The arrest of a young leader was intended to suppress a civil rights movement critical of the Pakistani Army’s conduct in the country’s northwestern Pashtun homeland.
Instead, this week’s detention of Manzoor Pashteen, 25, on sedition charges has electrified his Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM). By mobilizing its support base, the movement -- which demands security and rights for Pakistan’s largest ethnic minority, the Pashtuns -- has showcased its popularity. Despite extensive government censorship of the PTM, Pashteen’s detention and the protests that have followed have gained it widespread sympathy.
Pakistani officials, however, deny the movement poses a challenge to their power or that it represents popular resentment against the military’s highhandedness and the civilian government’s failure to deliver reforms, justice, and an economic upturn.
The ongoing crackdown against the PTM appears to be having the opposite effect.
Censorship of the PTM Pakistan has increased international media’s curiosity while Islamabad’s tough response to the movement’s activism has invited condemnation. The PTM leaders’ criticism of the powerful military, even after nearly two years of persecution, has won support from civic and political groups. It has even elevated them as an alternative to established political parties whose recent support for army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s new term in office was widely criticized.
“The brave and organic leadership of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement as well as the movement itself provides a ray of hope,” Pakistani author Ayesha Siddiqa wrote. She says that if the PTM protects itself from being manipulated by the military, as has happened to other political and social groups, it will continue to gain support. “[If it] doesn’t turn into a patronage-based [political] party structure, the PTM will continue to inspire.”
For now, PTM leaders are pushing ahead with their demands for accountability for the military’s alleged abuses during nearly 15 years of operations in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where Pashtuns are a majority of the 35 million residents. The military possesses a stranglehold over all levels of power in the country.
“The people of this country will have to decide whether a few government bureaucrats can continue ruling this country or its more than 200 million people are entitled to choose their rulers,” lawmaker Mohsin Dawar, a senior PTM leader, told protesters in Islamabad on January 28 shortly before he was briefly detained by the police.
“Manzoor Pashteen is not a traitor, but [General Pervez] Musharraf has committed treason,” he said, referring to the December ruling of a special court that sentenced the former military ruler to death by hanging for suspending the constitution in 2007. A provincial high court later overruled the judgement, but the case is expected to go before Pakistan’s Supreme Court.
“If anything, Pashteen has now become a symbol of resistance to military dominance and the PTM is finding support outside its traditional base,” former Pakistani lawmaker Farahnaz Ispahani wrote. Since Pashteen’s arrest, most opposition political parties, rights watchdogs, and independent civil society organizations have called for his release, with some participating in PTM protests on January 28.
Seasoned politicians are recognizing the movement’s role in pushing back against authoritarianism.
“Unfortunately, the political parties, organized labor unions, and even the lawyers are on the backfoot. But the young leaders of [the PTM] are rising to the occasion,” Farhatullah Babar, a senior leader of the center-left Pakistan Peoples Party, told journalists in Islamabad on January 30. “They have decided to not let the country be ruled as it is being governed now.”
Babar warned against suppressing the PTM by force. “Do not try to fight a war against them; instead engage them in a dialogue,” he said. “You [Islamabad] wants negotiations with neighboring India [to resolve bilateral issues]; why can’t you solve problems with your own people through dialogue?”
Islamabad, however, appears in no mood to heed such advice. "As far as the Pashtuns are concerned, they stand with this government," Interior Minister Ijaz Shah told the BBC Urdu Service. "The [ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf] enjoys a two-third majority [in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly].”
Shah, a former brigadier general and spy chief, claimed Prime Minister Imran Khan is more popular among Pashtuns than any other leader. "No other political leader has done what he [Imran] has done for the merger of tribal districts and for bringing the Pashtun into the mainstream,” he said. “So then, who is their leader: Pashteen or Imran?”
But few are content with the developments in the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Eighteen months after its merger into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the region is caught in limbo awaiting reforms and development.
On January 30, hundreds of traders began a sit-in protest in Peshawar calling on the government to give them promised compensation for properties and businesses in Miran Shah. The bazaar in the remote town, headquarters of western North Waziristan district, was razed in a major military operation in 2014. In another protest that began on January 27 in the southern city of Tank, thousands of Mehsud tribespeople are demanding government compensation for damaged property. Half a million Mehsuds were displaced by a military operation in South Waziristan in 2009.
The PTM’s leaders and supporters have faced persecution for such causes since the group’s emergence at an Islamabad protest in February 2018. Their criticism of the military for alleged illegal killings, forced disappearances, and collusion with Islamist militants has resulted in countless police reports and court cases. They typically invoke sedition, rioting, and even anti-terrorism clauses to deter the movement’s supporters.
Security forces and pro-government Taliban killed PTM protesters in two shootings incidents in South and North Waziristan in 2018 and 2019. Crackdowns involving arrests, prisons, firings, and harassment of individual activists have apparently failed to dent the PTM’s popularity among the Pashtun youth who continue to flock to its noisy street protests and online campaigns. Pakistani courts have not convicted any PTM leaders yet.
Instead, the crackdowns have invoked domestic and international criticism. “Pakistani authorities should stop arresting activists like Manzoor Pashteen who are critical of government actions or policies,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a January 27 statement. “Using criminal laws to chill free expression and political opposition has no place in a democracy.”
Inadvertently, Islamabad’s clampdown on the PTM seems to bolster Pashtun ethno-nationalism. Since its inception, Pakistan has treated nationalist movements among ethnic groups as an existential threat to its imagined status as a haven for South Asia’s Muslims. Islamabad has been particularly wary of Afghanistan, where Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group and most governments have harbored irredentist claims or championed Pashtun nationalism. Pakistan’s support for various Afghan Islamist groups since the 1970s was envisioned as bulwark against a Pashtun national movement transcending the two countries.
Its crackdown on the PTM now fuels such a movement. On January 27, Pakistan called on Afghanistan to refrain from interfering in internal affairs after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani called on Islamabad to release Pashteen. On January 28, tens of thousands of Afghans participated in more than a dozen protests across Afghanistan calling for Pashteen’s release.
“I am at a loss to understand whether this approach to the PTM is based on stupidity or something else,” said Talat Hussain, a journalist in Islamabad. “If it is part of a [deliberate] policy then someone in the government needs to issue a statement on the issue.”
In one of its most expansive statements, Murad Saeed, the communications and postal services minister, repeated Islamabad’s accusations that the PTM is working against Pakistan’s interests at the behest of Afghanistan and India. “Why do some political parties come out in their support when we act against them?” he asked lawmakers on January 30.
Dawar, however, questioned the motivation behind Pashteen’s arrest, which he said followed a day after Defense Minister Pervez Khattak invited them to the negotiating table. “In the end, I think, they will declare the entire country traitors apart from a few individuals and some government bureaucrats,” he told lawmakers.
Given Pakistan’s history, Islamabad is likely to double down on its stance against the PTM by going after its leaders and sympathizers.