Members of the Pashtun community in Pakistan have staged a series of protests against extrajudicial arrests and killings of members of the ethnic minority by security forces.
The killing of an aspiring model from the community – which makes up about 15 percent of Pakistan’s 207 million population – in January sparked the countrywide protests.
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“It’s a miracle that our efforts are still going on,” Manzoor Pashteen, the leader of the movement, told Al Jazeera.
On Sunday, he led another Pashtun Long March in Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, demanding protection and rights.
In a country where few speak against the powerful army and spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), this young man has been outspoken against atrocities committed by the state agencies.
Al Jazeera spoke to Pashteen, who has been catapulted into national prominence with the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (Pashtun Protection Movement).
Al Jazeera: What sparked the Pashtun protests?
Manzoor Pashteen: Actually, our marches and protests this year are continuity of our efforts. In 2004, when the [military] operations in the tribal areas against militants began, masharaan (tribal elders) spoke out against the wrongdoings of the military and the Taliban. Then their heads would be found in one place and their bodies in another. People who raised their voices were being killed.
And when we started the long march last month, only 22 people were with me. But very soon, thousands joined us.
We had no idea this many people would join us. Naturally, people who are sick of the situation joined our campaign. I would call it a miracle, that despite people being killed for raising their voices, we still see a continuity of our efforts since day one.
Al Jazeera: People are asking how the Pashtun movement will benefit Pakistan. How would you respond?
Pashteen: The biggest benefit is Pakistan’s stability. If the military, police and agencies are held accountable for their actions with checks and balances, Pakistan will benefit.
The Pashtun youth have been through a lot, but what I can advise them is this: whatever they do, they should not base it on hatred
Extrajudicial killings and missing persons is not unique to Pashtuns. If a commission is formed to solve these issues, it will also benefit others.
If the state can address the grievances of Pashtuns, who have experienced violence and injustice, and yet have protested peacefully, it will set a new precedent.
Lastly, if these injustices and mistreatment by institutions against their own people end, then the anger and resentment will also end. People will embrace Pakistan and Pakistan will embrace its people.
However, if they take a negative approach and our demands are not met, we all will be worse off.
Al Jazeera: A criminal complaint has been lodged against you. Do you know who filed it or why?
Pashteen: It’s been filed by “unidentified people”. A lot of people have suffered at the hands of “unidentified people”. When someone would go missing or be killed, many a time, it would be carried out by “unidentified people”. We found out that agencies are behind these acts, but instead of backing Pashtuns, the state shielded them.
Al Jazeera: There are also those trying to discredit you. Can you speak about that?
Pashteen: Our protests are constitutional. The people who do not want peace have no respect for the constitution, and it seems the Pakistani institutions do not want to work under the constitution.
This is a crucial matter, and we need to think about why this is happening.
Also, the Pashtuns who have raised their voices against atrocities are being labelled as foreign agents working for Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s foreign spy agency, or the Afghan intelligence agency – National Directorate of Security.
But we are simple people talking about peace and harmony. Our agenda is peace, and if their agenda is that atrocities should continue, this is wrong. How is demanding a peaceful life part of a foreign agenda?
Look, everywhere in the world people are suffering injustices and tyranny, for example, Syria, Myanmar, Palestine, France, and the victims of 9/11. People have stood in solidarity with them.
Pashtuns have also seen a lot of injustices yet nobody stood up for them.
We are calling for everyone, whether it be journalists, doctors, lawyers, to stand up in their own capacities and join the struggle for Pashtuns on the basis of humanity, so that they can go back to their homes.
Al Jazeera: If your non-violent movement faces violence, how will your party react?
Pashteen: Pashtuns are used to violence by now. There are people who want our movement to turn violent, but we will respond peacefully as we have done so far.
And should they try to harm us, the decision will be up to the entire Pashtun community.
Al Jazeera: Do you fear for your life?
Pashteen: We believe in our struggle. All Pashtuns wish from their hearts for an end to the war and for good times to come.
We think positively, and whatever can or might happen we don’t pay attention to. We have our purpose and faith, and whatever other people are thinking we do not care for that.
Al Jazeera: What are the next steps for you?
Pashteen: Our next step is to mobilise as many people as possible, to unite and demand our rights under the constitution.
We want to settle our demands in court so that we are assured of the agreement. We want to end this issue within Pakistan, but if it doesn’t happen, then we will take the issue to the United Nations and appeal to the global society to stand with us in these hard times.
Al Jazeera: What can the next generation of Pashtuns do to bring about social and political change?
Pashteen: Pashtun youth have been through a lot, but what I can advise them is this: whatever they do, they should not base it on hatred.
They should move forward on the basis of justice and a good future. They should work to end the political and personal animosities within communities.
They should show others that Pashtuns are peaceful despite how much they have endured.
They should live in harmony together, and the biggest step is to be non-violent.
The interview has been edited for clarity