Interview of Afrasiab Khattak
"Political workers can be unfairly expelled from a political party but they can’t be expelled from politics. We shall steadfastly continue struggle against all forms of oppression, suppression & exploitation," says a November 12, 2018 tweet by Afrasiab Khattak, in response to a recent decision of his party concerning his own expulsion. He is a leftwing politician, former senator and ex-provincial president of the Awami National Party. TNS interviews the senior politician with years of struggle for human rights and parliamentary democracy to know his views about the current state of politics, security concerns and foreign policy.
The News on Sunday: How do you look at the current political scenario, especially in terms of political parties as institutions as well as the freedoms allowed to civil society? Where are we headed?
Afrasiab Khattak: We have seen growing pressure on the democratic system from anti-democratic forces over the last few years. Expansion of de facto at the cost of de jure has been the hallmark of the pre and post-election political developments in the country during the current year. The trend is also reflected in new curbs on freedom of expression which is the mother of all democratic freedoms.
Efforts at undermining the effective role of political parties have been accompanied by hounding of NGOs and making a mockery of the autonomy of university campuses. The aim to impose authoritarian narrative under the guise of patriotism is to eliminate alternative narratives and dissent. Unfortunately, most of the political parties have failed to stand up to the authoritarian onslaught against freedom of expression.
The aggressive campaign of selective accountability has effectively been used to silence the traditional political elite. Except PTM (Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement), there is no sign of politics of resistance. Actually, political parties as institutions have been considerably weakened not just by state repression but also by their own internal degeneration. For any meaningful change in the country parties will have to start from internal sociopolitical reforms to develop the capacity to push back this creeping fascism. Dynastic and patronage politics will have to be replaced by democratic practices and meritocracy to strengthen political parties and to develop a democratic culture.
TNS: How do you look at the Pashtuns’ concerns which are articulated somewhat in Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement and yet the people of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa massively voted for Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf. If the two represent divergent thoughts, where does the ANP stand?
AK: The four decades long military conflict in Afghanistan has left a devastating impact on Pashtuns on both sides of the Durand Line. The colossal losses in terms of human lives, properties and culture are debilitating. There is a growing realisation among Pashtuns about the fraud imposed on them in the name of Jihad by big powers and local players. They feel that they were used as cannon fodder in the not so great games. They think that religious extremism and militancy was injected into their body politic for deconstruction of their historical and cultural identity. Since the former FATA was the epicentre of this war, Pashtuns of this area bore the brunt of the destruction. Sandwiched between the army and the militants these people have suffered the most.
Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement is the non-violent political uprising against war and tyranny. Unfortunately, the traditional nationalist political parties failed in raising effective voice against the forces bringing war, destruction and oppression. Traditional nationalist organisations also failed to respond to the significant socio historical changes in society.
For example, youth bulge is a demographic reality. We are at a point of inter-generational transition. My generation has played its inning. The driving seat belongs to young leaders now. Similarly, the ever expanding urbanisation and the rise of new middle classes can be ignored by political parties at their own peril. Landed gentry is a spent force. So, traditional nationalist organisations will either go for introspection and change or will face irrelevance. PTI is the beneficiary of both the political engineering by the deep state recently experienced in Pakistani politics and also the failure of traditional nationalist organisations.
TNS: What is the role of women in ANP? Who represents the female face of the party after Bushra Gohar?
AK: Bacha Khan, the founder of the modern Pashtun nationalist movement in the 20th century was first and foremost a social reformer. Apart from preaching non-violence he also focused on spreading education and social equality. He actually redefined and modernised Pashtunwali, the traditional tribal way of life. Bacha Khan underlined the significance of educating girls and the inclusion of women in politics. ANP has that legacy and in the recent years included women in mainstream organisational structure rather than going for tokenism in the name of women wing.
But the deeply-entrenched patriarchy hampers such efforts and we experienced resistance against inclusion of women in decision-making bodies. Yes, Bushra Gohar proved her mettle inside and outside the parliament as a political stalwart. Luckily, we have had Jamila Gilani and a number of other women political activists and leaders. Let’s hope they are given the space they deserve. That will be one of the factors deciding the future of Pashtun nationalist organisations.
TNS: At the Faiz Festival in Lahore, you referred to the foreign policy challenges faced by Pakistan. The region is in the grip of terrorist attacks once again. Would you like to dwell on it a little?
AK: Foreign policy of a country, as we know, is the reflection of its internal policy. Pakistan’s economic dependence on other countries has been the most formidable hurdle on the path of adopting an independent foreign policy.
The rise of religious extremism and militancy in the country has comprehensively derailed Pakistani internal and external policies. Before Zia’s martial law, Pakistan was well known for its good quality cotton exports in the world. But afterwards it has been regarded as hub of terrorism. This negative perception has resulted in international isolation of the country.
