Pakistan is increasing its crackdown on a civil rights movement demanding security rights and accountability for alleged grave abuses against the country’s ethnic Pashtun minority.
But as more leaders and activists of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, better known by its initials, PTM, are killed, injured, beaten, arrested or forced into hiding, Pakistan’s political discourse is showing echoes of the creation of Bangladesh.
Nearly half a century ago, Bengali grievances in the former East Pakistan Province resulted in the dismemberment of Pakistan and the independence of Bangladesh in 1971. Since then politicians, activists, and scholars evoke the tragedy to remind the country’s powerful military not to go too far in suppressing dissent from minority ethnic groups.
“Grievances of [the Pashtuns] should be solved politically, not with force," Khwaja Asif, a Punjabi politician and senior leader of Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz, told the parliament after PTM activists were killed by military fire in late May.
He urged Islamabad to cautiously handle ethnic “fault lines” because the country has paid a high price for failing to answer to diverse ethnic groups.
"Our history of the past 72 years is tragic. We have made mistakes. The mistakes in East Pakistan caused the separation of Bengal,” he told lawmakers.
“Unrest in Balochistan has continued on and off for many years," he continued, alluding to the simmering separatist insurgency in the impoverished but resource-rich large southwestern province. During the past two decades, thousands have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced by militant attacks and military sweeps.
Asif, a former foreign minister, acknowledged Islamabad has “exploited” the Pashtun homeland in western Pakistan for decades. Pakistan’s powerful military used parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan Province to host Afghan anti-Soviet rebels in the 1980s and shelter the Taliban after their hard-line regime in Afghanistan was toppled in 2001.
Most of these militants were based in the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which was merged into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa last year. The PTM emerged from FATA, which was the epicenter of Islamabad’s domestic war on terrorism. Militant violence and military operations killed tens of thousands of civilians and forced millions of Pashtuns to leave their homeland since 2003.
Asif called for using political means and not force to address the grievances of former FATA residents.
But the clampdown on the year-old movement that has demanded security and rights for Pakistan’s 35 million Pashtuns, the second-largest ethnic group among the country’s 207 million people, is relentless.
On June 7, Abdullah Nangyal, a senior PTM leader, was arrested by counterterrorism police in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s southern city of Tank. He is among the nearly three dozen PTM leaders and activists arrested on charges of defamation, sedition, and terrorism.
The crackdown on the PTM followed a late April pronouncement by the military’s spokesman. On April 29, Major General Asif Ghafoor told journalists that “time is up” for the PTM because it was playing into the hands of Afghan and Indian spy services.
But nearly two weeks earlier, PTM leaders Manzoor Pashteen and Mohsin Dawar, a lawmaker, had held a meeting with a special committee of the Pakistani Senate.
“The committee members declared the PTM’s demands to be just and consider it necessary to find a lasting solution to them,” an April 16 statement by the Senate said, adding that Pashteen urged the committee to address their grievances including forced disappearances, mine clearance in FATA, and the formation of a truth and reconciliation commission.
Since its emergence in February 2018, the PTM has relentlessly campaigned for an end to illegal killings, many of them allegedly by the security forces and harassment of Pashtun civilians across the country. The movement has also demanded that authorities present to court thousands of victims of forced disappearances while forming a commission to address Pashtun grievances arising out of Islamabad’s domestic war on terrorism.
“Having a different [opinion] is the basis of a democratic process,” the Senate statement said.
Ghafoor, however, warned journalists against covering the movement. “When we straighten their language and when they [the PTM leaders] are exposed, then you can keep them on TV 24/7,” he said.
The clampdown began on May 26, when the army announced three people had been killed after a group led by PTM lawmakers Ali Wazir and Dawar attacked a military checkpoint in the western North Waziristan tribal district, which borders Afghanistan.
But PTM leaders and eyewitnesses countered those claims. Dawar said gunfire from the soldiers killed 13 protesters and injured scores of others soon after he and Wazir had reached a protest site after going through two check posts in the remote village of Khar Qamar.
The military arrested Wazir in Khar Qamar while Dawar surrendered to a counterterrorism court in Bannu a few days later. Dawar and Wazir are currently in a prison in Peshawar, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s capital. Their arrests have been followed by the arrest of scores of PTM activists in various cities while the police violently ended the movement’s sit-in protest in Peshawar on June 3.
CIVICUS, a global civil society alliance, says it has “documented systematic attacks against the PTM with scores of peaceful protesters arbitrarily arrested, detained, and prosecuted on spurious charges, while protests by the PTM have been obstructed.” In a June 7 statement, it called on Islamabad to “end their judicial persecution” of Gulalai Ismail, a PTM leader and human rights activist.
Since its emergence as the homeland of South Asia’s Muslims in 1947, Pakistan has struggled with movements claiming rights for ethnic groups. In Bengal, where a popular movement had favored the creation of Pakistan during the British Raj, the resentment against the new country began with a harsh crackdown on students protesting for language rights in 1952.
By 1971, the Bengali grievances had snowballed into an independence movement after Pakistan’s military dictator Yahya Khan failed to transfer power to their leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, and imprisoned him. His Awami League political party had swept the parliamentary election in December 1970.
But Khan responded by launching a military operation against the Bengali nationalists in March 1971. “Kill 3 million of them, and the rest will eat out of our hands,” Khan is reported to have said before launching the offensive formally called Operation Searchlight.
The nearly nine-month war ended with a defeat for the Pakistani military when its forces surrendered to the Indian military in December 1971. Hundreds of thousands of Bengalis were killed in the war, which forced 10 million to flee to India while another 30 million were displaced.
For many Pakistani politicians, journalists, and scholars, the debacle became a byword for what can go wrong when the military attempts to crush popular movements.
In recent decades, economic woes and political grievances among the minority ethnic groups have mounted. Some leaders of the Pashtuns, Baluch, Sindhis, and Mohajirs have opposed domination by the Punjabis, Pakistan’s largest ethnic group. With a population of more than 110 million, the eastern province of Punjab claims a lion’s share of resources and dominates Pakistan’s fledgling economy. The Punjabis dominate national institutions such as the parliament, government bureaucracy, and the armed forces and claim a majority of national elites.
“We are not ready to live in Pakistan as slaves for one minute,” said Pashtun nationalist leader Mahmood Khan Achakzai. He told supporters on June 7 that the onus of ensuring that Pakistan continues as a federal democracy is on the military.
“If the Pakistani military refuses to abide by the constitution, why should we follow it?” Achakzai asked. His Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party announced protests against the crackdown on the PTM in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the northern Pashtun-populated regions of Balochistan on June 8.
Adil Najam, an international relations professor at Boston University, counts the PTM as Pakistan’s top problem. He urged Islamabad to adopt a cautious approach toward the movement.
“The implosion and unraveling we are seeing will make it difficult to count who committed the [first] mistake,” he told the Talk4Pak website. “The question now is, do we as a nation, [security] institutions and the PTM, instead of only focusing on the mistakes, can we engage in building bridges?”
He says the Pakistani government and military need to extend a positive gesture to the PTM.
“Two of their lawmakers who campaigned for victims of forced disappearances have now become missing persons,” he said, implying that Islamabad should release Wazir and Dawar as a goodwill gesture.