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Manzoor Pashteen: Leading the fringe to the centre

Updated Feb 19, 2019 05:43pm
Illustration by Amara Sikander
Illustration by Amara Sikander

The date eludes me even when the day haunts still. It was early 2014, perhaps January. A friend displaced from North Waziristan took me to the Khyber Teaching Hospital in Peshawar. There was a patient in the children's ward we had come to see - a boy no more than seven years old, injured in a bombing campaign in his village. Perhaps injured is not the right word. He was mutilated. The boy lay unconscious, his fair face pale under the fluorescent light. Wrapped in blood-soaked bandages, his body was a grotesque distortion of one. Cut up by shrapnel below the waist, he had no legs. Blood oozed from a cotton-plugged hole where his genitals should have been.

That child, collateral damage of war, died later that week. When a terrorist attack on the Army Public School (APS) in Peshawar happened in December the same year, I kept thinking: a year that had started with the sight of a dying child ended with scores of dead children. A year bookended by blood - as innocent as that of children.

Every December since then, I drive through roads with posters of dead children mounted on electricity poles as part of the anniversary of what we have come to call the day of the martyrs, Youm-e-Shuhada. I recoil at the outrage that the children killed due to the policies of the state should now be its martyrs - the children the state failed to protect.

I look for the face of that child from North Waziristan. I understand he was not from APS, and did not die there. But I also understand that his birthplace in the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), the militancy, and subsequent military operations there had something to do with the carnage at the APS.

The hapless parents of those killed at the school relive the agony of the attack every day as they commute roads flanked by the posters of their loved ones but, at least, they have the consolation that their children are martyrs. They are counted when it comes to sacrifices rendered in our ongoing war against terrorism. It does not matter if the sacrifice was forced on them.

Is the boy from North Waziristan counted? Are others counted who, like him in erstwhile Fata, died in their hundreds - including those associated with peace committees that took up arms against militants? We have a figure for the whole of Pakistan for deaths related to the war against terrorism. There is no separate figure for the borderlands where the war continues to play out, where death comes and goes at will and life has no value.

That boy from North Waziristan lived short and died brutally in the necro-space called the tribal areas. His sacrifice will not be remembered, not even acknowledged.

From here will rise 26-year-old Manzoor Pashteen, and not a moment too soon. His generation grew up in the midst of war; he has been a victim of it. His Mehsud tribe was the first in Fata to be uprooted from its home in South Waziristan as Pakistan started military operations in Taliban-infested regions along the border with Afghanistan in the mid-2000s. He would found the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) in early 2018 while leading a sit-in protest in Islamabad over the death of a Mehsud tribesman, Naqeebullah, in an allegedly fake encounter with the police in Karachi. Long before that, however, terrorised people from Swat, the seven agencies in Fata and elsewhere in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa whispered stories about the injudicious use of force post-September 11 in the name of security. There was no one to go to as media regurgitated one-sided, state-sponsored stories, putting the cries and anguish of people from the region on mute - as it does even now in the case of PTM.

The Pashtun leadership that spoke for people and peace - tribal chieftains or maliks, jirgas, nationalist politicians - were bombed and beheaded by the Taliban in the hundreds. Many others were silenced by mortal threats.

Then came 2014 and the military launched operation Zarb-e-Azb to weed out militancy from the tribal lands. This immediately resulted in endless queues of the broken and the displaced - a heart-rending sight mirroring the misery of Swat in 2009 - stretching all the way from Mir Ali in North Waziristan to the town of Bannu. In scorching heat, they would arrive at an under-construction refugee camp at Bakkakhel in the sun-baked, thirsty badlands of Frontier Region Bannu - their status exalted from Internally Displaced Persons to Temporarily Displaced Persons (TDPs).

When those displaced people stood in lines to receive handouts, the spine was ripped out of a tough and proud people. That started much earlier though - when Parachinar in Kurram agency was cut off for four years from the rest of the country without food and medicine; when inhabitants from Mohmand and Bajaur were displaced to Jalozai and Kacha Garhi neighbourhoods that served as a home to Afghan refugees before them. It was not the indignities that accompanied displacement that crushed the displaced. Nor the atrocities that the militants inflicted and the military operations compounded. It was a systematic economic strangulation of a people that really broke their back.

When they returned home, the TDPs found their markets, shops, farms, cattle and homes destroyed. The anger that they felt was sterile, but seething everywhere you looked.

Pashteen took that anger and turned it into a taunt. It is the worst thing you can do to someone in the honour-bound tribal milieu.

Manzoor Pashteen speaks at a rally in Lahore | White Star
Manzoor Pashteen speaks at a rally in Lahore | White Star

In his village Jhandola in South Waziristan, Abdullah Bhittani knew an old khasadar - a guard - from the tribal border force of Levies who was close to a local malik. The khasadar sang praises of the chieftain wherever he went. Bhittani was among the village children who teased him with the taunt "jhanjanay" - a cowbell. To the children, the khasadar was a bell around the malik's neck, tinkling with every move he made. "Jhanjanay, jhanjanay," went the kids, every time they saw the Levies man. It drove him mad. He waved his gun at them in anger. The children scurried to safety, only to come back again, jeering.

"[Our demands] are like that taunt," says Bhittani, who is also a member of PTM's core committee.

