By Sadanand Dhume
26 June, 2018
Army has arrested members of Pashtun
Tahaffuz Movement but it hasn’t gone after them with the brutality it has used
on Baloch separatists.
In my most recent The Wall Street Journal
column I write about the Pashtun Tahaffuz (protection) Movement (PTM), a
non-violent group that campaigns against human rights abuses by Pakistan’s army
against the Pashtuns, Pakistan’s largest linguistic minority. Some 30 million
Pashtuns account for 15 per cent of Pakistan’s population. Over the past four
months, PTM has attracted thousands of protesters to its rallies.
There’s a wider context to Pashtun
discontent. For most of its seven decades of existence, Pakistan has struggled
to accommodate grievances by ethnic minorities. In 1971, Bengali-speaking East
Pakistan seceded to form the new nation of Bangladesh. The army – easily
Pakistan’s most powerful institution – has fought (and largely crushed) a
bloody insurgency in Balochistan. Last year, Pakistan effectively dismantled
the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, a political party associated with Mohajirs,
descendants of Muslim migrants from India.
In part, this discomfort with both minority
protest movements and parties, viewed as unsympathetic to the army, has to do
with Pakistan’s decision to define itself in ideological rather than
territorial terms. As the Hudson Institute’s Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani
ambassador to the US, writes in his new book, Reimagining Pakistan: “Pakistan
could have recognised its diversity and evolved as a multi-language federation
with political and cultural autonomy for its constituting units. Instead, its
leaders chose to base Pakistani identity on a national ideology”. That
ideology, says Haqqani, has three cornerstones: Islam, hostility to India and
the Urdu language.
In Bangladesh, Pakistan used force to quell
Bengalis and failed. Its regular playbook, which relies on a combination of
brute force and a well-oiled propaganda machine, may not work against the
For starters, Pakistan’s 30 million
Pashtuns greatly outnumber other ethnic minority groups such as the Baloch
(seven million) and the Mohajirs (16 million). Thanks to migration, Pakistan’s
commercial capital, Karachi, also contains the largest concentration of
Pashtuns in the world: about four million people.
Add to that 14 million Pashtuns in
Afghanistan, where they form a 42 per cent plurality of the population.(The PTM
has no connection with Afghanistan, and works strictly within the boundaries of
Pakistan’s constitution, but Afghan and Pakistani Pashtuns share close ties of
kinship and culture.) In February, Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani tweeted
in support of the PTM.
The PTM’s embrace of non-violence also
makes it harder to target harshly without international backlash though the
group protests against excesses committed by the military during Pakistan’s
crackdown on the terrorist group Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) or the
Pakistan Taliban, PTM leaders are focused on civilians inadvertently caught up
in the conflict. They argue that any terrorists among the thousands of Pashtun
disappeared must be tried in court. (Two weeks ago, a US drone strike killed
the brutal TTP leader Mullah Fazlullah in Afghanistan.)
In the face of a media blackout, the PTM
has used Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to get its message across, including to
the Pashtun diaspora in the West. This too makes it harder to curb than other
Pakistani protest movements. According to Mohsin Dawar, a senior PTM leader,
“had there been no social media there would be no PTM”.
And finally, in 26-year-old Manzoor
Pashteen, the PTM has a charismatic leader who has quickly attracted a devoted
following among his people. Abubakar Siddique, an analyst with Radio Free
Europe in Prague, believes Pashteen is akin to Nelson Mandela for the Pashtuns.
Perhaps keeping all of these factors in
mind, the Pakistan army has approached the PTM with relative restraint. It has
arrested PTM members, placed travel restrictions on the movement’s leaders, and
used the domestic media to smear them. But it has not gone after them with the
brutality it has used, for instance, on Baloch separatists.
Will the army’s relative restraint last?
Mohammad Taqi, a regular US-based commentator on Pashtun and Pakistani
politics, worries that it may not. “If all you have is a hammer, every problem
looks like a nail,” he says.