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February 13, 2017

Fata and the Maulana

Opinion

February 13, 2017

If you do not admire the Maulana, you know nothing about Pakistan’s politics. Full of mojo and gusto, the Maulana is one of those personalities who can beat any of Chaucer’s characters hands down.

No maverick politician from the plains of Punjab, the deserts of Sindh or the mountains of KP and Balochistan can outperform him in the art of realpolitik. He is the prince of Pakistan’s politics from whom Niccolo Machiavelli could have learnt a thing or two.

With my limited understanding, I am trying to comprehend Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s opposition to the Fata reforms.

During the last decade, Fata has gone through a trial of fire – mainly due to an archaic system of governance based on some outlandish cultural assumptions that do not stand the scrutiny of social sciences. Using cultural stereotypes, the region has been turned into a human zoo – though no zoo is so cruel to its inmates and so harmful to society.

What is even more important in the Maulana’s case is that these assumptions and the system based on them are a travesty of the basic tenets of Islam. Islam can be seen as an antithesis to tribalism as it replaced tribal chaos, statelessness and the law of revenge with a state-based system of rule of law and individual accountability and responsibility. This change led to the formation of one of the greatest empires in human history. How can the Maulana support a system where a whole tribe has to bear the brunt of the misdeeds of a single individual and where the absence of the state and of laws and rights has resulted in a lack of development and the denial of basic human rights?

According to the Maulana’s enemies, since KP has slipped from under his feet, he wants to hold on to Fata as the bastion of his party from where he can exert influence on the federal government due to its strategic importance. In Milton’s words, it is a policy of “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven”. There can be another, simpler reason. We know that the Maulana is a great dealmaker and, at times, a good deal can be made only by creating an enabling environment. The Maulana has mastered the art of creating such situations by opposing a policy that is important to the government and then wresting a good bargain in exchange for ending his opposition.

Unfortunately, in this case, the government itself does not appear to be keen on reforms in Fata. Political reforms are an opportunistic process. A government must act swiftly when a window of opportunity opens itself. Such a window of opportunity opened soon after the military operation in Fata and it may close in the near future. Reforms are easiest to undertake during the early part of a government’s tenure and may become increasingly expensive as elections nears.

Last month, a jirga of Fata elders, called by the PkMAP led by Mahmood Khan Achakzai and the JUI-F, authorised itself to make decisions about the future of tribal region. As the Maulana explained in a television interview: “The jirga decided that in future it will be the representative assembly of the tribespeople and the future of the tribespeople will be decided by this jirga”.

The handpicked elders have thus given themselves the authority to be the last arbiters over the fate of Fata’s people. Can there be anything more ridiculous than this? One wonders where all these elders have cropped up from after the Taliban decimated them and their jirgas by the droves.

The failure of the traditional elite to manage Fata on behalf of the state resulted in the region falling into the hands of the Taliban; the area had to be wrested back through a fierce war. Even using the word ‘jirga’ for such an assembly is a misnomer. A jirga is a council of elders that is meant to perform conflict resolution in a face-to-face society. Such mechanisms fail to work when either the population exceeds a certain point or the scale of the problem is much wider.

Another political leader opposing Fata’s merger is Mahmood Khan Achakzai. While he wants to unite Pakhtuns from the Oxus to the Indus, with Peshawar as their winter capital, he cannot bear the idea of the Pakhtuns in Fata uniting with the Pakhtuns of KP. His motives are even more obscure because he wields little influence in both Fata and KP.

While the two leaders have not opposed the formation of the reforms committee and its functioning, they are now demanding a referendum to determine the future of the region. Turning Fata into a separate province is hardly an option as Fata is not a neat geographical unit and its different agencies are not interconnected. The British turned it into a separate unit for strategic reasons to create a buffer and because they did not want to invest too heavily in managing a region where the scope for taxation was low.

Last week, the reforms package was dropped from the agenda of the meeting of the federal cabinet where it was to be approved. Later, the prime minister hinted that the package will be presented in the next meeting instead. The report contains a plan to politically, legislatively and administratively merge Fata with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Perhaps, for the first time in the nation’s history, we have a workable plan for reforms in the restive region that also enjoys wide support within and outside Fata.

Saleem Safi, a leading journalist who belongs to Fata, finds a sinister reason behind the government’s reluctance to introducing reforms. The reforms committee has recommended allocating three percent of resources from the divisible pool for development projects in Fata. While the finance minister is willing to set aside only one percent, the government, according to this explanation, is not willing to divert such a small amount during an election year when it will need every penny to spend in areas where it can get them votes. According to Safi, both Fazlur Rehman and Achakzai are blocking reforms to support the government on this count.

Whatever the reason, it appears that Nawaz Sharif is succumbing to blackmail from his allies at a time when he needs them due to the growing pressure over the Panama Papers case and the looming elections. The PML-N has a lacklustre track record in the realm of constitutional reforms. It is an area where the PPP stands tall. History beckons the PML-N and it should not miss the opportunity to integrate Fata into the national mainstream in line with its own electoral commitments.

According to some accounts, Abraham Lincoln bribed reluctant Democrats to support the 13th Amendment to the US constitution that banned slavery in the US. Do we need some expensive deals to liberate the people of Fata as well?

The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @zaighamkhan

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