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How The Pashtun Rights Movement Has Inspired Others In Pakistan

Rallies held by the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, a rights initiative, have attracted thousands of supporters to demand accountability for the Pakistani military.
Rallies held by the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, a rights initiative, have attracted thousands of supporters to demand accountability for the Pakistani military.

Since the rise of the Arab Spring in 2010, social movements have taken off around the world. In response, there has been a wealth of scholarly works published in an attempt to dissect the genesis, nature, and potential of such initiatives to bring about political and social change. But most of these texts deal with contention and the political opportunity structure of democracies and authoritarian regimes, overlooking one of the most important variants of non-democracies: hybrid regimes.

The unusual nature of hybrid regimes, which comprise a mix of democratic and authoritarian tendencies, and the complex set of institutional variables that underpin them -- potentially making the patterns of mobilization for a social movement far more convoluted than in democracies and authoritarian systems – make a difficult task of understanding how contention takes place under these regimes and what we can learn from it. An example of a hybrid regime is Pakistan, characterized by an ambiguous institutional makeup with a disproportionate predominance of military over civilian affairs.

The rise of a social initiative like Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) on the hybrid political landscape of Pakistan was an unforeseen event in the 72 years of the country’s checkered democratic history. What made the movement distinctive is its charter of demands that seeks to hold the military accountable for its rights violations in the country’s Pashtun and Baluch peripheries. No mainstream political party has ever criticized the military like the PTM has done.

In turn the PTM was subjected to arrests, intimidation, assassination, and complete censorship of the movement’s activities from the country’s mainstream media. On several occasions, repression came in the form of assassination, such as the murder of PTM leader Arif Wazir in May this year. On other occasions it came in the form of unrestrained physical force by the military such as the incident that occurred in Khar Qamar, North Waziristan, in May 2019. Leaders of the movement, along with activists, have been arrested and charged with sedition under colonial-era legal frameworks.

The political opportunity structure of a hybrid regime marked by a military’s sway gives rise to dual and haphazard response of social movements. Both the civilian and military organs of the state have sought to repress the PTM -- asymmetrical patterns of coercion emanating from ill-defined power structures, the unstable nature of the regime, and the limited scope of the civilian government. A civilian government is faced with either suppressing organic movements like the PTM to align their interests with the power center (the military) or allowing these movements to flourish but in the process irking the military. Transcending the prescribed boundaries could be costly for an unstable regime, so it responds by giving the military domains of absolute impunity such as internal security and allowing it to intervene politically and curb dissenting voices.

The PTM’s experience also suggests this intermittent and dual repression is likely to affect the mobilization of the movement in the short run, with abeyance being a possible consequence, but the movement is likely to withstand the pressure and in the long run increase its mobilization and resistance. The movement could also act as a catalyst for other movements across the country. The PTM’s influence can be seen, for example, in the nascent resurrection of left-wing groups and progressive student initiatives.

There are particular features of the PTM that have positively impacted other fringe movements demanding equal rights. One is that the PTM’s membership mostly consists of young men and women from the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), a region that has remained on the outermost edge of Pakistan’s political landscape. Secondly, unlike historical and even contemporary mainstream Pashtun politicians, the PTM does not dream of an imagined future homeland, romanticize a golden past, or talk about seceding. Instead the movement’s resistance and contention are based on unveiling the experiences of the people during the war on terror, stories about which the mainstream media and research organizations remained oblivious.

By demanding to enshrine their rights in the constitution, the movement seeks a better life for the Pashtun people in their native areas, which have long remained on the margins of society. By not relegating their struggle to separatism -- a historical Pashtun nationalist slogan -- mainstream Pashtun leaders have been reluctant to embrace the PTM. The radical rhetoric of the movement blames securitization and the Talibanization of the Pashtun region on the security forces’ ill-conceived policies.

When the PTM brought these things into the mainstream, especially in the country’s urban centers, it empowered youth-led, progressive groups to talk not only about forced disappearances and the nature of dissent but also about women’s rights and the right to protest. While the PTM initially started out demanding rights and equality for Pakistan’s ethnic Pashtun minority, its knock-on effect has been a host of movements large and small demanding a functional democratic state and the end of the hybrid regime.

Adil Zahoor, an intern with RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal, is a graduate of Central European University in nationalism studies. These views are the authors’ alone and do not represent those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.