers including a number of leading activists.
Though the mass-mediated and engineered rhetoric of corruption played some part in the ANP’s defeat in the 2013 elections, it was, in fact, the Taliban assault on the party that tilted those elections in favour of right-wing and pro-Taliban parties in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
After a series of devastating terrorist attacks and media trial, the ANP appeared excited and well-prepared for tomorrow’s general elections. But its excitement soon turned into despair after the murder of Haroon Bilour and 21 other workers, the rise of a fresh wave of violence, the poor and selective performance of the interim regime, and the ongoing crackdown on media and dissenting voices across the country.
Such a situation can result in many consequences. The one obvious result can be Pashtuns’ further alienation from the system, and their inclination towards a radical nationalist politics.
The writer is an anthropologist and a Pashto poet.