Judging Pashtuns

Stereotypically identifying Pashtuns with violent extremism will have dreadful consequences in store

Judging Pashtuns

Despite accusations and prompt denials of any sort of racial profiling of Pashtun in various part of Pakistan, the reality today is people from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are generally subjected to a particularly derogatory view by many in public and private. Indeed it is most condemnable attitude as it is corrosive for any society because it teaches people to make judgments about a particular group on the basis of the way they look or assumptions that they might make about a particular people. This then lead people to justify all sorts of discrimination and indignities against a particular ethnicity or group of people.

However, in case of us it is just not condemning but also a tragic consequence of the follies that the state and successive governments in Pakistan committed to pursue their elusive project of nation building and foreign policy objectives. It is no accident that a layman and the one with beard from KPK are stereotypically identified with the abettors, if not the very members of any of the Islamist violent groups such as TTP. It is so ironic to know how we have come full circle in case of Pashtun people.

The circle starts from the years soon after independence of Pakistan when Afghanistan, rejecting hitherto agreeable Durand Line, started fanning and supporting secessionist Pashtun groups which continued for the next almost a quarter of a century. Not only that, first, Afghanistan voted against Pakistan’s membership in the United Nations but so much so that, for instance, when One Unit model of parity with East Pakistan was adopted in Pakistan, the Afghan government found it necessary to openly criticise it.

It was during the height of early stressful years after independence that in 1951 an ultra-nationalist Pashtun Said Babrak assassinated the first prime minister of Pakistan. Had this murder been executed in the current milieu of global politics, Afghanistan would have been held directly responsible for the heinous crime. Throughout this period, Pakistan saw on multiple occasions its embassy and consulates in Afghanistan attacked, vandalised and Pakistan flags there replaced with Pashtunistan flag by so-called protesters who enjoyed covert support of the Afghan government.

Against the backdrop of all these years of adversarial policy from Afghanistan, Pakistan had to suffer the greatest blow to its existence when in 1971 East Pakistan seceded after a brief civil war there which had covert Indian support. This was followed by emboldened National Awami Party (NAP) in Balochistan and KP, where they formed coalition governments, to demand for more autonomy than the federal government was ready to give at that moment.

Around same time came the Sindhi Language Bill 1972 controversy in Sindh, which caused bloody riots, hundreds of deaths and sharpened the ethnic identities between rural Sindhis and Urdu-speaking Mohajirs of the province. Within two years of the regrettable separation of East Pakistan, these parochial developments in the leftover provinces of the country and a hostile Afghanistan meddling with Pashtun and Baloch sentiments must have turned the state of Pakistan jittery.

Pashtuns have been overfed with the impression that they are best fit only to fight. This is in stark contrast to Pashtun cultural heritage which is so full of softer aspects such as romantic folklores.

This was manifested with actions locally and across Durand Line. The state’s intense desire to dunk ethnic identities in the solution of Islam can be sensed from deliberations of the First Congress on the History and Culture of Pakistan, held in Islamabad University in 1973. Its proceedings were published as "The Quest for Identity". In his editor’s note, prominent academician Waheed-uz-Zaman stated, "If the Arabs, the Turks, the Iranians, God forbid, give up Islam, the Arabs yet remain Arabs, the Turks remain Turks, the Iranians remain Iranians, but what do we remain if we give up Islam?"

At political level while the NAP-led provincial government of Balochistan was dismissed which soon led to an intense military operation there, the government in KPK, where JUI held the chief ministry in coalition with NAP resigned in protest. To counter the continuous Afghan meddling, finally ZA Bhutto had to give a nod to an intelligence policy to support the discontent Islamic groups in Afghanistan and ISI roped in the ilk of young Gulbuddin Hikmatyar and Ahmed Shah Masood, who would later play such a decisive role in Afghanistan. In short term this move from Pakistan deterred the Afghan government from continuing with fanning Pashtunistan sentiment in Pakistan.

Later, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and installed a communist government of Babrak Karmal, who publicly supported Pashtun separatists in Pakistan. With Soviet Russia already across Durand Line and its sponsored government there so openly hostile to Pakistan, the situation had left perhaps no option for Pakistan but to collaborate with US and support Afghan resistance movement led by Hikmatyar, Ahmed Shah Masood and other Mujahideen to fight the Soviets.

