A non-violent movement is gaining ground in Pakistan
I met Manzoor Pashteen, Pakistan’s most popular non-violent activist, in Islamabad. He is in his 20s, and comes wearing a red cap and blue shalwar kameez. Propelled to the centre of Pakistan’s political sphere, Manzoor has become the voice of a generation through his leadership of the Pashtun Tahafuz (Protection) Movement (PTM).
With his calls for justice in the tribal belt - one of Pakistan’s most troubled regions – Manzoor grew the movement from 20 to 20,000 supporters.
Arising out of the Pakistani state’s long-running and fraught relationship with Pasthuns, an ethnic minority from the country’s northern regions, the movement hit the headlines following the murder of Naqeebullah Mehsud, a Pashtun aspiring model-cum-shopkeeper from the northern region of Waziristan who was gunned down by police in Karachi.
Mehsud’s home region, Waziristan, is also the birthplace of PTM. It’s an area that in the 21st century had no judiciary, until recently with the appointment of seven tribal judges. Previously, legal jurisdiction was governed by Frontier Crimes Regulation Law enforcement which a remained a symbolic duty subject to governance informed by British colonial-era legacy. This law was contentious because it denied communities access to courts, creating a situation whereby collective punishment was enforced including property destruction.
This belt was heavily affected by the so-called War on Terror. The militancy in FATA has occurred with the parallel development of Talibanisation of the tribal areas. A 2012 report by Amnesty International report documents human rights violations during arrests and detentions by the Pakistan Armed Forces and human rights abuses by the Taliban in the FATA. The Pakistani government and the Taliban have been locked in a perpetual state of lawlessness that has led to significant violations. Consequently, according to Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reports that between 2004- 2017 400,000 people were forced to flee the Pashtun belt.
However, AbuBakar Siddique, author of the Pashtun Question, states the Talibanisation of the tribal regions has led to 3 million people dying, creating divisive rivalries, which in effect triggered large scale human rights abuses both by the military and the Taliban.
It’s an area silenced by media censorship and conflict until PTM burst onto the scene. Manzoor greets me with a handshake, and sits on the floor with other young men who are enthusiastically chatting about the challenges in their homeland.
I ask Manzoor about his grievances with the state and what his political aspirations are. ‘Basic dignity,’ he says with weight.
‘We have been humiliated, our loved ones picked up and extrajudicial killings are all we have witnessed.’
The basic demands of the movement are significant: an end to extrajudicial killings, stop enforced disappearances and the removal of checkpoints and landmines in the tribal belt.
When asked about why the military isn’t accepting his right to protest, Manzoor says: ‘Imagine witnessing your family being torn to pieces and you will never be able to question the murderer. I remember a time that when those who dared to speak out would receive a letter enclosed with five thousand rupees with the words "this is the money for your coffin." This kind of fear debilitates you. PTM is a result of this.’
He explains PTM’s organising principles to me in a measured tone.The large public gatherings held by the movement are peaceful, that way it is hard to discredit them, he says.
Manzoor speaks in a way that connects the Pashtun struggle to the mainstream, ethnically Urdu-speaking populations, which is in part what makes PTM a unique civil rights movement.
The movement has undoubtedly connected with a younger demographic. Many of the young men sitting with Pashteen are between 22 and 36 years-old. One young man Sami, 27, explains his reasons for joining the movement.
‘There has been wholesale intellectual dishonesty by the government of Pakistan before PTM, we finally have a voice that represents us with substance,’ he says.
Despite their commitment to peace, it’s not uncommon for the military to show up at their gatherings, and arrest activists. Arman Loni, an organiser was gunned down by security forces in Balochistan. His family members are still petitioning for an arrest warrant to be registered and hold the state responsible. His family believes his only crime was ‘demonstrating the grievances of the Pashtun’.
There have also been regular media blackouts on press coverage of PTM rallies. Rahimullah Yusufzai, resident editor of News International, explains the challenges of reporting on this growing movement.
‘They have been blacked out by the local media but I remember a time when the military’s Inter Services Public Relations referred to Manzoor Pashteen as a fantastic guy. It's on record ISPR stating their demands are genuine, an interaction between the military and PTM was arranged. However, the meetings were unsuccessful and dialogue was not established. According to Pashteen the military were playing a power game littered with anti-state conspiracy theories about our movement, we wanted to discuss stability which the military the meetings concluded at an impasse.’
Abubakar Siddique, the author of the Pashtun Question disagrees. ‘The state has largely seen PTM through a conspiracy lens, even though the state and military know that movement is non-violent.’
‘Two PTM members are senior members of parliament, elected by the people. There is incredible support that cannot be doubted.’
‘Identity is very important but in the Pashtun case, it takes great importance. The tribal areas exist outside the state's control, in a sort of grey zone between Pakistan and Afghanistan.. The Pashtuns historically have never been considered a threat, they have always been committed to parliamentary democracy but this has been distorted since the war on terror.’
Ali Wazir and Mohsin Darwar, members of PTM, both won parliamentary seats in the 2018 elections as independent candidates. Mohsin recounts the struggle of campaigning: ‘My supporters were accosted by the police, election posters were removed and the military was surprised by the support they could not thwart the movement.’
In October 2018 during a press conference in London, General Asif Ghafoor – head of PR for ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence service, accused the Pashtun Tahafuz movement of foreign funding, he alleged that India’s Research and Analysis Wing has been its main source of income.
Mohsin denies the allegation. ’We have asked the military countless number of times to provide evidence of this, but nothing has materialized.’
‘Every time we hold a gathering, a collection pot is passed [around]. We raise significant funds from our supporters,’ he says.
I requested for comment from General Ghafoor a number of times, he didn’t respond.
Tensions between Pakistan and the Pashtuns developed during the so-called War on Terror, therefore, the Afghan question which has been one failed strategy after another without a lasting solution to peace weighs heavily on Pakistan's foreign policy.
How successful Pashteen’s leadership will be remains to be seen. South Asia Researcher Rabia Mehmood says ‘What sets Manzoor and PTM apart [from other movements] is they are fundamentally aligned with the constitution, which rules in their favour.’
Many believe if the movement continues to position itself with the commonly used Pashto phrase of ‘frank talk’, state machinery will inevitably acquiesce to their demands.
Rahimullah tells me that if the military does not respond, ‘this peaceful movement could come undone, leading to an uprising, which may lead to violence’.
Manzoor tells me, ‘We never imagined this, but what I will say about the future [is that] we are aware of the danger, but we are not afraid.’