It’s scary to see the myopia in Pakistan’s Afghan policy. The resurgence of Taliban in Afghanistan will definitely lead to their resurgence in Pakistan as well. It’s strange that the movers and shakers of the country’s Afghan policy haven’t learnt any lesson from the not-so-old experience. Those who are gloating over Pakistan’s role in bringing Taliban to the negotiations don’t see the fact that by doing so Pakistan formally accepts its role as patron of Taliban who are known to have hosted the most dangerous international terror networks.
The possibility of getting sucked into Middle Eastern conflict is yet another serious challenge. The recent abduction of Iranian security guards by militants operating from Pakistani soil reflects the magnitude of the threat.
Achieving normal relationship with neighbours should be the top priority which can be achieved by paying attention to geo-economic rather than getting bogged down in geo-strategic.
TNS: Do you see an insidious campaign against the 18th Constitutional Amendment by some sections of the government and establishment? What is the significance of this amendment for the federation?
AK: The insidious campaign against the 18th Constitutional Amendment is the continuation of attack on the constitutional order that started with the dissolution of the first Constituent Assembly of Pakistan in 1954 by Governor General Ghulam Mohammad. Pakistan got disintegrated in the process in 1971 but no lessons are learnt. The federal democratic system shaped by the 1973 Constitution was never accepted by the anti-democratic forces. The two martial laws that followed the promulgation of the 1973 Constitution imposed serious distortions and deformations on it with the aim of replacing the federal character of the Constitution with a unitary one and the parliamentary system with a presidential one.
The 18th Amendment tried to restore the original 1973 Constitution by eliminating the aforementioned distortions and deformations. The chapter on human rights has been strengthened by the addition of three more fundamental rights in the list. President’s power to dissolve the elected assembly was brought back to the parliament. Concurrent List was abolished and more power was devolved to the federating units (provinces) in accordance with the intent of the framers of the Constitution and the spirit of the federal system. It lays down a democratic foundation for nation building and state building project in Pakistan. It’s a win win situation for all sides as it strengthens the country by removing the grievances of the population wise smaller provinces through recognising their control over their resources.
Provincial governments are responsible for socio-economic development and no one will be able to blame Islamabad for the lack of development. It’s obviously good for national unity. But it has definitely annoyed the circles in the federation who were in the habit of dipping their hand in federal kitty to take out as much as they would like.
Another important aspect of 18th Amendment is strengthening of Article 6 which has closed the doors for direct military coups. The problem is that civil and military bureaucracies, mainly hailing from the population-wise largest province, have never internalised the Amendment. Every major reform has teething problems. Genuine issues regarding the 18th Constitutional Amendment can be discussed in a democratic spirit but any subversion of the federal character of the system through questionable means can be disastrous for the federation.
TNS: What do you make of FATA’s merger with KP and what more needs to be done?
AK: Theoretically the erstwhile FATA has been merged in Pakhtunkhwa but practically it’s living in a legal and administrative limbo as the reforms aren’t implemented. There are four major hurdles. One, complete opening up of the former FATA districts will not be possible as long as it is used for war in Afghanistan. Entry into the area is still restricted even for the locals by the security institutions. Two, there is a huge black economy which includes drug trafficking, gun running and commodity smuggling. There’s a strong interest guarding the status quo. So far there is nothing on the paper for a transition from an economy of mismanagement into an economy of management. Three, building physical and intellectual infrastructure to take proper judicial, executive and financial institutions of the state into the area requires money (3 per cent of NFC Award) which has yet to be made available. Four, there have been problems with shaping in proper implementation mechanism for the reforms. The bureaucracy that has a strong vested interest in maintaining the status quo is still calling the shots.
In the current scenario the people are totally powerless. For example, after the end of May there is no judicial system in the area with a population of armed ten millions. The old system became infructuous and the new one is yet to be built.
TNS: The phenomenon of religious militancy is taking a new shape and expanding with the Barelvi brand of Islamists now also vying for space in national politics. Where will all this lead us?
AK: The recent mutinous acts by TLP, a religious extremist outfit, indicate the rise of new forms of bigotry and fanaticism. Traditional Deobandi school, which is now deeply impacted by Middle Eastern extremist ideological trends, was known for its large-scale involvement in Jihadist activities. Using the vast financial resources and strength of religious seminaries it had also developed considerable political clout. It is still stubbornly guarding its political turf.
In recent years, the Barelvi school, predominant among Sunni Muslims of Pakistan, also decided to politicise its sectarian influence. Unfortunately, after Zia’s martial law religious extremism has made inroads in state institutions and has successfully influenced state policies. The failure of the state in implementing National Action Plan (NAP) for curbing extremism and terrorism approved by all and sundry in 2014 is the most significant proof of the state failure on this front.
As if this wasn’t enough the banned outfits, that were supposed to be stopped to work under new names, were allowed to horizontally expand under the garb of "mainstreaming" during the recent elections. This policy failure still remains an unmitigated disaster. Religious extremism and militancy poses an existential threat to Pakistani state.