This background provided an opportunity to the Islamists to take roots in all parts of Pakistan under state patronage. In particular, the Pashtun in KPK, Fata and northern Balochistan had to be given a consistent and heavy dose of political Islam. This was not only to neutralise local Pashtunistan sentiments but also recruit the foot soldiers to go and wage a Jihad against Soviets and their local communist regime in Afghanistan.

The nation-building project which was not only inspired by but had obvious overtones of Jihadist Islam was implemented across the length and breadth of the country through promotion of conservative values and attitudes. The print and electronic media were manoeuvered to play an instrumental role in influencing popular opinion in favour of religion-based nationalism. However, a far more strategic role was assigned to sectarian Deobandi and, to some extent, Ahle Hadith clerics and their Madrassas who were already close to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. These clerics and their likeminded men in academia and bureaucracy were also given a role to reform formal education system and syllabus in line with Islamist jingoism.

It is pertinent to know how vigorously it was pursued. There were no more than 300 Madrassas in Pakistan at the time of independence. The enrollment rate in Madrassas until 1980 in fact showed a negative trend. However, with pro-Jihad religion oriented nation-building project, which also served foreign policy interest across Durand Line, the establishment of religious seminaries was proactively pursued along with financial support from GCC countries led by KSA.

A recent study titled as "The Madrassa Conundrum -- the state of religious education in Pakistan" informs that there was an unprecedented spike in both numbers of Madrassas and enrollment there during the years of Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. While it took over three decades during 1947-79 to have the number of Madrassas tripled from less than 300 to 900, in the next decade, their number further grew by more than three times to over 2800. As much as 64 per cent of this was for Deobandi Madrassas. With Jihad in Afghanistan, Madrassa Jamia Haqqaniyya, a Deobandi seminary 30 miles from Peshawar, became virtual headquarters of Jihad and Fata a sanctuary of Jihadists with full support from the state.

However, by 1989 with the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan, Pakistan’s objective vis-à-vis neutralising Pashtun secessionist sentiment and fighting against Communist threat, and having an affable Afghanistan were largely achieved.

General Zia, who presided over Pakistan’s Islamisation and Afghan policy, died in an air crash in 1988. This was a perfect time to gradually rollback the nation-building through a jingoistic view of Islam and private Jihad. Unfortunately, the establishment within Pakistan preferred to continue with this policy to keep a deep influence in Afghanistan and to support the cause of Kashmir. Incidentally, around same time a purely indigenous insurgency had spiked in the Indian occupied Jammu and Kashmir following widespread protests against rigged elections to state assembly in 1987.

Consequently, KPK and adjoining Fata region particularly continued to serve as a sanctuary for the growth of intolerant and militant narrative which, to make the matters worse, got sectarian and Arab Salafist undertones too. It is for this fact that research study mentioned earlier noticed increase in the number of madrassas between 1988 and 2002 with significant rise in Deobandi seminaries, which increased from 1779 to 7000! As many as over 4000 of these seminaries today are located in KPK and Fata. Continued for decades, all this just mutilated the Pashtun outlook.

Geographic traits and Pashtunwali values of Pashtun aside, Pashtuns have been overfed with the impression that they are genetically best fit only to fight. This is in stark contrast to Pashtun cultural heritage which is so full of softer aspects such as romantic folklores of Adam Khan-Durkhanai, Yousuf Khan-Shehrbano, Sher Alam-Mamonai, and poetry, especially ‘tappay’ so famous with rural Pashtun women. And who can deny the contribution of Pashtun legendary artists to film industry in India and Pakistan.

Without meaningful investment from the state of Pakistan towards health and education development in KPK and Fata, these areas were left to the indoctrination of intolerant narrative of the religion through Madrassa, mosque and formal schools which only helped the rise of militaristic attitudes.

Certainly, there is no dearth of violent extremists within other regions and ethnicities of Pakistan, but Pashtuns are so stereotypically identified with violent extremists who pose a threat to the state and society of Pakistan. This in turn, and so rightly, offends the ethnic identity of Pashtun. It is similar to how all Muslims in the West and other non-Muslim countries are generally seen with a suspicion for fears of terrorism, obviously though not even a fraction of Muslims in the world subscribe to violent extremism.

It goes without saying that letting this perception grow unchecked is homicidal to a democratic country with dreadful consequences in store.

Certainly, sustainable solution lies in revisiting the state narrative which will require reforms in governance, education policy, Madrassa education, and foreign policy.

Judging Pashtuns