Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Of the more than 20 million Pashtu-speaking people in Pakistan (who are known as Pashtuns or Pakhtuns), the vast majority inhabit the plains of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), while a minority (around 10 per cent) live in the highlands of the semi-autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Substantial numbers of Pashtuns have settled in Baluchistan: up to 20 per cent of the total population of that province is comprised of Pashtuns. Due to migration to urban areas there are probably over 1 million Pashtuns living in greater Karachi. ‘Pathan’ is a Hindi term which was adopted by the British for Pashtuns.
Non-Pashtun inhabitants of the KP
Nearly one-third of the population of the current population of KP is non-Pashtun. The non-Pashtun population consists largely of landless artisans and peasants who are mainly Gujars and Awans by caste. In the FATA, they are called Hamsaya or Kadwal. In the border areas of Hazara and Derajat, social norms resemble more closely those in the Punjab and Kashmir. Biradaris or clan groups remain important, but mainly as social networks, particularly for marriage. Chitral has a separate language and culture of its own. One of the main differences, clearly visible when one crosses over from Dir (into Chitral), is that carrying of firearms is less common.
The most distinct people of the KP, and arguably of Pakistan, are the Kalash, now confined to three small valleys in Chitral. The Kalash can be termed ‘indigenous’ by any definition of the term. Their way of life is rooted in the worship of ancestral spirits and trees. Their unique customs attract a lot of tourists. However, due to the conversions of the Kalash to Islam, their age-old traditions are fast becoming extinct. The Kalash form an ethnic, linguistic as well as a religious minority community. This overlap heightens their distinctiveness as a group compared to the overwhelming majority in the country and even their immediate neighbours, the Chitralis. Since the religion professed by the Kalash is different from the Abrahamic religions, (i.e. Judaism, Christianity and Islam), they are sometimes termed ‘Kafirs’, which may be used derogatorily and implies non-believers (in the sense of not belonging to one of the Abrahamic religions). This terminology underscores their vulnerability to assimilation through conversion. Only approximately 4,000 continue to identify themselves as Kalash.
The majority of households in KP speak Pashtu as their first language, followed by Hindko speakers, while Seraiki is the mother tongue of a small minority. A small proportion of households speak local languages, such as Kohwar in Chitral district, while Urdu-speaking and Punjabi-speaking migrants account for only a tiny fraction of the households. With the exception of Sindh, Islam came to KP earlier than to any other part of South Asia.
Since Pashtuns received their religious instruction from Sunni Turk dynasties, the majority are Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi School. Non-Muslim minorities form less than 0.5 per cent of the population.
Pashtuns have an ancient history, culture and tradition often identified with the ‘Pakti’ kingdom as described in the writing of the classical historian Herodotus. Pashtun culture and tradition were established between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries, and Pashtun folklore was disseminated and Pashtun nationalism subsequently reinvigorated by the lyrics of the 17th century warrior-poet Khushal Khan Khattak.
Pashtuns have a political history beset with internal strife and intrigue. Internal feuds in the Pashtun-dominated Afghan regimes of the nineteenth century provided an opportunity to many outsiders, and finally the British, to interfere and subsequently divide the Pashtuns themselves with the establishment of the Durand line between Afghanistan and British India in 1893. Pashtuns refused to accept this boundary, and Pashtun nationalists point out that it divides a ‘people’ with a common tradition and history, and continues to deprive Afghanistan of an access to the open sea.
By 1946, immediately prior to the partition of India, M.A. Jinnah had a stranglehold on the affairs of what was then the North West Frontier Province (NWFP); however, controversy is still generated when some Pashtun nationalists highlight the fact that the referendum that had been organized by the British, and that led to a 99 per cent vote in favour of joining Pakistan, could not be regarded as conclusive. They point out that the referendum did not give Pashtuns the option of union with Afghanistan, being limited to union with either India or Pakistan, and that a significant proportion of the Pashtun population boycotted the referendum. It is equally clear that the creation of the Pakistani state was opposed by Afghans, who consorted with the Indian National Congress before partition and were led to believe they would gain the port of Karachi if the Pakistan movement failed. Such anti-Pakistan groups as Ghaffar Khan’s Khudai Khidmatgas wanted a homeland for Pashtuns, to be named ‘Pashtunistan’. Afghan leaders appealed to the ethnic sensitivities of the Afghans and urged the inhabitants of NWFP to join Afghanistan when it became clear that the British departure was imminent.
Creation of ‘tribal’ areas
Many aspects of old British policy towards the Pashtuns have continued in post-independence Pakistan. Although the princely states of what is now KP were abolished, there continued to be specifically designated Federally Administered Tribal Areas (or FATA). These ‘tribal’ areas, consisting of seven ‘agencies’, retained considerable ethnic autonomy; central and provincial laws did not apply, and they were ruled by customary laws and the 1901 Frontier Crimes Regulation. The continuation of the FATA structure and the continued application of the Frontier Crimes Regulation caused considerable discontent among Pashtuns living in the tribal areas, as collective punishments could be enforced by centrally appointed political agents – with no right to appeal.
After the initial period of indifference to the socio-economic policies of what was then NWFP, the affairs of the government became highly centralized under Ayub Khan (1958-69), with West Pakistan amalgamated into one unit, which resulted in minority disaffection. After the secession of Bangladesh, the provinces were reconstituted, and the 1973 Constitution guaranteed considerable provincial autonomy – although in practice power was centralized even more than in previous years. The highly centralized form of government continued during the eleven-year rule of General Zia (1977-88). The Zia government was initially wary of asserting its influence in the area, but the Soviet military occupation of Afghanistan led to increased attempts to control the tribal areas, most notably in 1985-86, with regard to heroin and arms smuggling. The presence of large numbers of refugees from Afghanistan (largely Pashtuns) also contributed to destabilizing the area. Over 3 million Afghan refugees came to Pakistan, 75 per cent to NWFP, with a special impact on the tribal areas, where one out of three of the population were refugees. Apart from humanitarian and economic considerations, the refugees posed a security dilemma, as Afghan resistance groups operated from Pakistan, and mujahideen fighters moved freely across the border.
