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The Rise of Pashtun Tahafuz Movement is a Blessing for the State

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Pakistan is currently experiencing resurgence of civil rights movement to challenge the operating methods of the security forces in the country. The rise and growing popularity of Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), in spite of state crack down and media censorship, is a positive development in the struggle against state repression in smaller provinces and reflects the desire in the citizens for holding security forces in Pakistan to account for their deeds as per standards prescribed in the constitution. PTM has emerged as a vital civil rights movement that also inspires the minute liberal youth from other parts of Pakistan, even though it continues to draw majority of its support from the Pashtuns in KP and Balochistan.

Given the historical nature of civil-military relationship as well as the monopoly of military bureaucracy in domestic politics, the success of PTM in mobilizing the youth and influencing the public opinion is nothing less than a miracle. The movement initially was started to get justice for Naqeebullah Mehsud, a resident of Karachi, who was killed in a fake police encounter in January 2018. It gradually evolved into a wider driver striving to bring attention to hundreds of ethnic Pashtuns, who have either been killed or kidnapped allegedly by the state institutions. The initial struggle to get an FIR of a murder registered has turned into a national voice for the voiceless and a platform for the oppressed.

The leadership of Pashtun Tahafuz Movement is comprised of local educated youth. Their tactics, such as peaceful sit-ins in major cities of Pakistan, though harmless, frighten the military bureaucracy because these peaceful protests have helped them earn public goodwill. Their attempts at making their voices heard in a peaceful manner and the resulting publicity on social media has created a dilemma for the state machinary that has yet to come up with an effective counter narrative. The state machinary finds itself in an increasingly precarious position as more and more citizens show their solidarity with the victims of state’s injustices. The major demands of PTM include the recovery of missing persons, free and fair access to due process of law, end of enforced disappearances, clearance of landmines in Waziristan, end of unnecessary hazards to routine movement of locals in tribal areas, and an end to discrimination against the Pashtuns.

Pakistan’s track record of treating ethnic minorities and political forces from smaller provinces portrays an abysmal picture. The state has always been skeptical of the value of granting more rights to minority ethnic groups and giving more autonomy to smaller provinces. Since the time of independence, the state has been ruthless in quashing the voices of dissent and has not been hesitant to use the state machinery to suppress challenges to status quo. The voices of dissent have been regularly demonized as “Bengali Separatists”, “Sindhi Nationalists” or “Baloch Terrorists”. This has naturally alienated ethnic minorities in smaller provinces. The use of force to suppress the dissenting voices in East Pakistan led to the breakup of the country. The military operations in Balochistan have only exacerbated the grievances of the Baloch people. The Pashtun people have gone through the most vicious cycle of violence. They have genuine concerns about their treatment at the hands of the security forces. Their use of political means to express their grievances is the best outcome for the state. All demands made by the PTM leadership are already guaranteed by the constitution of Pakistan. One can argue over the slogan of PTM that blames Pakistan Army for their troubles but their demands for the scrutiny and the accountability of the security forces to create a stable and democratic Pakistan deserve being heeded to. The state’s willingness to engage PTM leadership and pay close attention to their grievances would help transform PTM into a responsible political force that represents a marginalized ethnic minority.

PTM deserves credit and support for its method and demands to seek basic human rights for the Pashtun people. However, the tendency to label this movement as an anti-state and crush it through force would lead to a dangerous outcome. The struggle for the basic rights guaranteed under the Pakistani constitution through political means is a vital sign of a functioning democracy. The state should assist the PTM leadership with local affairs and seek their support and confidence to address the security challenges in tribal areas. For this to happen, the military leadership should cede the lead role to the civilian officials.

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