Never in Pakistan’s 70-year history has a group so directly challenged the powerful military establishment. Never in the country’s recent past has a group been so subjected to curbs, media blackouts, and restrictions on its public activity. And never before has a group been able to mobilize so quickly and massively in spite of these obstacles.
The group in question? The Pashtun Tahafuz (Protection) Movement, or PTM: a four-month-old civil rights movement of Pakistan’s ethnic Pashtuns, the minority group representing roughly 30 million of the country’s 207-million strong population.
PTM’s slogans have already entered the public lexicon. “Da Sanga Azadi Da?” they ask in Pashto: “What kind of freedom is this?” And in Urdu, “Ye Jo Dihshat Gardi Hai, Es Ke Pechay Wardi Hai” has become their rallying cry: “The uniform [army] is behind this terrorism.” The group is gradually expanding its appeal not only to other ethnic and religious minorities, but to cross sections of Pakistani society who recognize the supremacy of the constitution and respect human rights, freedom of expression, peace, and democracy.
This may be the worst nightmare of Pakistan’s generals, who have ruled for nearly 35 years and are still regarded by most less-educated, poor, and middle-class Pakistanis as saviors and defenders of their country. Since Pakistan’s inception in 1947, the military brass has upheld their legitimacy by speaking of a “critical juncture” for the country. It’s part of a carefully tailored state narrative meant to defend their each and every unconstitutional step, from military coups to the use of jihadist proxies, and their slandering of opponents as infidels, traitors, and foreign agents.
Manzoor Pashteen, the charismatic 26-year-old tribal youth leader, has lately endured this treatment. He and his comrades in the PTM are a product of their homeland’s decades-long crisis. Bordering Afghanistan, the federally administered tribal areas (FATA) in Pakistan’s northwest are also called the “lawless land,” because successive Pakistani governments have preferred to administer them under the colonial-era Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) laws, rather than bringing them under the full jurisdiction of the constitution. Under the FCR laws, tribesmen could be arrested and punished under the collective responsibility clause, with no right to appeal. Meanwhile, the authority of the judiciary and the executive are both exercised by the same person: a federally appointed “political agent.”
Pashteen’s forefathers suffered under and struggled against the FCR regime for decades. His own generation endured hellish conditions following the arrival from Afghanistan of various Taliban groups, which quickly mushroomed, and the many subsequent military operations on their territory. The outcome was the destruction of property and businesses, the displacement of millions of tribesmen, the killing and maiming of thousands (including key tribal elders), continuous discriminatory treatment—and a continuous silence, rooted in a deeper legacy of fear.
Pashteen broke the silence, raising his voice against what he claims are injustices meted out to his fellow tribesmen. The killing of a tribal youth, Naqeebullah Mehsud, who aspired to be a male model, in a police encounter in Pakistan’s port city of Karachi in January provided the catalyst. What was planned as a movement for the protection of Mehsud tribesmen soon turned into the broader Pashtun Protection Movement.
Manzoor Pashteen was only five years old when he first came to know about the Taliban. Before the Taliban’s emergence, his tribal land was used by the Pakistani intelligence agencies, with the support of their foreign backers, as a launching pad and training ground for the anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980s. Before that, the Pakistani authorities sent a lashkar, a militia of tribal volunteers, to capture Kashmir, the Himalayan state with a majority-Muslim population whose Hindu ruler opted to join India soon after the emergence of the two countries as independent states in 1947.
The tribal people and their Pashtun brethren in the settled districts are showered with praise—said to be fiercely independent, a martial race and invincible—whenever they are needed to fight such proxy wars. But this lionization of the tribesmen does not extend to granting them basic rights under the constitution.
The PTM has a host of demands: the clearing of landmines that often kill and maim civilians, an end to body searches and alleged humiliations at security checkpoints, an end to Pashtun racial profiling in other parts of Pakistan, due compensation for the losses suffered by the tribesmen during the anti-Taliban military operations, the arrest and punishment of the police officer(s) allegedly involved in the killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud, and the disclosure of information on all the missing persons held by intelligence agencies over the past 15 years, with each to be punished or released per the findings of the judicial process.
The demand about the missing persons, in particular, has won the support of thousands of people, who hope that the new movement will help bring their loved ones home. Women, children, and old men can be seen everywhere at PTM’s gatherings, holding pictures of their missing relatives inscribed with their names, ages, and date of kidnapping.
At an April 29 gathering in Swat, I saw many participants with tears rolling down their cheeks as an eight-year-old girl took the stage, declaring amid tears that her father has been missing for several years with no clue as to his whereabouts. “My mom woke me up this morning with instructions to go to the meeting and let Manzoor Pashteen know about my father being missing so long,” she said.
