Pakistan’s Pashtuns march for justice

After decades of oppression, discrimination and abuse, Pakistan’s Pashtuns are demanding change and justice.

Pakistan protest
People chant slogans and hold signs as they condemn the killing of Naqeeb Mehsud, a 27-year-old aspiring Pashtun model, in Karachi [Akhtar Soomr/Reuters]

When Naqeeb Mehsud, a 27-year-old aspiring Pashtun model residing in Karachi, was killed by the police, there was an outcry on social media by his family and friends, leading to a police investigation and the eventual sacking of Karachi’s Malir district chief of police, Rao Anwar. While Anwar was found to be responsible for 400 other such murders, he has not shown up for court and remains at large. 

Mehsud’s murder has sparked an unprecedented outcry among Pashtuns against the trend of extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances across Pakistan. Especially since 9/11, the term “missing person” has been very prevalent in Pakistan’s public narrative, with average citizens, political activists, journalists or people suspected of links with terrorist organisations disappeared or killed. More than 1400 cases remain pending before the Commission on Enquiry of Enforced Disappearances.

Pashtun Long March

Karachi, where Mehsud was killed, is home to the largest urban Pashtun population, who are also the second-largest ethnic group in the city. After Mehsud was murdered, his tribe (Mehsud), which is from the South Waziristan Agency (SWA) in Pakistans Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), united with Pashtuns from other regions and tribes in what has come to be known as the Pashtun Long March to ask for justice and accountability.

Organisers of the march, which began with a sit-in on February 1 in Islamabad, and ended on February 10, submitted a list of demands to Pakistani authorities. They included the prosecution of Rao Anwar, the formation of an inquiry into extrajudicial killings of Pashtuns in Karachi and elsewhere, an end to collective punishment and discrimination against locals in the FATA, and removal of landmines from South Waziristan, which have killed at least 18 people.

The reaction to Mehsud’s murder has not been restricted to the Pashtun Long March. In Dera Ismail Khan, bordering the SWA, locals set fire to the office of pro-government Taliban out of frustration after authorities failed to arrest the militant killer of a local man. 

In Landi Kotal, Khyber Agency, protests have been held against mass arrests, brutality, and night raids of the houses of locals, and in Swat, protests have also formed against the increase in the number of security checkpoints and barriers in their areas and “maltreatment” at military checkpoints. Recently authorities agreed to hand over military checkpoints to the police. 

History of FATA 

These protests must be put in the context of the FATA regions history. FATA formed the buffer between the British Empire in India and Afghanistan, an area close to the Russian Empires sphere of influence in the 1800s.

The Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) of 1901 was a criminal law promulgated by the British to grant autonomy to the Pashtun tribes in exchange for a promise of security against Russian invasion. After the partition of India and Pakistan, the Pakistani state has continued to implement the FCR in the tribal areas, using it as a base to launch the resistance against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, with the help of the CIA.

Following 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan by the US, the tribal belt was relatively restive with large swaths of it under Taliban control, until the Pakistani military launched operation Zarb-e-Azb against militants there in June 2014.

The FCR had already left a legal vacuum in FATA, leaving the Pashtun tribal population without any recourse to fundamental rights, formal courts, or a policing system, as well as a lack of socioeconomic development opportunities. This is partially why there is a large number of Pashtuns in Karachi today.

After major parts of the FATA were cleared by the Pakistani military operation against the Taliban, millions of displaced persons are now returning to the area that has been left with little infrastructure. Many of these internally displaced persons (IDPs) have endured the trauma of living under the Taliban, then through a military operation and displacement, as well as widespread discrimination.

For instance, the Sindh and Punjab governments unconstitutionally barred entry of IDPs from FATA after the military operations, and citizens hailing from FATA are often profiled as terrorism suspects.

This public narrative, including in the media, has played a major role in making these extrajudicial killings possible. Additionally, anti-terror laws such as the Protection of Pakistan Act 2014, the Anti-Terrorism Amendment or Act and the Actions (in Aid of Civil Power) of 2011 have legalised arbitrary detention of suspects without a warrant, as well as given policing powers and immunity to the military, both of which have affected due process and human security.  

In the case of Naqeeb Mehsuds murder, the movement for justice picked up pace because the perpetrator was a civilian police officer. Had military personnel committed this crime, it would have been far more difficult to bring them to account.

When a Ranger trooper named Shahid Zafar was caught on video in 2011 executing an unarmed man in an extrajudicial shooting in Karachi, he was sentenced to death by a court, only to be later pardoned by the Pakistani president. 

Protest achievements

Youth groups have led mobilisation efforts through social media and brought aggrieved groups together to resist the high-handedness of the Pakistani state towards Pashtuns. Several positive aspects of the Pashtun Long March should be noted.

First, protest leaders announced on February 10 that 71 missing persons whose photos had been put up at the protest site in Islamabad returned home after protesters held negotiations with the government. 

Second, the Pakistani military announced that residents of FATA Agencies recently cleared of militants only require their national identification document, and not the Watan Cards issued only to them, to enter their homeland. The Watan cards had been meant for compensation purposes for people affected by the Pakistani militarys operations in FATA, but were instead being used to discriminate against locals, almost akin to needing a visato enter their own territories. 

Third, the movement has been entirely peaceful, in contrast to many other popular protests in the recent past in Pakistan, such as the Tehreek-e-Labbaik in Islamabad in November 2017 that turned violent. The current peaceful Pashtun Long March has even been compared with that of the non-violent political movement for independence led by Pashtun leader Bacha Khan.

Fourth, the movement has been refreshingly inclusive. The protest brought together participants from all major political parties across all Pashtun regions. The organiser of the protest, Manzoor Ahmed Pashtun, has been very clear that this is a non-political movement for justice. Women also participated in these protests, countering stereotypes about Pashtun conservatism.

Perhaps most interestingly, a new brand of tech-savvy youth leadership from FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has emerged. These youth are using social media to organise peacefully, lay out clear aims and achieve what the previous generation could not. During protests, the crowd could be heard booing any speaker who represented or spoke in support of the status-quo governance system in FATA under the FCR.

Youth are unequivocally ready for a change in the system, and it is imperative for the Pakistani state to implement the rule of law with equality and without discrimination, ensure the protection of innocent civilians during any anti-terrorism operations and follow due process according to the Constitution. All citizens of Pakistan deserve this.

More specifically, Pakistani authorities must end the illegal harassment and intimidation of journalists and activists. The impunity with which actors responsible for enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings function must stop. In an ideal world, the Pashtun Long March wouldnt have been needed for justice to be served, but the citizens have spoken in this case. The state, funded by the taxes of these aggrieved citizens, must listen.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.