Illustration by Marium Ali
Illustration by Marium Ali

There were two things the British feared the most as a threat to their rule in India. The first was Russian invasion into Afghanistan waiting for an opportune moment to enter Northern India. The second was a united Pakhtun rebellion within British India with support from Afghanistan.

In spite of all efforts made by the Afghan kings to have cordial relations with British India, they were never trusted as friends. The policies made by the British for the North West were more in relation to the security of India than any other consideration. Russia by itself might not be such a big threat but coupled with support from Afghanistan and Pakhtuns from the west of the Durand Line, it could create a serious crisis for the British in India.

To ensure that Pakhtuns could never be brought together under one banner, the British divided them first through the Durand Line and then within India into three distinct independent provinces/areas — Balochistan, Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. All three had separate administrative structures and it was ensured there was no connectivity between them. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was further divided into settled areas and Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (Pata).

The British stereotyped Pakhtuns as the ‘noble savage’. They needed an illiterate fighter that could be brought under the banner of religion and made to fight for them as their first line of defence. They kept Pakhtuns away from modernity. They made Pakhtuns look stupid and untrustworthy. They paid the mullahs, pirs and of course the maliks to endorse their policies and show the British as fellow people of the book with whom Muslims could marry, where as the Russians were infidels and the real enemies of Islam and Muslims. When, ultimately, the Russian army marched on Afghanistan, the free world was ready to take it on. A massive operation, Afghan Jihad, took place without any opposition and the rest is history.

Pakistan followed the policies handed down by the British in letter and spirit. It maintained the image of the ‘noble savage’ but in its enthusiasm overdid the job in Afghan Jihad. After 9/11, the ‘war on terror’ started spreading down country and that is when it started pinching. The ‘noble savage’ was not good enough any more.

Pakhtuns anywhere are seen as a threat and need to be monitored as terror suspects. Both, Punjab and Sindh started profiling Pakhtuns. Students were refused hostels in universities. Pakhtuns staying in hotels or private accommodations had to report to the nearest police station. Police circulated instructions for keeping an eye on them and any new Pakhtun face was to be reported. Thousands of Pakhtuns were – and are still – under surveillance and, whenever required, eliminated in extrajudicial encounters, branding them as terrorists.

The districts of Punjab adjacent to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have issued orders to locals to not rent or sell properties to Pakhtuns. Nationalist parties in Sindh have been advocating restricting temporarily displaced persons from Pakhtun areas to camps.

Initially, Afghan refugees bore the brunt of the policy on racial discrimination but now the displaced persons from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Fata also face similar treatment. Even their National Identity Cards (CNICs) wouldn’t help them as police block those once their Pakhtun holders are arrested. Pakhtun civil society and parliamentarians have raised the issues of Fata reforms, Pakhtun profiling and humiliation on every level to no avail.

The extrajudicial killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Pakhtuns came out to protest in huge numbers, giving shivers to their tormentors. They have suffered much and they have been ridiculed and discriminated for far too long. Islamabad never witnessed such a peaceful protest which suggested albeit briefly that the hundred years of hard work by the British to keep Pakhtuns divided has been undone. For the first time, Pakhtuns were brought under one banner, one handed to them by someone other than a mullah. It might be a one-time event, no one knows, but most Pakhtuns believe it may start a Pakhtun renaissance.

The writer is a retired bureaucrat who has served as a deputy commissioner and as a political agent in the tribal areas.

This article was published in the Herald's March 2018 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.