Frustrated by decades of persecution by the state, Pakistan’s minority Pashtuns have taken to the streets in a protest movement sparked by the police shooting of Naqeebullah Mehsud in a staged gun battle.
The 27-year-old, who was from the northwest Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which are often targeted for unpopular security crackdowns, was shot dead on January 13. Rao Anwar, a Karachi police commander accused of killing Mehsud, is now a fugitive, with an Anti-Terrorism Court ordering that his arrest by this Friday.
Protests demanding justice for Mehsud first began in Karachi and since the start of the month have spread to Islamabad. The movement’s #PashtunLongMarch hashtag is attracting support on social media. More than 5,000 Pashtuns have joined the protests, which have been endorsed by members of all leading Pakistani political parties.
After Mehsud’s death the Mehsud Tahaffuz Movement (Mehsud Protection Movement) sprang up under the leadership of Rehmat Khan, who hails from the same tribe in FATA’s South Waziristan district. It drew in protestors from Kurram, Orakzai, Bajaur and other areas.
Mohsin Dawar, central chairman of the National Youth Organisation, who is one of the nationalists leading the protests in Islamabad, described the movement as a “Pashtun spring”, comparing it to the Arab Spring uprising that swept the Middle East from 2010.
“Yes, this is a Pashtun spring. This is a nationalist movement against oppression and age-old grievances that the state has long failed to address,” he told Asia Times.
“This is a nationalist movement against oppression and age-old grievances”
“We feel we are being targeted owing to our Pashtun identity and whatever is happening in FATA is a prime example of that,” Dawar added, in reference to army operations in the Pashtun tribal areas that have razed many cities and left thousands internally displaced. Among those forced to relocate to Karachi were Naqeebullah Mehsud’s family.
Ethnic Pashtun, also known as Pathan, live in tribal areas that stretch into both Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Pakistan they originate from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region, which was supposed to be merged long ago with FATA; as that didn’t happen, Pashtun are still governed by the Frontier Crimes Regulations, an outdated British colonial code that is often used by the state and military to justify brutalities.
Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, one of Pakistan’s top leaders when it was granted independence in 1947, had advocated a separate homeland for the Pashtuns. Khan was often known as the “Frontier Gandhi” for his commitment to non-violent approach to protesting.
However, Pakistan’s leaders are not very happy with the push for a separate Pashtun identity. Last month a Pakistan Army spokesperson linked Afghan refugees with terrorism. Historically, Pashtuns have maintained a distinct identity from Pakistan’s majority Punjabs.
Dawar insists that the movement is nationwide and unstoppable: “Of course, the Pashtuns have faced problems for a long time, but this killing has resulted in a nationwide eruption. Islamabad is now the hub where all these protest movements are converging. It’s been 10 days now and our strength is increasing,” he said.
The protesters have a list of demands, including the arrest of Mehsud’s killers, a halt in judicial killings, the relocation of all missing persons the clearing of land mines in the FATA.
Pashtun journalist Ali Arqam told Asia Times that the movement’s instigators were “those in the crossfire between the Taliban and the Pakistan Army”, adding: “They chanted slogans against the security forces in the tribal areas to express their discontent against the treatment meted out to the locals.”
Taliban insurgents have been attacking security forces and tribal populations in the FATA since the 1980s.
While displacements and disruption to lives are common complaints, blogger Hurmat Ali Shah said the Pashtun living under military operations also encounter torture and the disappearance of family members.
“There is an information blockade from FATA and from Pashtun regions in general, which is why this spontaneous eruption of protests has taken everyone by surprise,” he said.
“It is a manifestation of a new form of Pashtun nationalism, which defies all the administrative divisions of the tribe in Pakistan. It is appealing to the political consciousness of Pashtuns from Balochistan to Karachi to FATA to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
“It is the start of a new phase in the development of Pashtun nationalism, which is defining itself through unified indicators such as language and culture and is defining what it means to be a Pakistani Pashtun,” Shah said.
While the local media has suppressed coverage of the movement, leading politicians, especially those with ambitions in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, have tried to jump aboard the bandwagon. However, the protestors maintain that the movement is “too big” to be hijacked by anyone.
“They are tired of war that was imposed on them in the shape of Taliban and military operations”
“This movement is one of a kind, because it is beyond the ambitions of separate political parties. It is actually influencing the narratives of the parties, instead of succumbing to the parties’ goals,” said Ali Arqam.
Its leadership includes members of Pashtun nationalist factions Qaumi Watan Party, Awani National Party and Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party. However, Arqam maintains that party leaders have failed to put their own stamp on the protest movement.
“When (Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf chairman) Imran Khan came to address the protestors and called out the Mehsuds, the crowds said ‘no, we’re Pashtun’. When (Jamaat-e-Islami chief) Siraj-ul-Haq chanted that ‘we will liberate Kashmir’, they shouted ‘no, we won’t’. When (Qaumi Watan Party chairman) Aftab Sherpao said that ‘we’ve sacrificed in the past and will continue to do so’, the masses said ‘no, we won’t’,” Arqam noted.
Tribal activist Mona Aurangzeb is optimistic the movement will be a “tipping point” for a “Pashtun awakening”.
“It’s the Pashtun youth and particularly the tribal youth who have been kept depoliticized and isolated that now want to negotiate their role with the state,” she told Asia Times. “They are rejecting the old order. They are tired of war that was imposed on them in the shape of Taliban and military operations.”
Aurangzeb says that while the protest may have been triggered by the death of Mehsud, it had been building through 15 years of war.
“As a tribeswoman [the movement] gives me hope. We now have the capacity and the awareness to demand our rights from the state and negotiate our identity,” she said.