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February 15, 2018



The voice of the voiceless

Why did TV channels – and, for that matter, social media – offer so much coverage to the dharnas staged by the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan and its abusive leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi, and completely ignore the sit-in organised by Pakhtun tribesmen in Islamabad to demand the rights of the people of Fata?

Was this an outcome of the internal constraints within media houses, which are governed by commercial priorities, or a response to pressures exerted from the outside? It is most likely that a combination of these factors resulted in the media blackout that we witnessed during the sit-in.

Although the unique Pakhtun gathering, with its songs and anthems, did not make the screens, it was significant in so many ways. First, it displayed before us the anger of an entire people who have been sidelined. The march to the capital may have been triggered by the extrajudicial shooting of Naqeebullah Mehsud in a ‘police encounter’ in Karachi, but it was fuelled by far more dissatisfaction than many would imagine.

As leaders from the tribal areas have pointed out, there is severe deprivation in Fata where only one hospital exists for every 2,179 people as opposed to one for every 1,341 people in the rest of Pakistan. The availability of trained doctors is virtually non-existent and many of the five million residents of the tribal areas have never been able to access professional healthcare. Literacy rates are abysmally low in the region. There are only 4,868 functional schools, 77 percent of which only offer primary education. Estimates suggest that the literacy rates falls below one percent for women in many areas outside urban centres. And yet, this situation has continued for seven decades after Partition with no change in sight.

We know very little about the thoughts and perceptions of the tribespeople or, indeed, of the Pakhtun population in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and some parts of Balochistan. While there are many stereotypes about them – some of which cast them essentially in the role of militants or hardened warriors – the truth is that the people of the Waziri tribe of North and South Waziristan as well as those from other clans, have a rich culture and language.

The hand-stitched ganr khat skirts of the Waziri women are almost unknown in the country. These multi-coloured skirts add a dazzle to formal occasions where women often play a surprisingly active role – at least within the domestic sphere. We must also remember that the tribespeople have little sympathy for the Taliban and have been the main victims of their oppressions and brutality. Their anger over this situation has been exhibited in the recent attack on a Taliban office in Dera Ismail Khan after the authorities failed to close it down. In retaliation, dozens of tribespeople were arrested. But the message has been sent clearly and quite openly.

It would be fascinating to see the results of an authentic survey that documents what Pakhtuns and the people of the tribal areas really think. They have made it obvious through the Islamabad sit-in that they are disgruntled by the centre and its failure to grant them justice. These are dangerous sentiments.

These grievances have, of course, immediately drawn the attention of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani who has hailed what he calls a “Pakhtun uprising” and a demand for the rights of Pakhtuns. We must be aware that this can be a dangerous trend in the current geopolitical and regional situation. The state should have thought about these issues earlier. It should have addressed the multiple complaints of Pakhtuns many years ago instead of leaving them to fester and assume such a volatile dimension.

Now that these grievances have turned into a form where people have been compelled to take to the streets, they need to be addressed immediately, efficiently and quickly. The solution does not lie in suppressing their voices or orchestrating a media blackout. Instead, the issue needs to be publicised and addressed effectively so that the complaints can be brought into the mainstream and shared with everyone. Attempting to bury or mask them will only add to the rage and dissatisfaction.

The protest that we saw in Islamabad was an entirely peaceful one. Music was played, speeches were made and there were no signs of disorderly conduct. This, of course, contrasts with the dharnas of the past that were led by pseudo-religious groups or political parties. It is time to talk to tribal and Pakhtun leaders and understand how they can be pulled into the mainstream of the country and what can be done to address their perceptions of injustice. Existing legal frameworks, such as the Frontier Crimes Regulation, which have contributed to these sentiments, have to be done away with as part of any deal.

But we do need a new deal – a fresh contract between the state and its people. This must comprise a willingness to accept that there is dissent and deep-seated displeasure about the manner in which matters have been handled, especially among smaller provinces and regions. The future of Fata also needs to be settled. The manner in which Fata’s people have been treated and the extent to which they have been deprived of their most basic rights have contributed to the rise of militancy in these regions.

The best way to quell anger is to grant people what they need. Desperate people will resort to desperate measures. It is also quite obvious that a majority of people from Fata and KP do not support militancy or the consequences that it has led to. They seek only human dignity and the rights that should belong to every citizen.

The failure to grant these rights will only lead to more problems. The issues we have must be spoken about openly. They must be discussed and debated. Only then can we have some mechanisms that can lead towards finding solutions. If this is not achieved, there is always the risk that external players will swoop in and take advantage of our weaknesses and the disquiet that exists. Those in command must be aware of such a reality.

As part of a preparation for the next general election, we should be finding a way to grant the people of Fata a right to determine what their status will be. Do they want to be a part of KP? Do they seek a separate identity within Pakistan? Or, do they desire a far greater measure of autonomy than what is available to the provinces? These are all steps that need to be carefully pondered.

The current ambiguous status of the region cannot continue to exist. Similarly, the widespread notion – which is, at times, voiced by celebrities through their tweets – that internally displaced persons from Fata or KP present a security threat must also be done away with. These people are not terrorists. They are simply human beings. They need to be heard and allowed a voice.

Silencing these voices will only add to our problems. This not only holds true for Pakhtuns, but also for all those ethnic minorities who deserve to be recognised as equal citizens with a true stake in the future of the nation that they share with other groups.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.

Email: [email protected]