When the news of the Pashtun Long March began to permeate through Pakistan, reactions from the military, state and media confirmed what Pashtuns already knew: their suffering was not seen nor heard yet again.
Minority issues in Pakistan are often looked at on a superficial level, and in most cases, a deeper look at the systemic issues that cause these injustices are seldom examined. In the case of the Pashtun Long March, this trend continues with traditional media unable to cover the systemic role of both the state and the military’s policies around both its Pashtun population and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
The Pashtun Long March, a multi-city demonstration began when news of Naqeebullah Mehsud, a young Pashtun shopkeeper and an aspiring model in Karachi was extrajudicially killed by Police. Mehsud’s extrajudicial killing served as a tipping point for the Pashtun community in Pakistan as unjustified arrests, disappearances and deaths like this have been commonplace.
Activists and members of the Pashtun community are asking for answers from the Pakistan Army, whom they say have been targeting Pashtuns for many years now.
In particular with Mehsud’s extrajudicial killing, the leadership of SSP Rao Anwar has come into question on a larger scale in Pakistan, even though tribal leaders have long claimed and attempted to report his use of extrajudicial force.
Saif-ur-Rehman, a tribal Pashtun elder in Karachi has attempted to file complaints several times, stating that “Rao Anwar has staged around 118 fake encounters in which over 400 our people had been killed in Karachi.”
The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where the majority of Pashtuns live is an artifact from colonial times that the newly formed state of Pakistan has adopted. With the adoption of FATA came the inclusion of the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) which governs the seven million inhabitants of the area.
The territory was defended by the Frontier Corps in Pakistan until 2001 when the Pakistan Army entered for the first time. It currently has 100,00 troops stationed in the area. The Frontier Corps were locally recruited, understood local languages and customs, which allowed them to maintain the rule of law from a space of cultural competency. The actions of the Pakistan Army have also lead to the displacement of nearly 2 million people in the region and many locals still view the entity as occupiers of their traditional lands.
The Federal Crimes Regulations (FCR) which was created in 1901 by the British is still practiced and used widely in FATA today which allows presidentially appointed bureaucrats or political agents to have the authority to blockade, arrest civilians, exile tribes, or worse. Furthermore, FATA is exempt from the jurisdiction of the country’s courts and no laws passed in parliament apply there either. While sections of the FCR was repealed in 2011 former President Asif Ali Zardari, these changes are not being practiced in theory and the effects of FCR have not been reconciled by the state as well.
In 2009, Baitullah Mehsud of the Mehsud Tribe became the leader of the Pakistani Taliban and the military shifted their target to the Pakistani Taliban and by extension him. In the process a political agent ordered under FCR, the detention of all tribesman of the Mehsud tribe in South Waziristan which included hundreds of thousands of people. In the process, their property was seized and in some districts the military bars Mehsud tribesmen as well.
Issues pertaining to the rule of law, or lack thereof, in FATA is one of the many issues that the Pashtun community has been campaigning against for many years. Along with this, FATA also has been the victim of drone attacks from the US since 2004 with President Bush ordering 51 drone strikes and President Barrack Obama ordering 373.
These drone strikes primarily have affected Pashtun populations in FATA as without protection of their civil rights and liberties through parliament due to FCR, they were left unprotected from drone warfare.
Studies have indicated that this affected many aspects of life in FATA including education for youth as they were often “…so affected by previous drone strikes that they were simply too emotionally distressed and worried about the survival of their family members to be able to concentrate in class.” Many in FATA have also claimed that drones have targeted schools as well which has led to many abandoning their studies out fear for their safety. Studies show that 73% of inhabitants of FATA live in poverty along with the literacy rate for women at 7.8% as well. Drone strikes have also been reported to affect the mental health of those in FATA with 50% of inhabitants reporting mental health issues, including PTSD since drone strikes began. These statistics represent the aftermath and effects of drone strikes and foreign intervention in the area along with the systemic issues that the Pashtun have been facing in FATA as well.
In Pakistan, traditional media is wary of the military and recently has been self-censoring itself after publishing pieces regarding the Pashtun Long March with columns criticizing the military being removed in publications such as The News International, one of the largest English publications. Geo TV, the country’s largest television network was also forced off the air in 80% of the country in March for criticizing the military.
As seen in the Arab Spring, Pakistan’s Pashtun Long March was organized with the innovation of digital media and is the beginning of what’s to come if minority rights continue to be disregarded within the state. The murder of Naqeebullah Mehsud is seen as many as a tipping point for a community that has been victim to systemic oppression for a multitude of years.
The history behind the demonstrations and why this has been a tipping point for the community is crucial in addressing not only the injustices against the Pashtun community in Pakistan but also for other minority groups. The coverage of the Pashtun Long March in Pakistani media, or lack thereof, is a testament to notions of what free speech looks like in Pakistan today and where control within the state lies as well.
While the majority of Pakistan delves into silence and self-censorship on these issues, Naqeebullah Mehsud’s death and many other Pashtuns like him remain unjustified and unanswered.