Saturday December 02, 2023

Fata: to a new beginning

July 31, 2016

What the Viceroy of British India, Lord Curzon could not do in Waziristan we have now done with considerable ease. We did not opt for a patchwork scheme to get rid of the problem there. Instead, we steamrolled from end to end over the territory to restore peace in Waziristan.

We unabashedly did what the viceroy was hesitant to do, not paying much heed to the agony and losses that would be inflicted in the process on the people of that area. While cleansing the area of militants we created a lot of work for ourselves and now have to reconstruct from scratch what was completely destroyed in the operations.

Countless houses, villages, schools, hospitals, markets and bazaars are to be rebuilt afresh to make normal life possible for the returning IDPs of those areas. The armed forces did what they were tasked to do. They either eliminated the militants or drove them out of Waziristan. Now the civilian government has to reach out to the people and start addressing their grievances.

The mainstreaming of Fata is one of the most important points of the National Action Plan. Being cognizant of its importance, the prime minister had constituted a five-member commission which was supposed to suggest, after consultation with the people in Fata, the way to move forward.

Presumably the commission has done its job and the ball is now in the prime minister’s court. It would be prudent of the prime minister to look into all the pros and cons of the commission’s recommendations to ensure that they do not fall short of public aspirations rather than endorsing them blindly. He should reconsider the proposals if they are incompatible with the wishes of the people of Fata.

It is of paramount importance that a decision on a matter of such significance should neither be made in haste nor without the inclusion of the collective wisdom of the people in that area since they will be affected by it. They must be taken on board as they are the real stakeholders and they must have a say in whatever decision is to be made by the government for them.

The military side of Operation Zarb-e-Azb is reportedly over. Waziristan has officially been declared clean and safe for the return of the IDPs. This is a big achievement and a source of solace for the people who had to undergo an ordeal of unimaginable proportions, spending countless nights under the open skies after losing everything material they possessed. It is not easy to describe the mental anguish and agony they went through in the process of disruption of their normal daily lives and the loss of livelihood they had to endure. That cannot be measured nor compensated by whatever the government does. However, the fact that their sacrifices made it possible to get rid of the terrorist menace is a source of comfort for them.

With military operations having ended a new phase has now begun when top priority has to be accorded to the return of the IDPs, with dignity and honour, to their homes and rebuilding of their destroyed houses and market places. This is to be followed by large-scale development in the whole of Fata in the days ahead. This is a gigantic task, which is not that easy to accomplish and which requires a lot of homework and mobilisation of resources.

How is the government going to proceed in the matter? Will it provide adequate funds for the purpose? Or will it persist in diverting Fata-earmarked funds to projects in Punjab as votes in the majority province matter more than alleviating the problems of poverty-ridden people in Fata? Will it do the job through the discredited political agent system, entrust this responsibility to the security forces or will some common sense prevail to involve the local people in this important task? So far nothing is clear.

While writing this piece I saw a news item flash on the TV screen that the Fata Secretariat and 11 Corps have signed an agreement in Peshawar whereby the secretariat will provide money and the security forces will undertake repair work in South and North Waziristan.

The Fata Secretariat has, apparently, affixed the seal of inefficiency on itself. A job which they should have done is entrusted to the armed forces. I am positive the armed forces would have provided security had officials of the secretariat mustered the courage to carry out the work in consultation and cooperation with the people on the ground.

Whether the secretariat undertakes the work or the 11 Corps does it, it does not really matter or make any difference to the people in Waziristan. They know that they are not going to be made stakeholders in either case. They are not going to have any role to play in the development of their own area but will have to accept whatever decisions are made for them.

Nonetheless, now that the work stands assigned to the army it will be in its own interest to make some changes in the manner of dealing with the public which has not really been conducive to generating goodwill so far. Since the forces have been through some difficult days in the last so many years and over time their manner of dealing with the public has become attuned to that period it may not be easy for their people to adjust. However, as it will be mainly a question of dealing in civil matters the attitude should accordingly be more relaxed and less curt or gruff. And access to their offices should also be made easier.

Should some local notable want to meet their senior commanders on the ground for an important reason the process should not be made too difficult where the person has to wait till clearance is received from the ISI. This attitude of dealing with the local people, especially while undertaking developmental tasks, should change so that a feeling of oneness and belonging to the same state is inculcated. Display of such a spirit is essential to dispel impressions and rumours of the past.

Now that the IDPs are to return to their homes this is the time to reward them for the sacrifices they rendered – by promptly rebuilding their houses and businesses, without any further loss of time, if we really want to heal their wounds. This is the time to treat them with respect and graciousness and as equal citizens, as good as those in other parts of the country, if we are to mend fences with them and win their hearts and minds.

This is the time to make them equal partners and involve them in all decisions with regard to the development of Fata. They are the sons and daughters of the soil and only they know too well, if not better, what is needed where and what is more important and needs to be done immediately to address the needs of the people there.

The writer is a former ambassador. Email: