Root Cause Of PTM-Military Standoff: Talk Is The Way Forward
Dr Ejaz Hussain Bhatty in this article explains why the PTM and the security establishment have ‘divergent perceptions of the past, particularistic view of the present and apprehensive sense of the future’ towards each other.
A few weeks ago, I wrote on this website, indeed in good intention, that the PTM and the Pakistan’s military needed to find a middle way out of the ongoing tussle over the control of the erstwhile FATA region that boarding war-ravaged Afghanistan with whom Pakistan has had bitter-sweet ties for the last seven decades.
However, it seems that both the parties are acting in a self-righteous manner on account of divergent perceptions of the past, particularistic view of the present and apprehensive sense of the future. Much of the mutual misgivings is grounded in the partition of the British India that sowed the seeds of resentment, hatred and bloodshed among neighbours who had lived side by side in villages, towns and cities in the pre-colonial period for centuries.
The dilemma, however, got compounded in the immediate post-colonial period where the parochial identities and actors contextually fumbled at reconciling with the comparatively modern artefacts of the nation-state. Thus, Pakistan, despite being a post-colonial state, originated in the conception of a nation-state where the existing communities such as the Pashtun or Punjabis were to be accorded, by the state, a comprehensive cover against poverty and plunder.
The state, in turn, was to be supported, in letter and spirit, by the constituent units. Without indulging in the already debated aspect of the formation processes of the Pakistan state – where ultimately the political leadership of the Muslim-majority provinces such as Sindh provided legal, social and political legitimacy to the idea and practice of state formation − the fact of the matter is it is the post-, and not the pre-, partition politics in the newly founded state that was played out along either centralist or regionalist lines. While there is little disagreement on the centralisation project of the federal government where, according to certain scholars, the civil bureaucracy ruled the roost in strategic understanding with the military, there is not much written on the nature, level and degree of disagreement.
Indubitably, political and policy differences are natural in a given social and political context. However, it seems ironic that, in the case of Pakistan, the regionalist forces, be that in Bengal, NWFP (now KP) or Sindh, gradually shifted the angle of their ontological disagreement from the politics of disagreement –essentially over the division of material resources – to the very being of the nation-state of Pakistan.
Thus, within a short span of time, the Pakistan state received severe criticism over its foundational ontology on the part of now the so-called separatist forces which, paradoxically, chose to confine their politics of division within the territorial boundaries of the state. Interestingly, owing to inner-family/clan political and economic interests, certain members of the same families/clans chose to stay as statist while others parted ways, though ideologically, not necessarily physically.
Nonetheless, the ultimate expression of separatist physicality registered its presence in the shape of the Bengali nation-state which was an outcome of multiple variables ranging from centralist politics of the statist parties and institutions to India-backed separatist forces along with lack of political will in the then West Pakistan, to find the middle way to resolve the problem. During my visit to Bangladesh a few years ago, a Bangladeshi political scientist said that, “by 25 March 1971, everybody in this part of [East] Pakistan was a Pakistani…and, by 26 March 1971, everyone was a Bangladeshi.”
The 1971 debacle, indubitably, jolted the very foundations, both physical and ideological, of the state of Pakistan. The country was under the grip of a martial law regime; its economy was under-performing since the late years of the Ayub regime. The military was relatively demoralised. To cap it, the remaining regionalist forces, while psycho-politically strengthened by the Bengali case, reinforced their struggle for apparently ‘maximum autonomy’ though with a political strategy and action couched in the language of hatred towards the Punjabi domination of politics and the state.
Indeed, the nationalist political parties, in an attempt to maintain and expand their local/regional constituencies, skilfully employed anti-Punjab rhetoric. In doing so, they blindly bracketed tom, tick and harry together while dubbing them as a unified identity to be otherised against, both socio-politically and ethnically, in order to potentially realise a sense of separatehood.
However, ironically, the same anti-Punjab political and economic actors, in a given context, allied with the Punjab-based political and civil-military elite due to rational reasons. However, locally and regionally they kept harping anti-Punjab mantra and socially desired an imagined ‘homeland’.
