Thursday June 30, 2022

The nameless, formless people of Fata

January 02, 2017

I asked a refugee whom I met recently about his experiences. I asked him what he thinks is the worst thing a human being is capable of.

He replied: “The ultimate insult to a human being is not the loss of food or shelter or employment. It is to be reduced to being nameless, formless and shapeless by other human beings [and] told that you are not entitled to the most basic right of being treated the same as everyone else.”

Recently – during a moment of relative political calm – Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his cabinet were offered a unique opportunity. This was their chance to transform the lives of an estimated 4.5 million people who reside in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata). The order that needed to be signed and approved was simple. It does not sanction a large road, railway or power project. The order confers equal citizenship rights – which are enjoyed by every other Pakistani – on the people of Fata for the first time in Pakistan’s history.

For those unaware about the dynamics of Fata, the region is governed by a different set of laws from other parts of Pakistan.

Article 247 of the constitution provides a ‘special status’ to the tribal areas, which bars the implementation of any act of parliament to the areas. This means that even its own elected MNAs cannot vote on issues involving their area. In case of punishing people for engaging in criminal activity, the principle of collective punishment is applied.

Collective punishment is applied incrementally, starting with the first immediate male family members. Until 2011, young children and elderly women were also rounded up under the collective responsibility clauses. As a result, people are liable to punishment solely for being related to someone who has committed a crime. In addition, people have no right of appeal against these convictions to any high or Supreme Court. Many other laws that the average citizen of Pakistan takes for granted are not applied to the region.

By any standards of modern civilisation, this set up was cruel and treated an entire region’s population as undeserving of basic human dignity.

In the past, the party was rarely seen as a radical proponent of Fata reform. Efforts to reform the existing system in Fata has its origins to developments that occurred over the last decade ago. In 2006, both the PML-N and the PPP leadership met to sign the Charter of Democracy. In the eighth point of the charter, the PML-N and the PPP agreed “Fata shall be included in the NWFP province in consultation with them”. Furthermore, in the PML-N’s party manifesto for the 2013 general elections, this pledge was reiterated. In fact, all three national parties – the PML-N, the PPP and the PTI – have pledged to introduce reforms for the people of Fata.

So, for once, there exists a broad-based consensus among most political parties on the need to introduce reforms in the region.

As a result of this move by the ruling party, a committee was set up under Sartaj Aziz to make recommendations about the future of Fata. The final report presented to the prime minister set out a simple vision for the future of the region. It proposed the merger of Fata with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the repealing of the Frontier Crimes Regulations in favour of a new Tribal Areas Riwaj Act, and a phased legal integration of Fata over the space of five years.

And yet, the report – which was simple, bold, practical and clearly laid out despite the cross-party appeal and popular support from young tribespeople – has remained blocked.

There is opposition from the status quo. Two generations of the local, provincial and national elite have enriched themselves through the impunity they have enjoyed in the region. They have not been taxed and remain unaccountable and unrepresentative. But by all accounts, they are powerful. Politically, there is some opposition as well. For example, the PML-N’s coalition partner, the JUI-F, has opposed the region’s merger with KP as they fear it will have consequences on their once-powerful electoral presence in the region.

The PkMAP of Mahmud Khan Achakzai is worried about the impact this will have on the Durand line issue. But the party is even more worried that the merger will solve one problem and create another. On the other hand, groups within Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, especially from the Hazara Division and Peshawar Valley, fear the impact that the new demographics will have on traditional electoral mathematics.

Some of these are valid concerns but others are simple desires to preserve the status quo. But for the people of Pakistan – who may either be unaware or apathetic – the ruling party and the prime minister, this is a bigger question. The question is one of what defines them – not as politicians but as human beings.

Can they accept that they have allowed millions of people to be treated as less than equal citizens of the country for years to come or not?

The choice should be obvious.

The writer is the founder of the website:

Twitter: @qisskhwani