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June 17, 2016
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Will Fata always be Fata?

Opinion

June 17, 2016

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The writer is a former ambassador.

A lot has been written in the print and electronic media about mainstreaming Fata but nothing concrete has emerged so far except the creation of a five-member commission by the prime minister to make recommendations in this regard.

In order to comply with a mandatory requirement, the commission visited all seven tribal agencies and meetings were held with selected notables, arranged by their respective political agents. Although the commission still has to hold meetings with the general public, even in these selected meetings they got a somewhat mixed reaction to the general perception of the changes that they wished to introduce for mainstreaming Fata.

While in the meetings the commission professed to lay both options forward – to be a separate province or to merge with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – there were many who felt that the commission’s members had already made up their minds but were not yet articulating their views.

However, the other day a federal minister who is a member of the commission reportedly said that a majority of the people in Fata wanted a merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Whether he was talking of the final decision of the commission or merely expressing his own mind is difficult to say.

On the other hand, reports have appeared in the press that the commission has submitted a draft report to the prime minister recommending the status quo be maintained with minor changes in the FCR and extension of high court jurisdiction to that area. Yet another report claimed that Fata was to be merged into KP but before that a grace period would be given for its development with specially allocated funds under the overall charge of a tribesman. Which report will turn out to be true is something we have to wait for.

Irrespective of all this, the problem faced by the people of Fata is different – the way decisions are imposed on them without letting them have a say in anything. It is not true that they resist the mainstreaming of the tribal areas. The fact is that those sitting in the government in Islamabad neither listen nor understand the manner in which the people of Fata want matters to be resolved, in the best interest of the tribesmen as well as the government. Whenever such a situation has arisen in the past the government has invariably resorted to undemocratic means, listening only to the advice of its employees (civil/military) who are in control of the area. I fear this may happen again in this context.

A former political agent told me that when the idea was floated and suggestions sought from them on giving adult franchise to the tribal areas, being a tribesman, he was the only one supporting it whereas the others opposed the proposal on the ground that it would have negative political repercussions. Thankfully, the late president Farooq Leghari did not pay any heed to their advice and extended adult franchise to Fata in 1996. And the first election held under that a year later proved him absolutely right as there was no problem, whatsoever, anywhere in Fata.

In fact in South Waziristan, a conservative area, women voted for candidates of their choice. That gave lie to those who were opposing one-person, one-vote for Fata. Those opposing a referendum to decide the fate of Fata will similarly be proved wrong if the prime minister agrees to go ahead with a referendum.

I was invited to meet the members of the commission to give my views on the subject and also on how Fata should be mainstreamed. It was a limited group, about a dozen or so people, mostly former political agents, commissioners and chief secretaries.

The chairman of the commission, Sartaj Aziz, briefed us about a meeting held earlier in the day with people of the Khyber agency. Despite his diplomatic skills, he could not conceal the fact that the meeting had ended in pandemonium.

He also mentioned the following four proposals that they have received so far and wanted our response to them: 1) maintenance of the status quo; 2) creation of a Gilgit-Baltistan type council; 3) making Fata a separate province; and 4) merger with KP.

Since I was invited by the chairman to offer comments first I politely declined to consider the first two proposals as they are not worth consideration. The first for the reason that if status quo is to be maintained then why is the commission conducting consultations? In fact it is because of the status quo, particularly the political agent system, that the people want a change. As for making it a council like Gilgit-Baltistan that is not viable since Gilgit-Baltistan is a disputed area according to UN resolutions whereas Fata has no such problem. So the first two proposals should be set aside and not considered.

As far as the other two are concerned they are viable but the people in Fata are divided. Some want Fata to be made a separate province whereas others want it to be merged into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. To decide which proposal has the support of the majority it would be in the fitness of things if a referendum is held under the eye of a person from Fata to make it transparent and acceptable to the people of the tribal areas. Whichever way the majority decides will be acceptable to everybody there.

I added in my comment that in case the decision is made in favour of a merger with KP then a reasonable amount of money be allocated to be spent on the development of Fata in a defined period of 5 to 10 years, but during that period a person from Fata should be made governor to ensure that the money is actually spent on development. For that I gave the example of German (East and West) unification.

My proposal for referendum was vehemently opposed but only by those not belonging to Fata. I am not privy to their reasons for opposition but I presume they must be thinking that Fata would drift away from Pakistan if allowed to decide matters through a referendum. If they think that, then they are badly mistaken. Nothing of the sort will happen. No sensible person from Fata would like to go to Afghanistan. That is like going from heaven to hell.

Afghanistan has burning for the last four decades at least. It is a poor country and stability is nowhere in sight so why would anyone want to go there? Why would more than three million Afghans stay as refugees in Pakistan if Afghanistan was a better option? So let us not indulge in scaremongering or befool people with empty slogans. Nothing is wrong with having a referendum if we consider Fata a part of Pakistan and its people as loyal honourable citizens of this country. It is their problem and must be decided by them. Denying this basic right will force them to think of alternatives.

Let us not forget that social media is full of all kinds of propaganda. The atrocities committed in Fata are highlighted on a daily basis but people there have not paid any heed to them as yet. So let us not put them to the wall by treating them like enemies or aliens. Let them decide such an important matter themselves rather than let others sitting far away take the decision and then shove it down their throats.

Had the government listened to saner elements in Fata earlier when the area was on fire it would not have suffered so much. There wouldn’t have been so many deaths and so much destruction and millions of people would not have been internally displaced.

We are in a similar situation once again as far as the mainstreaming of Fata is concerned. Let us not make a mistake again. Let us go along with the wishes of the people there. If we try to hide behind the constitutional requirement and decide matters only in consultation with notables (especially selected by the political agents) then we are destined for endless trouble. Nobody can save us then. We must mainstream Fata in accordance with the wishes of its residents. Come what may, referendum is the only solution.

Email: [email protected]

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