Interestingly, in the course of the 18th amendment deliberations, the Pashtun nationalist political parties, indeed, were able to get the name of NWFP changed to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (home of the Pashtuns). A decade down the timeline, the PTM is also referring, now openly, to “Pashtun Watan” (homeland for the Pashtuns).
While, at the moment, the ultimate destination in terms of selfhood of this movement is not clear, what historically known is that the movement’s political action and pedagogy is grounded in the legacy of the ultra-nationalist, if not separatist, forces which, in their repented view, ‘sinned’ to have supported the creation of Pakistan.
Moreover, post-9/11 geopolitical dynamics added a new regional dimension to the dilemma faced both by the state as well as the regionalist forces. The state, being dominated by the military, reversed, though selectively, its policy on certain Taliban groups. In addition, Afghanistan, that Pakistan tried to woo during the Taliban rule, gradually tilted towards India − the latter, too, acts in a realist fashion.
The FATA, due to cross-border ethnic and geographical linkage, assumed extraordinary significance for the state institutions, regionalist mindset and non-state actors.
While it is true the Zia-led military had already utilised FATA as a launching pad against the Soviets in the 1980, the former is not the only actor that remained active in that region militarily and/or financially. Indeed, the mujahidin − who are equally rational − local businessmen, who traded in weapons and drugs, and the provincial industrial elite also accrued economic dividends of the political economy of warfare.
Nevertheless, wherever militants and militaries operate, either in cahoots or in clash, the disengaged and marginalised (local) communities suffer. This happened with scores of FATA families who were displaced. It is, of course, heart rending to observe, for instance, the healthcare facilities in the IDP camps. The state must take immediate measures to get them restored in their original places honourably.
Having said that, there is, however, no point in blaming the Punjabis – half of whom live below the poverty line – for the plight of the displaced tribal people who mostly are Pashtuns. Also, the Pakistan military as an institution is not solely constitutive of the Punjabis. It is even historically fallacious – the ‘martial races’ concept of the British is a case in point.
Indeed, in the contemporary context, the army’s officer cadre is dominated by the Pashtuns. Importantly, there is no denying of the structural grievances of the ex-FATA people. The PTM, sociologically, is a product of the process of displacement in the context of the dynamic regional geopolitics. The PTM has the right to voice its concerns and demands; it must be provided due space to assemble and speak its mind locally and nationally. Indeed, most of its demands are within the domain of the constitution.
However, the PTM also needs to understand the formation processes of the state of Pakistan along with revisiting the politics of confrontation and its (unintended) consequences. Reference to ‘Pashtun Watan’ may make sense for the local Pashtun audience. It will sound negative to a nation-state which tends to keep its constituent units intact territorially.
The ex-FATA, indeed, remained a ‘no man’s land’ for decades. Any nation-state would, given will and resources, like to integrate such a sub-territory. In our neighbourhood, India is doing the same; same is with the case with China and Iran.
Last but not the least, the other day, it was saddening to see the security forces firing on the protesting PTM youth who apparently did not carry weapons. However, their (body) language seemed intimidating to the army men stationed at the check posts. Indeed, the PTM’s slogans are mostly anti-military.
However, one wonders what made the army to start targeting the PTM now, when it did not do so in the last two years. Indeed, the former tacitly paved the way for the latter to the parliament.
If prudence is any guide, the PTM ought to avoid politics of confrontation vis-à-vis the state especially its military component. Rather, the PTM should think in the long term in political terms. Indeed, given the genuineness of its grievances and growing scale of its social outreach, it is time for PTM to transform itself into a political party and not let the ANP and PkMAP absorb its youth, vitality and vision into their own ranks.
On its part, the military must avoid resort to coercive means. Both sides must show restraint and never hesitate to talk.
The author is political and military analyst with a PhD from Heidelberg and Postdoc from Berkeley. He is also DAAD and Fulbright fellow. He tweets @ejazbhatty