Monday September 26, 2022

Listen to the Pakhtuns

March 05, 2018

Pakhtuns are talking and Pakistan must listen. They are talking the language of peaceful protest, the most beautiful language human civilisation has invented. In order to make sense of these protests, it is important to understand the medium, the message and the messenger. It is equally important to put the current protests in the perspective.

Pakistan is emerging out of a bloodbath. Everyone carries some scar from the period when death stalked us on the streets. Fata suffered the most as it was taken over by terrorists who ran their violent unholy emirate from these areas. The military success against terrorists has revived a sense of normalcy to much of Pakistan. After years of siege, Pakistanis are flocking to tourist spots, festivals, musicals and playgrounds.

It is also an appropriate time to come out for protests. Sociologists have noted that protests happen not at the worst of the time, but when the worst is over and the situation starts improving. This is because the improved situation fails to fulfil expectations. People in Fata are returning to their homes. It is time to take stock of their losses. The level of horror they faced instils numbness. They are starting to feel the pain once again. They are taking stock of the losses and the losses are staggering. Their houses and their markets are a pile of rubble. Their farms are fallow, their livestock is dead and their businesses are gone. What is worse, they feel humiliated and stigmatised.

The people of Fata want to come out of the constitutional limbo and live their lives as normal citizens of the state of Pakistan. They have become weary of the cultural stereotyping they once used to wear as a badge of honour. Their movement is a movement for inclusion, not of exclusion or separation.

Naqeebullah Mehsud, a young aspiring model, represented these aspirations – for a normal life in a globalised world. His murder in a staged encounter allegedly on the hands of Rao Anwar, a police officer notorious for fake encounters, galvanised his fellow Mehsuds and many other residents to protests. It also won the residents of Fata much-needed sympathy from the rest of the country. They have used this opportunity well to put their demands on the national agenda through the Pashtun Long March.

Tribal culture has been both glorified and blamed for being the root cause of terrorism. According to Akbar S Ahmad, a Pakhtun social anthropologist and former civil servant, terrorism all over the Muslim world is based in tribal areas and has its roots in tribal culture. “All Al-Qaeda leadership is from tribal societies”, he said in an interview some years ago. “Ninety-five percent of Al Qaeda comprises tribesmen and 18 out of 19 hijackers were Yemeni tribals, 12 from the Saudi Aseer province belonging to Yemeni tribes.”

In his analysis, the problem is not in tribal cultures per se but the way governments (the centre) have dealt with tribal areas all over the Muslim world as peripheries. It is the lack of respect for tribal cultures by the central authority that is at the root of the problem.

In fact, Fata is in no way unique in its tribal form of social organisation. All humanity has passed through a tribal phase and all the four provinces in the country have an element of tribalism in some areas. Elman Service, an American anthropologist, in his famous categorisation divided human societies into four categories of increasing population, size, political centralisation, and social stratification: band, tribe, chiefdom, and state.

As these factors change, tribes cannot run their affairs using tribal structures, and turn into chiefdoms or get integrated into state structures. This is how state structures have replaced tribes and chiefdoms all over the world. Tribal structures cannot survive because of religious ideology, riwaj or a psychological state like ‘ghairat’ (honour) in the face of change in population size, subsistence, political centralisation, and social stratification of an area.

It is these demographic and socioeconomic changes that had made tribal structures obsolete even before the Taliban dealt them a mortal blow. While Fata was ripe for integration with the rest of the Pakhtun areas and the nation-state, successive governments resisted reforms in the area. This is what created a terrible vacuum and led to space for the Taliban and other extremists to find refuge here. The Taliban physically eliminated jirgas and elders through their suicide bombers and turned these areas into their chiefdoms, if we use the Service’s categorisation.

The state is culpable by denying political reforms and human development to the area and fostering a criminal elite that has turned this egalitarian society into a land of stark inequality. In terms of distribution of wealth, Fata is today the least egalitarian area in the country, home to a minority of extremely rich people living side by side with a large majority of the poorest and least developed people in the country.

Every crisis is an opportunity and every opportunity for reform has a limited time span. Fata is clamouring for reforms while our governments are dragging their feet and are reluctant to set aside administrative and material resources required for the purpose.

Building a post-conflict society is a huge challenge. Unfortunately, the threat of violence is not completely over as the TTP has found sanctuaries on the other side of the Durand Line. The current difficulties in Fata are rooted in the fact that the government has failed to undertake reform and establish a post-conflict management structure in the area. The old order is over, but the new order has not replaced it. By now, civilian institutions should have been able to take over most responsibilities from the military.

Scholars like Akbar S Ahmad and politicians like Imran Khan have long defined Fata in terms of the tribal code of revenge. According to Ahmad, the tribal code based on revenge and honour is the main operating force behind terrorism. Rather than Islamic ideology of any sort, it is this tribal code that this violence is emanating from.

Citizens in a civilised society use the code of peaceful protest while making demands on the state and, in this, the residents of Fata are no different from the people of any democratic society – or any other part of the country. Now that the nightmare of the Taliban is behind them, people in Fata want rule of law; they want integration with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and they want respect and dignity.

The people of Fata are some of the most enterprising and hardworking people in the country. They deserve equal rights and must be willing to share equal responsibilities with the rest of the people of the country. A new social contract is needed, not with tribes but with the people of Fata as citizens of Pakistan.

The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.


Twitter: @zaighamkhan