Grown-up women rarely participate in political gatherings or protests in most Pashtun areas. However, Basro Bibi from the Khyber tribal district, one of the seven districts constituting FATA, surprised many when she cried for justice at another PTM gathering in Peshawar on April 8. Draped in a full brown burka, Basro Bibi told the gathering that her husband was a factory worker. He was picked up by the military’s security agencies four years ago, and the family does not know his whereabouts, or even whether he is dead or alive. “Stop this cruelty,” the mother of five implored.
The Pakistani military has made no official comment about demands for the return of missing persons. But PTM leaders told me in late April that dozens of people, held in the custody of the security agencies for years, have been returned to their families so far. They were quick to add, however, that they have a long list, running into the thousands, of those still missing. Researchers and tribal journalists whom I spoke to during my April visit told me that they fear many of those missing died during custody and interrogation, which they say the intelligence agencies simply cannot confess publicly.
For decades, FATA residents have endured consistent abuses and infringements on their rights, no matter who was officially in charge. First they suffered decades of repression under FCR rule, followed by the incursion of the Taliban and Pakistani security forces into their areas. While the Taliban brutalities included targeted killings, the beheading of tribal elders, and the bombing of public property, the army and its intelligence agencies are accused of employing equally repressive measures: occupying and destroying private property, arbitrarily expelling the tribal people from their areas, arresting and kidnapping tribesmen, and keeping them under illegal detention for weeks, months, and even years. The Pakistan Army rejects this criticism, saying it fought a hard battle against militants in the tribal areas, where it lost thousands of soldiers.
“People were so terrified that they would not dare to speak inside the four walls of their houses because anyone who tried to raise his voice was kidnapped, killed, or suffered huge material losses,” Manzoor Pashteen told me in an interview in early April. “We broke that silence. We gave courage to the people to speak.”
Yet the fear of criticizing Pakistan’s security establishment still runs deep. Even the leaders of top political parties, journalists, ministers, and senators refrain from mentioning by name the country’s prime intelligence agencies, Military Intelligence (MI) and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Instead they use code phrases like “Khufia Haath,” meaning “hidden hands.” Others are in the habit of touching their shoulders while referring to the army generals instead of mentioning them by name. In a recent statement, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, referring to the country’s intelligence agencies, said he is up against the “Khalai Makhlooq” (“aliens”).
By contrast, the PTM leadership directly mentions the army and its intelligence agencies while accusing them of kidnapping people, destroying their property, and acting in cahoots with the Taliban.PTM leadership directly mentions the army and its intelligence agencies while accusing them of kidnapping people, destroying their property, and acting in cahoots with the Taliban. In Peshawar on April 8, thousands rose to their feet and cheered as Ali Wazir, PTM’s second most popular leader, took the stage to deliver a speech. Wazir claims to have lost 17 family members and suffered huge material losses in his tribal homeland. Without mincing words, Wazir openly accused the Pakistani army of working hand-in-glove with the Taliban.
The army, of course, denies the charges of propping up the Taliban. But such accusations have clearly struck a nerve. The chief of the Army, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, addressing a ceremony at the headquarters of the Pakistan Army at Rawalpindi on April 12, said “engineered protests” would not be allowed to reverse the gains of counter-terrorism operations. The Pakistani authorities have recently employed countermeasures to arrest, harass, and intimidate PTM activists.
On April 21, the district authorities raided the hotel rooms in Lahore where the PTM leadership was staying overnight ahead of a gathering the next day, and temporarily arrested its activists. Earlier, the local administration flooded a venue chosen by PTM leadership for its public meeting.
Manzoor Pashteen was denied air travel from Islamabad to Karachi on May 12, when his ticket was mysteriously cancelled. As he proceeded by car to Karachi for the May 13 gathering, he had to face body searches and identity checks by security personnel every few miles, with the apparent intention to delay his arrival in the coastal city. The incident generated a huge outcry on social media, especially among youth in Punjab and Sindh provinces.
Just a day before, on May 12, three major political parties—Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf, the Pakistan Peoples Party, and the Awami National Party—held gatherings at three different locations in the same city. However, PTM activists faced detentions under charges of sedition, rioting, and terrorism as they were set to hold their gathering on May 13.
Such pressure tactics have been only partially effective at dampening turnout. While I was in Swat to cover the PTM’s April 29 gathering, many locals told me that village elders, under instruction from army officials, warned them not to join the gathering. Frightened by the threat, many did not turn up. But many others defied the orders, telling me that they can no longer afford to live in an environment of “slavery.” (Many among the “missing persons” that Manzoor Pashteen and his colleagues are advocating for come from Swat—a tourist district that the Taliban took over in 2007, before the Pakistan Army expelled them in 2009, displacing many residents in the process.)