Impact of US attacks on Afghanistan
Despite the return to democracy in 1988, the political situation in what was still called NWFP remained fluid. Successive provincial governments found it difficult to stay in power. Continuing political instability, and dissatisfaction with the administration of justice, and with the government’s foreign policy in relation to Afghanistan, were reflected in such incidents as the revolt of Pashtun Islamists in Malakand in November 1994 in which at least 200 people died, as well as the bomb blast of December 1995 in Peshawar that resulted in the deaths of 21 people. After General Pervez Musharraf’s military coup in 1999, general elections were held for the first time in October 2002. Notwithstanding a closely scrutinized election, the military government’s support for the so-called ‘War on Terror’ and favourable policies towards the United States antagonized the population to such an extent that a pro-Taliban religious coalition, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) came into power in the province. This brought about greater orthodoxy and repression of the rights of women and religious and ethnic minorities. The US bombings of Afghanistan in October 2001 meant a further influx of refugees, many of whom continue to reside in the province. Several thousand people were affected and displaced as a consequence of the earthquake that struck the Northern Areas of Pakistan and Kashmir in October 2005.
One of the most controversial actions undertaken by the MMA-led government in the region was the adoption of the Hisba bill in 2005. The bill was intended to establish a strict religious regime within the social and legal framework. It established the position of a Mohtisib (Ombudsman), whose role included not only inquiring into public maladministration, but also individual personal and moral behaviour, and ensuring that ‘Islamic values’ were respected and protected. The provisions were highly ambiguous and were perceived by minority groups as an attempt by the religious orthodoxy to repress all forms of human rights and civil liberties under the guise of ‘Islamization’. The Hisba law was intended to be immune from any form of judicial review that challenged the actions of the Mohtisib. In light of the vagueness of the provisions of the proposed legislation and the draconian powers conferred to the Mohtisib, the Supreme Court held that the bill was unconstitutional and also against the provisions of Islam. However, the court’s order to the NWFP governor not to approve the bill led to further political agitation and unrest by the MMA and those who supported religious orthodoxy.
Meanwhile, Pashtun nationalists have long pressed for a renaming of their province, given that the name ‘North West Frontier Province’ so clearly recalled British rule and the division pressed on the Pashtun people through the Durand line. After years of advocacy, the province was renamed Khyber Pakhtunkwa (or KP) in 2010, as part of various reforms contained in the 18th Constitutional Amendment.
Pashtun communities in KP remain at risk from the continuing Taliban insurgency, as well as from the repercussions from resulting government responses. In December 2014, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) attacked the Army Public School in Peshawar, claiming 141 lives, including 132 children. The attack highlighted the extreme vulnerability of Pashtun civilians in what has become a cycle of violence, involving also concerted military responses. The government has repeatedly launched military offensives against militant groups, especially near the border with Afghanistan. North Waziristan has been particularly badly affected; the large-scale military operation ‘Zarb-e-Azb’, which commenced in 2014 and lasted for two years, led to the displacement of approximately a million people. Taliban attacks nevertheless continue; for instance, six students, a security guard and a by-stander were killed in December 2017 when the TTP launched an attack against the Agriculture Training Institute in Peshawar.
The economy of the KP is weak. What little industry exists is concentrated in the regional capital, Peshawar. Economic development is generally welcome, but some Pashtun leaders have attempted to impede road construction, as this would erode their own autonomy. Large amounts of opium are produced in Pashtun areas and are an important economic factor; the government of Zia-ul-Haq attempted a massive crackdown on opium production and consumption, with little success. There has also been severe class conflict between landlords and tenants among Pashtuns.
With Pashtuns now constituting the largest segment of new arrivals in Karachi, there is concern this could exacerbate tensions between the locally ruling Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which largely represents the muhajir population – mostly Urdu-speaking Muslims who migrated from northern and western India following partition – and the Pashtun-dominated Awami National Party.
Pashtuns have also been frequently targeted by security forces in raids and abductions, while many others have struggle with displacement and negative representations. However, the killing in January 2018 of a 27-year-old Pashtun, Naqeebullah Mehsud, by police in Karachi prompted a mass protest movement among Pashtuns, particularly youth, with a sit-in in Islamabad attracting thousands of Pashtuns to the capital. Known as the Pashtun Long March, it was organized as a non-violent protest against the murder of Mehsud and other Pashtuns in extrajudicial killings by security forces, as well as the continued presence of landmines in the area. In February, the government formally agreed to address these grievances. The demonstrations provided a powerful example of peaceful Pashtun protest in contrast to popular stereotypes association the community with violence.
Meanwhile, positive steps were taken in May 2018 when the long-awaited 31st Constitutional Amendment was signed by President Mamnoon Husain into law. The legislative change does away with the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the infamous Frontier Crimes Regulation, which dated back to the British Raj and mandated collective punishments with no effective right to appeal. The tribal areas now become districts of Khyber Pakhtunkwa, and the jurisdiction of the Peshawar High Court and Pakistan Supreme Court now extend over the region. Interim regulations replace the Frontier Crimes Regulation. The government has also committed to investing heavily in development for the region.
Updated June 2018
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