Anatomy of a political moment
15 June 2018
How a democratic movement is challenging Pakistan’s status quo.
What kind of freedom is this?
You are deaf to our voices.
What KIND of freedom IS this?
Our young men keep getting killed.
What KIND of freedom IS this?
– ‘Da Sang Azadi Da’ by Shaukat Aziz
The entrance of Manzoor Pashteen into the historic Mochi Gate Park in Lahore evoked memories of the political struggles of the 1960s when politicians raised slogans for azadi. On the evening of 22 April 2018, the narrow streets around Mochi Gate, or Speaker’s Corner as it was called during the movement for Independence, rang with the Urdu slogan of “Ye jo dehashatgardi hai, iss ke peechay wardi hai!” (The ones responsible for terrorism are the ones in uniform), and the Pashto “Da Sang Azadi Da?” (What kind of freedom is this?), a phrase from a poem written by Shaukat Aziz, a Wazir tribesman, in protest against the Army’s military operations in their area. The line of Pashto poetry has become a rallying cry for the students mobilising under the banner of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (Movement for the Protection of Pashtuns), and the poem, their anthem.
Through a side gate of the park, surrounded by admiring supporters, the figure of Manzoor Pashteen appeared to be gliding past flowing sewage water and towards the stage. Later, activists would swap anecdotes of the entrance: how Manzoor’s supporters had carried him to the stage, and his feet did not even touch the ground. The tone of admiration and awe is reflective of the hopes the embattled population of Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) has pinned on this 26-year-old graduate in veterinary sciences from Gomal University in Dera Ismail Khan(DI Khan). The previous gatherings in Quetta and Peshawar had seen thousands of men and women clutching posters of their family members, many of whom have been missing for as long as 15 years.
The charged environment at the rally was preceded by a few tense days as it was unclear whether the local administration would allow a protest of this nature to take place in Lahore. On 12 April, the Chief of Army Staff Qamar Javed Bajwa delivered a speech spelling out the official line regarding the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM): “No anti-state agenda in the garb of engineered protests, etc., aimed at reversing the gains achieved at heavy cost in blood and national exchequer succeeds.” Though the rally was not banned, the state pulled out all stops in its attempts to slow down preparations for the event, as was evident from the crackdown that ensued. From the day after Bajwa’s remarks, reports of harassment and threatening phone calls from intelligence agencies and policemen to activists, journalists, professors, Pashtun university students, traders and even labourers in Lahore’s Walled City flooded social media.
“This is really the first time that there has been a movement that challenges actual centres of power in Pakistan”, says Ali Arqam, a Karachi-based journalist. “For political parties they [the PTM] present a mirror and asks them where they stand. More important has been how they have been able to raise the question regarding constitutional rights, specifically about the overarching role of the security-establishment,” says Arqam.
From a hostel room in DI Khan
The origins of the PTM lie in the Mehsud Tahafuz Movement, (MTM) started in May 2014 by eight students of the Mehsud tribe staying at the Gomal University Hostel to campaign for the rights of the Mehsud community impacted by military operations. The ‘War on Terror’, ostensibly marking Pakistan’s participation in the American ‘Global War on Terror’, has taken a heavy toll of civilian lives, especially in northwestern Pakistan. Journalists working on the city pages of national dailies in Pakistan speak of the steady stream of stories of extrajudicial killings, termed ‘encounters’ and ‘shootouts’. Usually reduced to a single column, the script of these stories is always the same; it is only the names that change.
It was the killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud, owner of a clothes shop and an aspiring model, in a police encounter with four alleged Taliban militants on 13 January 2018 that opened the floodgates of anger in the Pashtun community. Soon after the killings, pictures of Naqeebullah holding his child and posing for photographs flooded social media. “Manzoor and I were planning to hold a campaign around landmines in South Waziristan at that time,” PTM leader Ali Wazir told us in an interview, “but Naqeeb’s murder became the event that launched the movement.”
Pashteen had announced a Pashtun Long March from Dera Ismail Khan, by a small group of members from the MTM.They were to walk through Pashtun-majority areas along FATA and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, all the way to Islamabad. Despite a lack of media coverage, the march grew and grew as families of the ‘disappeared’ joined them in the thousands, said Wazir. Ismat Shahjahan, a central leader of the PTM and president of the Women’s Democratic Front, described the Peshawar meeting: women, who had never been to a public gathering before because of the conservative society they lived in, threw up their burqas and held up pictures of their missing fathers, brothers, husbands and sons to the cameras. “I watched them beg the people holding up cameras to make a video of them or shoot a picture of them, hoping that maybe someone would recognise their loved one and bring them back” Shahjahan said.