To quieten them down, many PTM activists have been jailed. Some others have been put on no-fly lists. Pashteen himself has been stopped from travelling to many parts of the country. This could be because the man and his followers raise the taunt in the tones of another movement that once symbolised Pashtun nationalism - Khudai Khidmatgars of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan who is known as Bacha Khan, due to the respect accorded to him, and as Frontier Gandhi for his non-violent activism.

Like Bacha Khan, Pashteen bears no guns but speaks his generation's mind matured in a violent place with no institutions. In him, an oppressed people have found a voice and a common rallying point. Most significantly, in him you see someone who has broken a silence imposed upon minds and imaginations of those who have suffered long and hard just because they have been caught in the middle of a war that was not theirs to start with.

All this with just a taunt. As Abdullah Bhittani likes to say: "With 3G, not G3" - referring to PTM's heavy reliance on the Internet and social media and its avoidance of guns and arms. Aren't its adherents the same passionate, hot-blooded tribal Pashtun youth who are known to be gun-happy? Much we knew about Fata - its stereotypical image as a land of perpetually querulous, even murderous, people - did not reflect in Pashteen and his PTM. These stereotypes would still result in displaced Pashtuns being turned away from cities in Sindh and Punjab by government orders like they were pariahs, to be kept at bay.

Pashteen still cannot freely travel across Pakistan precisely because his presence there would blow apart other myths that contribute to a benign, motherly image of the state she wants us citizens to embrace. He may ask: why is the mother quiet about her missing children?

Says Bhittani: "The state calls us agents of Afghanistan and India. People call us agents of the army. But we are agents of our community and we take pride in that. We don't dub the darkness light."

A Pashtun Tahafaz Movement rally in Lahore| Aun Jafri, White Star
A Pashtun Tahafaz Movement rally in Lahore| Aun Jafri, White Star

If Fata epitomises what is wrong with Pakistan, Pashteen personifies all that is broken about Fata. Militarism, radicalisation, militancy, oppression, lack of institutions. That he came out of the Pandora's Box of troubles in the region so fully formed is something of a miracle. And as he finds his place within the historical narrative of Khudai Khidmatgars, it is history - and the expectations it brings with it - that he will have to contend with before anyone decides if he is an agent or an angel.

When his movement graduated from the Mehsud Tahafuz Movement to the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, he grew bigger than a tribe to represent an entire ethnic community. One expects Fata's troubles - such as its merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the rehabilitation of people displaced from here, the restructuring and reconstruction of its towns and bazaars, the building of its political and administrative institutions - will take up Pashteen's attention in the short and medium term even though there is no PTM plan or manifesto on any of these subjects.

Yet, it is the bigger questions he would need to address. Given the regional dynamics and the uncertain times we live in, there can be no peace in Pakistan's border regions without a peaceful Afghanistan. Without turning a war economy into one based on human security, without replacing necropolitics propelled by security to deliberative democracy, can any protection be guaranteed to anyone in Pakistan, leave alone Pashtuns along the border regions. Seen within this context, does Pashteen stand for division or cohesion of the historical Pashtun nationalist narrative? And if he stands for a collective Pashtun identity, is he prepared to transcend tribal, regional and even national affiliations to present a united front?

A movement to end history is having a sway over the Pakistan of today. Ideologies are dying and ideologues are in disarray amidst a great wave of political engineering where democracy, as we know it, is being asphyxiated. Old orders built on historical struggles for rights and representation are being divided and undermined to create new historical entities where fresh faces without a sense of history can lip-synch to a new loud tone of jazba-junoon - that is, a surfeit of a passionate intensity that cohabits with naivety.

Within this tumult, which side does PTM stand? As a people's movement, it may not have political aspirations but its mission cannot be divested from politics. As the tribal districts emerge from decades of oppression made possible by the colonial-era rules for collective responsibilities and collective punishments, would PTM, with a large-scale following in Fata, present a united political vision for Pashtuns in Pakistan? Or would Pashteen further reinforce divisions within Pashtuns along the same old regional lines of Fata, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and northern Balochistan? Divisions that have contributed to the present plight of Pashtuns to begin with and divisions that Pashteen decries and seeks to redress.

The APS children and the child who died in the Peshawar hospital were caught between warriors with a long history. First it was the Afghan mujahideen; later their offspring, the Taliban. All Pashtuns. The Taliban that emerged in Pakistan were Pashtuns. Those we brought and later bombed in tribal areas were Pashtuns. Those who kill and rob Pashtun children of a future are Pashtuns. Pashtuns in schools and colleges are threatened and slayed by Pashtuns who attack and burn schools. Who is the victim and who is the perpetrator? At whose behest does the perpetrator take up arms against his own kind? How do we separate the two? How do we unite the two?

Unless it provides an answer that unites Pashtuns around a common understanding of this conundrum, PTM's slogan of Pashtun Tahafuz - or the defence of Pashtuns - will remain a tricky one: an isolationist ideal that is neither practicable nor desireable to achieve.

Whether Pashteen is an agent or an angel, the answer hinges on whether he unites or divides his own people. For what divides Pashtuns only strengthens their oppressors.


The writer is a Peshawar-based freelance writer.


This article was published in the Herald's January 2019 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.