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March 27, 2016

The future of Fata


March 27, 2016

The tribal areas of Pakistan originally consisted of five agencies: South Waziristan, North Waziristan, Kurram, Khyber and Malakand. But Malakand was made a division in 1970 and the Bajaur, Mohmand and Orakzai agencies were added to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) in 1973-1975, increasing its total area to 27,220 square-kilometres, with a population of over 15 million.

Irrespective of its size, and whether Fata has five tribal agencies or seven, the people there were never given the right to play any role in the governance of the area. Before Ppartition, they were treated as lowly subjects by their colonial masters and later almost as aliens by their fellow countrymen, after the creation of Pakistan. Why they have been treated so callously in their own country is not difficult to understand, but the less said in public the better.

After independence, the people of Fata joined Pakistan voluntarily, in the hopes of having their grievances addressed and having equal rights in the newly independent state, but nothing of the sort ever happened. They continued to be governed by others from outside the area, in a manner worse than that of their colonial masters. The policymaking for the area and the governance of its residents remained the exclusive jurisdiction of others.

Fata was abused by others, against the wishes of the people there. It was and continues to be used as a buffer against Afghanistan. This is why the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) was retained in its original form. Any change in the laws would have given the locals basic rights. But because of the deprivation of their rights, they can be used as helpless tools, unable to protest or seek justice through recourse to any law; all the tribes are still subject to collective punishment, as was earlier enforced by their British masters.

In this way, they are helpless in the games always being played in their area. These games take different names at different times. Sometimes it is called jihad, sometimes it is called strategic depth or it can even be the Taliban. The only constant factor is Fata and its people being used in one form or another, across the western border, in Afghanistan. That is why Fata has been kept a backward place, where no one can go without permission. It is also why the IDPs are not allowed to return to their homes without written permission, although the security forces have declared 80 percent of the area as clear.

The people of Fata were used to a harsh life but what they have experienced after 9/11 is beyond description. They were killed by the thousands. Their houses and properties were destroyed, and they were forced to seek shelter elsewhere. They were thus permanently displaced within their own country. One cannot be candid about because of whose mistakes all this happened to Fata, but it suffices to say that they have paid for the sins of the outsiders who administered them and made wrong policies for the area.

Different governments have constituted committees from time to time, to make recommendations for the mainstreaming of Fata, but nothing concrete has come from that. Interestingly, all these commissions were headed by people from outside of Fata, who were clueless about the needs, wishes and grievances of the local people. Even the recently constituted one is no better, as there is no one from Fata in that commission. All five members are outsiders, but have been tasked to play with the fate of the people of Fata. What irony!

In other provinces, outsiders are not even allowed to serve. This is what a senior official said the other day on a TV talk show about the working of the police in Sindh: leave them alone and allow them to decide crucial policy matters for themselves. But when it comes to Fata, nobody bothers give the authority to the locals to decide matters for themselves. That is why nothing works over there.

Since we cannot reverse past events, nor can we make anyone accountable for what has happened in Fata over the years, it would be best for the government to ensure the mainstreaming of Fata – as was agreed in the National Action Plan and unanimously approved by all political parties. The people of Fata are fed up of the existing system of governance and badly want a change. They want to get rid of the political agent system and replace it with one in which their voice is heard, in which they are empowered to manage the affairs of the area themselves, and in which they can develop Fata the way others have not.

The formation of the five- member committee for this purpose has generated immense interest, and everyone in Fata is discussing what the future status of Fata should be: whether it should become a province or be merged into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). So far, there are divisions among the people on this issue. One group wants it to be made a province, while the other wishes to see it merged into KP.

Therefore, the best course of action would be to hold a referendum of the people of the area. The problem is that the word referendum carries a stigma because of its misuse by military dictators in the past for their own interests. Therefore, it is important that it should be transparent and completely non-controversial, so that it is acceptable to all. It needs to be conducted under the supervision of a tribal leader, whose neutrality and integrity is above board.

For a change, let the people of Fata speak for themselves. That is the only positive way to bring Fata out of the abyss that it has been in for the last many decades. At this volatile time, any other experiment would be asking for serious trouble.

The writer is a former ambassador. Email: [email protected]

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