By Taha Siddiqui
13 Jan 2019
A year ago today, a young man named
Naqeebullah Mehsud was killed in an alleged shoot-out in Pakistan's southern
port city of Karachi. The police initially claimed that Mehsud was a
"hardened member of the Pakistani Taliban" and was killed during a
raid on "a terrorist hideout".
But his family, friends and some human
rights organisations questioned this claim, saying Mehsud was just an innocent
shopkeeper and aspiring model.
The government ordered an investigation.
The police committee probing the incident found no evidence of a shoot-out or
terrorist activity and was determined that Mehsud was killed by the police in a
"fake encounter" - a practice Pakistani security forces are often
accused of being involved in. Officers accused of being involved in the killing
were put on trial which is still ongoing.
In the past, allegations of extrajudicial
killings similar to this one were regularly ignored by the authorities, and
security forces were allowed to operate with impunity. What set Mehsud's case
apart, and forced the government to take swift action, was a little-known
movement which started in his Waziristan hometown of Makin: the Pashtun
Tahaffuz (Protection) Movement (or PTM).
The PTM was launched by human rights
activist Manzoor Pashteen to address the many grievances of Pashtuns, who are
the second largest ethnic group in Pakistan and mostly live in the
north-western part of the country, close to the Afghanistan border.
The Pashtuns have been bearing the brunt of
the so-called "war on terror" for nearly two decades. When the US and
its allies invaded Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks, members of terror
groups operating in that country passed the border with Pakistan and took
refuge in the areas where Pashtuns reside. In response, the Pakistani military
started carrying out operations to "clear the area from terrorists".
However, rather than stopping terrorist
activity, military operations in the area increasingly victimised innocent
civilians. Pashtuns across Pakistan started to be stereotyped as terrorists
even though they themselves were victims of terrorism.
After the killing of Mehsud in Karachi,
Manzoor Pashteen called for a march from Waziristan towards Islamabad.
Thousands joined Pashteen on his way to the capital city demanding justice not
just for the murdered man, but for all Pashtuns who have been facing discrimination
This march rapidly transformed into a
nationwide rights movement and the PTM was born. In rallies held across the
country, Pashteen and his supporters raised questions about the reasons behind
the army's failure to drive out militancy from their region and asked whether
Pakistani authorities really wanted to eradicate such groups.
One slogan that they commonly used was
"Yeh Jo Dehshatgardi Hai, Is Ke Peechay Wardi Hai" (behind
this terrorism, is the [military] uniform), alleging a collusion between
terrorists and the military.
The PTM also called for all accusations of
extrajudicial killing to be investigated independently and demanded the
practice of enforced disappearances - a legal term coined to explain abductions
allegedly carried out by the Pakistan Army - to come to an end. Moreover,
Pashteen and his supporters started pressuring the Pakistani government to
reform the draconian laws that govern the tribal belt that violate basic human
rights, such as the law of collective responsibility which the Pakistani state
routinely uses against locals from the tribal belt - punishing entire families,
villages and tribes for the crimes of one person.
Rather than addressing the genuine
grievances expressed by this growing movement, the Pakistani government chose
to embark on a crackdown.
The Pakistani media stopped reporting on
the movement's gatherings. Many of the members and leaders of the movement were
repeatedly arrested by the police. The leaders were prevented from entering
parts of Pakistan where they wanted to hold rallies. Recently some of PTM's
members were also barred from leaving the country.
In one public briefing, the military media
spokesperson accused the PTM of working on "an anti-Pakistan agenda"
with the help of foreign hostile governments - a tactic often used by the
Pakistani military to discredit its critics.
But the Pakistani state's efforts to
silence and contain the movement have backfired. As a result of this state-led
harassment campaign, the PTM gained more traction and its gatherings are
becoming larger than ever.
While the movement has always claimed to be
non-violent, there are now fears that the continuous use of such heavy-handed
tactics to suppress the movement may result in a confrontation that may go out
of control, as seen before in Pakistan.
Learning from Past Mistakes
In the past, a similar rights movement
launched by East Pakistani residents eventually culminated into a movement for
independence from Pakistan, and let to the creation of Bangladesh in 1971.
In the 1960s, the Bengali population living
in East Pakistan, the largest ethnic group in the country at the time, felt
neglected by the central government that was headed by General Ayub Khan.
Instead of listening to the grievances of this group and addressing the
injustices they say they have been facing, the military launched an operation
against the aggrieved population. This caused the Bengalis to start an armed
resistance which resulted in Pakistan's division.
Almost 50 years later, it seems that
Pakistan's ruling elites have not learned much from history and seem to be
repeating the same mistakes that led to much pain, bloodshed and irreversible
damage to the nation in the 1970s.
Today as the PTM marks one year of its
struggle, it is of utmost importance that the Pakistani civilian and military
leadership address the legitimate concerns of the Pashtun population, meet
their demands which are well within the scope of the Pakistani constitution and
immediately stop persecuting those demanding their basic fundamental rights.
If this does not happen, the PTM may become
a catalyst for the break-up of an already divided nation and Pakistan may head
towards another national disaster.
Taha Siddiqui is an award-winning
Pakistani journalist living in exile in France.
The views expressed in this article are
the author's own