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Pakistan's Pashtuns Find New 'Frontier Gandhi'

Manzoor Pashteen (left) at a Pashtun rally in Quetta
Manzoor Pashteen (left) at a Pashtun rally in Quetta

A veterinary student from Pakistan's militancy-hit tribal areas, Manzoor Pashteen did not appear to be destined for the national stage.

But the 26-year-old has become a rising celebrity as the leader of a new protest movement advocating for the rights of Pakistan's Pashtun minority.

Pashteen's rise has seen him compared by his followers to the "Frontier Gandhi," the moniker given to Abdul Ghaffar Khan, better known as Bacha Khan, who led a nonviolence campaign for greater rights for his fellow Pashtuns in the British Raj in the early 20th century.

Speaking to RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal in a Skype interview, Pashteen echoed Bacha Khan's message.

"We believe in nonviolence," Pashteen said. "We are not using aggressive language and have no intention of resorting to violence."

"Now it is up to the government whether they let us use our right to peaceful protest or use violent means against us," added Pashteen, who hails from South Waziristan, part of the Pashtun-dominated Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) straddling the border with Afghanistan. "The choice is the government's."

Bacha Khan
Bacha Khan

​The impoverished, long-neglected, and largely lawless tribal areas became a frontline in the battle against extremist groups after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 when Al-Qaeda took refuge in the region. The area has been the scene of Pakistani army operations, U.S. drone attacks, and militant attacks that have uprooted millions of people and left thousands dead.

Pashtuns make up the majority of recruits and members of Pakistani-based militant groups such as the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network, and the Pakistani Taliban. The former extremist outfits have carried out deadly attacks against Afghan and international forces in neighboring Afghanistan, while the latter has carried out sectarian attacks against religious minorities and waged an insurgency against Pakistani government troops.

Civilians in Pashtun-dominated areas of Pakistan have borne the brunt of the violence and protesters have alleged extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, racial profiling, and harassment by law enforcement. They have demanded the lifting of curfews and other coercive measures, and the clearing of mines planted by the army in FATA.

Pashteen's Pashtun Protection Movement made national headlines when he led thousands of people from the tribal areas and northwest Pakistan to the capital, Islamabad, in February. The rally, ignited by the killing of a young Pashtun shopkeeper in an allegedly staged gunbattle with police in the port city of Karachi, stirred up long-held grievances among Pashtuns.

Since then, rallies have been held across the tribal areas, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, and neighboring Balochistan Province, attracting tens of thousands of people.

Pakistan has an estimated 40 million Pashtuns who form roughly 20 percent of the country's 200 million population. Pashtuns are concentrated in an arc along Pakistan's western border with Afghanistan in FATA and the provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan.

"The government is not serious at all," says Pashteen. "We informed the authorities that some people in the army and [intelligence] agencies are terrorizing our people. Instead of initiating action against those elements, the government and agencies filed police cases against us."

'Spontaneous Movement'

Pashteen's personal experiences fueled his activism. He was arrested one year ago after staging a protest against the planting of mines in FATA. Around two years ago, he established the Waziristan Protection Movement with 25 other young activists to fight for the rights of his community. The name was changed to Pashtun Protection Movement this year.

Afrasiab Khattak, a former senator and analyst, says Pashteen's efforts have spurred a "spontaneous movement that has overtaken political parties."

"Traditional tribal structures have broken down by violence imposed on the area," says Khattak. "A number of local leaders have been killed and others are displaced. Young activists like Manzoor Pashteen are filling this vacuum."

But Pashteen's critics suggest there are ulterior motives behind the movement.

Pakistan's FATA area (in orange)
Pakistan's FATA area (in orange)

"Pashtuns constitute the second-largest group in federal government ministries and the armed forces," says Imtiaz Gul, who heads the Islamabad-based Center for Research and Security Studies. "So, I don't understand what rights he is talking about."

"Of course the Pashtuns of FATA need to be treated as equal citizens and must be mainstreamed, but to project this demand as a Pashtun rights movement is unfair and appears politically motivated," adds Gul.

Pakistani security analyst Ayesha Siddiqa says Pashteen's movement is a genuine and organic effort to draw the attention of the Pakistani state toward the plight of people in the tribal areas.

"It's not about all Pashtuns but those from the tribal areas that got the rough end of the stick for the last 30 years that are genuinely hurt," she says. "In other parts of the country, their projection as terrorists or violent is totally uncalled for and unfair. However, this does not mean that Pashtuns that are in positions of authority are targeted."

'Magic' With The People

Pashteen appears unfazed by his detractors, and is planning rallies in the northwestern city of Peshawar and another sit-in in Islamabad.

"We have given the courage to the people to speak out about what they see and feel," he says. "They were scared and unable to speak. We have given them a voice and they have stood with us."

Mujahid Wazir is among the young Pashtuns who have joined the cause. A 30-year-old living in the city of Lahore, his family lives in a camp for internally displaced people outside of South Waziristan.

"We are fed up with military checkpoints and curfews," he says by telephone from Lahore. "I have been racially profiled under the pretext of security."

"Whenever there is a blast or attack, we are profiled," he adds. "We have to go to the police station."

Allah Noor is another Pashtun who is part of the movement.

"As we raised our voices, every tribesman who has suffered has come out to protest," he says from the northwestern city of Peshawar. "Before this movement started, there was widespread fear of speaking out."

Many Pashtuns allege they have been the targets of the Pakistani Army and intelligence services, which have an oversized role in the South Asian country. Pashtuns in FATA live under colonial-era laws that punish an entire tribe for the crime of an individual, jail residents for up to three years without cause, and forcibly relocate people and have their property searched and seized.

Pashteen is mobbed by supporters during rallies. Many embrace him and his younger fans emulate his attire -- shalwar kameez with a colorful scarf and red-and-black hat.

He says his ability to unite tens of thousands of people is not due to his charisma.

"The magic is in the cause and the people who have stood with me," he says.

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    Daud Khattak

    Daud Khattak is the managing editor of RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal. He is based in Prague and reports on social, political, and security issues in Pakistan.

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.