A new movement demanding rights and security for Pakistan’s minority ethnic Pashtuns is now facing some of the coercive strategies various regimes in the country have employed to suppress leaders and movements demanding autonomy and emancipation.
For decades politicians, activists, and intellectuals have faced assassinations, exile, prisons, forced disappearances, court cases, and accusations of sedition and working for foreign powers as they voiced complaints of state oppression or pushed for rights and a share of national resources.
Mohsin Dawar, a lawyer and young leader of the newly formed Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) or Movement for the Protection of Pashtuns, says they are already facing a range of pressures and tactics.
“They [the authorities] are using everything to stop us from gaining traction,” he told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website on March 26. “In so many ways, we are being told to step back from what we are determined to do.”
On March 26, PTM supporters protested in more than 20 cities across Pakistan to denounce the arrest of their comrades, harassment of their leaders, and efforts to suppress their campaign by questioning their patriotism and commitment.
The movement emerged from a 10-day sit-in protest in the capital, Islamabad, in February, which galvanized the grievances of Pakistan’s estimated 40 million Pashtuns. Their homeland in northwestern Pakistan, particularly an arch of mountainous territory called the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) near the border with Afghanistan, has served as the main theater for the global war on terrorism for 15 years.
Senior Pakistani officials say more than 80,000 people have been killed and maimed in the region. Millions more were displaced by the insurgency shaped by Taliban and Al-Qaeda attacks and large-scale Pakistani military offensives.
PTM leaders says they want Islamabad to restore lasting peace in the Pashtun heartland by addressing unlawful killings, enforced disappearances, and harassment during military sweeps and at security checkpoints. Islamabad has already begun what PTM leaders hope will be thorough demining of conflict zones.
While the government has acknowledged Pashtun grievances and has taken some steps to address their demands, the persistent and sharp criticism of Pakistan’s powerful military -- in charge of operations in FATA -- has touched on some raw nerves.
The movement’s leader, Manzoor Ahmad Pashteen, says they have received threats of attempts to implicate them in terrorism offenses.
“We have received telephone calls where we are warned to back off or we will be humiliated and discredited before the Pashtun people,” he told supporters in a Facebook video on March 24 without elaborating on who was behind the threats. “We are warned [of being submerged in a deluge] of propaganda, which has already begun.”
In February, Pakistani media largely ignored the PTM story. This month, Pashteen and other PTM leaders gained some airtime, but coverage of their protest on most news television channels is still rare. English-language dailies, however, have carried some hard-hitting op-eds and a few stories about the movement, but their readership in a country of more than 200 million people is limited.
Sentiments expressed on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms have echoed with anti-PTM trends and messages. In the absence of media coverage, campaigners have relied on social media to spread PTM messages, cover their events, and carry the speeches of their leaders. Experts say the country’s vast security apparatus and political parties are capable of influencing trends on social media.
Ali Wazir, a firebrand leader of the PTM, says the authorities have failed to arrest the murderers of his brothers, father, uncles, and nearly a dozen other relatives who were killed in FATA’s South Waziristan tribal district since 2003 and yet are now quick to label his political activism as foreign-sponsored.
“I am calling on the government of Pakistan that if anyone calls us a traitor or foreign agent then they should back their accusations with proof,” he told supporters. “Do not deceive people by labeling us agents of Afghanistan, India, or anyone else. I am not anybody’s agent, but I am determined to demand my due rights.”
Dawar says they suspect the authorities are also employing more subtle techniques of dividing political movements through subversion, switching loyalties, and fomenting discord among its leaders and cadres. He suspects the dissolution of the National Youth Organization’s (NYO) organizing committee earlier this month was a similar move.
Dawar led the NYO for two years until his sudden sacking on March 19. The organization is part of the secular Awami National Party (ANP), which claims to champion Pashtun rights in Pakistan. The party, however, says they are seeking ways to coexist with PTM.
“We are seeking ways to prevent any negative fallout on our national movement [PTM] while also avoiding fingers being raised against our party,” said prominent NYO leader Palwasha Abass.
Dawar, Pashteen, and Ali are scheduled to meet with ANP leader Asfandiyar Wali Khan soon.
Senior Pakistani civilian and military officials have so far not criticized the PTM. But local officials in some Pashtun regions appear keen on countering it.
On March 13, police in southwestern Balochistan Province registered cases against Pashteen, Ali, Dawar, and other PTM leaders for criticizing the military. It accused them of "wantonly giving provocation with intent to cause [a] riot."
If convicted, they face multiyear jail sentences.
“The Jirga unanimously disowned the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement’s agenda and its leaders,” read a March 10 statement by the administration in South Waziristan tribal district’s administrative headquarters, Wana.
On March 24, authorities in Wana arrested Sardar Arif Wazir for organizing a pro-PTM protest. Both Ali and Pashteen live in the region and the authorities are keen to prevent them from campaigning there.
On March 23, authorities in South Waziristan dismissed Muhammad Anwar from his job as a junior administration official for “misconduct and involvement in political activities.” Anwar has allegedly posted pro-PTM messages on social media.
Former lawmaker Afrasiab Khattak says Pakistan’s powerful military is worried about PTM activism because it showcases the suffering of Pashtuns in FATA and elsewhere.
“Their activism has also blown away the feel-good narrative and rosy picture carefully cultivated by the army through embedded journalists and controlled visits to the area by outsiders,” he noted. “Instead, the ugly realities of atrocities committed in the area now under military control are coming out.”
Khattak says the movement’s activism has undermined efforts to cast the Taliban as a popular phenomenon. He says that bold statements by PTM leaders are now encouraging millions to mobilize for their rights, which is helped by the savvy use of social media by PTM cadres.
“From the military’s point of view, the scariest thing is that far from being a transient phenomenon, the PTM is expanding and attracting wider support,” he said.