A civil rights movement in Pakistan is demanding security, rights, and accountability for the suffering of the country’s ethnic Pashtun minority, whose members have endured large-scale violence, destruction, and displacement over more than 15 years of fighting.
The Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) or Pashtun Protection Movement, however, has faced coercion, censorship, and allegations of promoting foreign agendas after demanding that Islamabad probe illegal killings and enforced disappearances and conduct demining and end harsh security measures curbing civilian life in their homeland.
Former officials, scholars, and human rights campaigners say the movement’s demands are lawful. They argue that addressing them will help Pakistan achieve greater stability, harmony among its diverse population, greater democratization, and establishing the rule of law.
Zohra Yousaf, a leading human rights campaigner, says the PTM emerged from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). This mountainous region comprising districts bordering Afghanistan in the west became a war zone after remnants of Afghanistan’s Taliban regime and its militant allies in Al-Qaeda and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan retreated to the region following the demise of Afghanistan’s hard-line Taliban regime.
“While the military operations in that area established peace [after 15 years of unrest], this movement has emerged to highlight the grievances originating in that period,” she told Radio Mashaal. “Their demands are justified, and all are related to demanding basic rights.”
Yousaf says the emergence of the PTM is important because it is an indigenous rights movement that will impact and perhaps contribute to improving the lot of citizens across Pakistan, where ethnic and religious minorities often complain of discrimination.
“This movement needs to be taken seriously and should not be dismissed as an anti-state initiative,” she said. “They are peaceful and talking about the fundamental rights of all citizens even if it is couched in a political language.”
Pakistan’s current supreme law dedicates some 20 clauses to the protection of its citizens’ fundamental rights. These include protection from arbitrary killings, arrests, slavery, and ill-treatment. The supreme law also guarantees the freedom of speech, assembly, association, and faith.
The citizens of FATA and some regions of neighboring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, however, were deprived of these rights. FATA’s status as an autonomous region kept it outside the constitution where few Pakistani laws were applied and courts had no jurisdiction. On April 18, Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain signed a new law to extend the authority of the country’s Supreme Court and the provincial high court of adjoining Khyber Pakhtunkhwa over FATA.
The PTM is campaigning for issues that emerged when the Pakistani military moved into FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s northwestern Swat Valley, where the Pakistani Taliban had established near complete control by 2008.
The military operations in these regions forced millions of Pashtuns to leave their home regions. But they faced harassment, and some were profiled as terrorist sympathizers because they came from regions where militants had established control. Those who remained there or returned years later faced landmines, curfews, and strict security protocols at check posts. The war affected Pakistan’s estimated 40 million Pashtuns who make up the second-largest ethnic group in the country.
The suffering in Swat was severe. According to the New York Times, while “using an alternative system of military counterterrorism courts along with an extensive network of covert jails, security and intelligence officers wield life-or-death power — often instantly” across FATA.
Ghulam Qadir Daur, a former senior government official and author, says the military has responded to the protests by reducing restrictions and handing over administrative responsibilities to civilian authorities.
“Ultimately, civilian officials have to assume administrative responsibilities,” he told Radio Mashaal.
Daur says the issue of people who disappeared during the past few decades is a complicated one. He says such cases are not limited to FATA or Khyber Pakhtunkhwa but are spread across the country, where relatives of the victims often accuse the security forces of being responsible for holding their loved ones in indefinite detentions.
“It will definitely help the entire country if this issue is resolved by ending enforced disappearances and presenting it victims before the courts,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense for me that the military will be holding people for fun or to torment people.”
Since 2011, a government-appointed Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances has registered nearly 5,000 cases of enforced disappearances. Pakistani and international rights campaigners say the number of disappearances is vastly under-reported.
The commission says it has resolved 3,219 cases while it is still working on more than 1,700. In addition, it is working on 368 new cases it received from the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances in recent years.
Javed Iqbal, a former judge who heads the commission, told a parliamentary panel this week that former Pakistani military dictator General Pervaiz Musharraf handed over more than 4,000 Pakistanis to foreign countries.
“More than 70 percent of the missing individuals were involved in militancy,” he said. “Those we recovered were too scared to open up about their experiences.”
Daur, however, says the commission has failed to thoroughly investigate all the cases. “If this issue is resolved, it will benefit everyone and will definitely augur well for the country,” he said.
Pakistan’s powerful military, however, has not liked the PTM campaigning. It has denied the movement’s accusation that its members or units are involved in grave abuses such as extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.
PTM campaign apparently prompted army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa to declare it ‘engineered protests” on April 12.
“Our enemies know they cannot beat us fair and square and have thus subjected us to a cruel, evil, and protracted hybrid war,” he said on April 14. “They are trying to weaken our resolve by weakening us from within.”
Given military’s opposition to PTM, military analyst and author Aysha Siddiqa is not sure about the movement’s potential impact on resolving the issues of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings.
She says that after its successful campaigning in the northwestern Pashtun regions, all eyes are on whether it attracts a similar crowd in the eastern city of Lahore during its planned protest rally there on April 22.
The city is the capital of Pakistan’s largest province Punjab along its eastern border with India. The region’s 110 million people make up more than half of Pakistan’s 207 million population and its dominates the country key institutions including the army.
“It [PTM] has to broaden from being Pushtun only to for all communities to generate pressure on the military to start delivering,” he said.