The Pashtun protest movement is a test for Pakistan’s democracy

The state has been openly hostile towards the Pashtun Tahafuz movement – the right to protest must be protected.

Maria Bastos
30 May 2018
Activists of Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, 2018

Activists of Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, 2018. Image: PPI/Zuma Press/PA Images.Pakistan is set to go to the polls on July 25th. Trusting the general elections will go ahead, they will mark an important step towards strengthening the country’s democratic process. But there is still much more to be done: democracy is not confined to the ballot box. Despite the progress made in the past decade, Pakistan continues to be bewitched by an array of partially real, partially imagined threats. The figures at very top of Pakistani society have spun a powerful narrative of a nation under constant attack, which dismisses any criticism or dissent as either ‘foreign influence’ or ‘anti-patriotic’ politics; a tactic that has been deployed in response to protests by the country’s ethnic minority communities. How Pakistan responds to these nascent movements is as much a test case for democracy as the forthcoming elections.  

Pakistan is slowly moving away from a decade that was marked by a wave of terrorism. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, a website that monitors terrorism across the region, civilian deaths from terrorist attacks have fallen from 3000 in 2013 to 540 in 2017. Indiscriminate attacks have posed a constant challenge for the state, and civilians have paid the price of the country’s unconditional support for the United States-led “war on terror”. Only after a ruthless attack on a school in Peshawar in 2014 which killed 132 pupils has the government made a decisive turn towards a fully-fledged counterterrorism strategy, with the aim of eliminating once and for all the menace that has left severe open wounds across the country.

Pashtuns have been demonised as violent extremists, traffickers, and Taliban sympathisers

One of those open wounds can be located within the Pashtun community. Pashtuns live predominantly in the north-west regions that border Afghanistan, which includes the Federally Administrative Tribal Areas and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Since 1979, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the populations of these regions have been engulfed by state-led conflicts. A guerrilla war that served Pakistan and US designs against the Soviets, fuelled radicalisation, and perpetuated colonial-style rule, created the conditions for two of Pakistan’s most underdeveloped regions to be further marginalised.

Pashtuns have been demonised as violent extremists, traffickers, and Taliban sympathisers. Pashtun students have been profiled by security forces and have been subject to harassment and abuse, which, in the case of Mashal Khan back in 2017, ended with his brutal assassination at the hands of religious extremists. Several hundreds of Pashtuns have been reported missing; earlier this year, a UN human rights body said it had received over 700 reports of enforced disappearances in Pakistan. The promised dignity that democratic rule brings to all citizens has not been experienced by Pashtuns or by most of Pakistanis in general.

After decades of being misunderstood, dehumanized, deprived by the state, Pashtuns are finally awakening, peacefully. A new social movement known as PTM, or Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (Pashtun Protection Movement), formed in 2014, has organised several protests to demand dignity and rights not just for themselves but all Pakistanis. PTM is demanding what, by definition, a functional democratic state must guarantee to all her citizens.

Reactions to PTM are conferring the movement a crescent legitimacy. The top military leadership classified PTM as a movement supported by ‘foreign forces’ and an obstacle to their fight against terrorism. More recently, attempts to link PTM to the Taliban have been circulated on social media, which the organisation denies. The right to protest and to demand human rights and dignity should not be equated with army efforts to bring peace and stability to Pakistan. PTM, like any other citizen, or civilian group, has the right to be critical of the military.

PTM, like any other citizen, or civilian group, has the right to be critical of the military.

The English-language media within Pakistan have covered PTM’s protests, however, they reach only a fraction of the population. TV channels, however, have not covered the protests seemingly due to ‘self-imposed’ censorship from above. Karachi’s PTM gathering in May was disrupted hundreds of miles away, with the movement’s leader being barred from boarding two flights, first in Islamabad, and, some hours later, in Lahore. Political leaders from main parties like PPP or PML-N, perhaps motivated by the upcoming elections, have voiced their concerns on attempted censorship of the PTM.

Social movements are constitutive of every democratic society, and play an important role in making them more just and progressive. Parliament’s recent decision to merge the Federally Administered Tribal Areas with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is a step in the right direction to bring constitutional rights to all citizens in Pakistan. The existence of a social movement borne in a region where democracy and constitutional rights were a mirage is a sign that young people in Pakistan’s most remote regions are eager to be part of democratic processes.

Although the army’s anti-terrorism campaign has been successful in reducing the number of attacks, it must acknowledge that it’s past errors have contributed to the marginalisation of ethnic communities like the Pashtuns. Secondly, the military must come to terms with the fact that democracy grows out of the right to protest. If it continues to see democracy only in the narrow terms of the ballot box, the dream of a fully democratic Pakistan will not be realised.

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