With very few exceptions, none of the 24/7 Urdu-language electronic media or the hundreds of English, Urdu, and other regional-language newspapers cover the PTM gatherings. In contrast, hours of airtime are allotted to public meetings of the less popular Pakistan Zindabad Movement, which many believed is backed by the army and its intelligence agencies to counter PTM. Journalists, editors, and commentators feel severe (if invisible) pressure from the authorities to cover the one and ignore the other.
“They [the army] are scared to the level of paranoia,” one leading journalist told me during an informal interaction in Islamabad. “We did not receive any written instructions, but we know well where our limit ends,” the journalist added, referring to the widespread self-censorship driven by the fear that intelligence officials are closely monitoring PTM’s media coverage. The lackluster media attention has forced PTM activists to turn to social media. Facebook and Twitter have turned out to be key sources of information on PTM gatherings for many, including editors and reporters.
Meanwhile, Manzoor Pashteen and his comrades are accused of getting support from abroad, generally Afghanistan and India. The trend was set by General Bajwa’s April 12 remarks, when he referred to the protests as “engineered.” Since then, views about Pashteen and his struggle for justice have been sharply polarized. Those who accept the army’s viewpoint believe that PTM’s flagrant criticism of the security institutions is detrimental to their morale while fighting a hard battle against militants.
However, others reject the allegations that PTM is made up of “foreign agents” or acting “against the national interest,” on the grounds that Pashteen and his colleagues are simply demanding their constitutional rights. They believe Pashtun grievances are rooted in alienation, discrimination, and the humiliations suffered during the years of the Taliban and the War on Terror. And they dismiss the “foreign agent” allegations as a familiar slander, dating back to the 1970s when popular Baloch, Pashtun, and Sindhi leaders were so termed. More recently, Nobel Laureate Malala Yousufzai and the late human rights activist Asma Jehangir have also faced accusations of being “anti-state” foreign agents.
PTM activists always restrict their demands to the scope of the constitution. When Manzoor Pashteen was recently asked about his negotiations with a military-backed tribal jirga (council), he noted that his group’s grievances could only be addressed by the state. “We are citizens of this country, not rivals who want to settle a dispute,” he said. “We are citizens demanding our constitutional rights.”
Since its emergence in February, PTM has staged public gatherings in Islamabad, Quetta, Peshawar, Lahore, and Karachi, during which observers say all its activists remained peaceful, organized, and well-behaved despite tougher measures from the authorities. Pashteen and a majority of his supporters draw inspiration from the 20th-century Pashtun leader Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a.k.a. Bacha Khan, who fought a non-violent struggle for independence from the British. Because of his close association with Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi and his struggle for Pashtuns’ rights, Bacha Khan was also once termed a “Ghaddar” or traitor.
By confronting the army head-on over what they call its gross human rights violations and extra-judicial measures, the PTM leadership is challenging the army’s reputation as the most trustworthy institution in Pakistan, and its officers’ claims to be more honest and upright than the much-maligned political leadership.
Although a majority of the political parties and their leadership have publicly dissociated themselves from PTM, so as not to infuriate the army when parliamentary elections are only a few months away, they happily endorse Pashteen’s criticism of the army in the privacy of their own homes. This young man from the tribal lands is saying and doing what the politicians wish to but dare not.
Another factor scaring the generals is the PTM’s appeal to other progressive and democratic forces. Pashteen has drawn considerable support from the progressive Punjabi youth and intelligentsia, besides attracting activists from the ethnic Baloch minority and the Hazara community, whose members are persecuted by the militants in Quetta and its surroundings. PTM is spurring oppressed minorities to stand up for their constitutionally guaranteed rights, encouraging politicians to challenge the army, and pressuring the intelligence agencies to end their alleged support for proxy terrorists in Indian and Afghanistan in the name of the “national interest.”
The number of PTM’s active supporters may not be more than 15,000 to 20,000, much fewer than the supporters of the political parties. But that is enough to make a difference. These are diehard activists who either suffered themselves during the state’s military operations, or witnessed the suffering of their relatives and neighbors. Their sympathizers across Pakistan run into the millions.
PTM activists differ from loyalists of the political parties in another important sense. Unlike party workers, they care little about personal political gain. They are fighting for their rights and an end to war, not merely angling for a cushy political office. And polls suggest that each repressive measure against PTM—from media blackouts to arbitrary detentions to the denial of permits to hold its gatherings—only increases sympathy for the group in Pakistan.
Whatever happens next, PTM’s peaceful and non-violent protests against the authorities are gradually defusing the stereotypes about the Pashtun people being wild, hard-headed, ill-tempered Taliban supporters. Pashteen has already shown Pakistan and the world another side of his fellow tribesmen, proving that they are neither terrorists nor the supporters of terrorists, but their victims. If his movement can succeed in the long term, they may also become a positive force for change.