Wazir is a dominating and jovial figure with a large thick moustache and wavy hair flowing down to his shoulders. When he spoke to us, he had been on constant tour since the end of January when the movement began to expand, and had hardly slept in weeks. A manager of a transport company, Wazir was born into a family that was part of the anti-colonial struggle. Later, his father became the chief of the Ahmedzai Wazir tribe. Wazir completed his early education in Wana – the largest town in South Waziristan – and studied law at Gomal University, where, influenced by the International Marxist Tendency group he became an activist.
Wazir describes how, with the War on Terror, his hometown and its surrounding areas underwent a transformation – first with the entrance of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and later the army. His brother Farooq Khan Wazir was killed in 2003, among the first victims of targeted assassinations in South Waziristan. In 2005, Wazir’s father, another brother, uncle and cousins were killed as well. None of these murders were investigated, despite several complaints and pleas. Wazir contested the 2008 general elections unsuccessfully from the NA-41 parliamentary constituency, which includes Wana, along with the districts of Tiaraza, Birmal and Trikhel. He contested the 2013 elections as well, but lost with a margin of over 300 votes.
At the protest in Islamabad, which continued till February, politicians from various political parties vied for a chance to address the mammoth gathering. Leaders from the Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party, Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party, and mainstream political parties such as Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf were there, as were civil society activists such as Asma Jehangir, a few days before her premature death. The Awami Workers Party announced complete support for the movement.. The MTM also welcomed religious groups, inviting them demonstrate their support for the movement. Soon, the planned ten-day sit-in by the Mehsud Tahafuz Movement would be transformed into a broader Pashtun Tahafuz Movement and encompass a wider set of demands, all within the ambit of the Constitution.
The PTM is fighting the military establishment in a way that no one has ever done before, says Wazir. “We are talking about using Constitutional means to achieve meaningful representation of marginalised people and an end to their miseries”.
It has been important for Pashteen to stress the constitutionality of these demands because the state has been treating him as a persona non grata and an enemy. He has demanded a commission for truth and reconciliation in FATA, the return of missing persons to their families or for them to be produced before court, the handing over of checkpoints to local policemen, removal of landmines in FATA, an end to extrajudicial killings, and for Senior Superintendent of Police, Rao Anwar, the man behind the operation that killed of Naqeebullah Mehsud Anwar, to be tried for murder and given the death penalty. While several politicians and journalists have urged the state to take the PTM’s demands seriously, the state appears to have intensified its crackdown against anyone who supports the PTM. Manzoor Pashteen’s Twitter account was blocked the day after the gathering in Lahore, and #ManzoorNamanzoor (We do not accept Manzoor) was trending for most of the day. Activists were arrested in Karachi and Hyderabad for protesting against the state’s high-handedness against PTM leaders in Lahore.
War on Terror and the terror of war
In 2001, under the military regime of General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan joined the US-led War on Terror. The tribal areas of Pakistan increasingly came under the influence of al-Qaeda militants but both conservative and liberal mainstream political parties were against sending the military into the tribal areas.
Arqam says that the Taliban, which had taken hold of vast areas in FATA at one point, targeted progressive activists, who were either silenced or killed. The inaction of the army against Taliban attacks was attributed to the fact that they were seen as allies against the real threats: progressive and democratic voices.
In 2009, the Pakistan People’s Party-led government brokered a peace deal in Swat district, passing legislation recognising Sharia in the Malakand division of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. This was a hugely controversial bill, which gave powers to the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan(TTP) to virtually run their own state in the area. When the agreement collapsed, a large-scale military operation was launched in the area. The operation was condemned not only because of how it was conducted, as it displaced entire communities, but the manner in which it made Pashtun synonymous with terrorists. This image was further reinforced by the negative depiction of Pashtuns in movies and telefilms – mostly those sponsored by the Army’s media wing – to shape the national discourse on the War on Terror. Arqam says that the War on Terror or what he likes to refer to as the ‘Terror of War’ after the Swat operation, was celebrated by the hyper-nationalist mainstream media which ignored stories from local people, including those who lost their relatives. Protests by locals against the operations were presented as support for the Taliban based on tribal loyalties, rather than what they were – a protest against the armed forces for their inaction against terrorists while targeting the entire Pashtun community.
In 2014, following a gruesome attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, in which 144 students and teachers were shot dead by TTP assailants, Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif informed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that they would launch a retaliatory military operation in North Waziristan. There was a de facto media blackout. The operation marked the end to an era of supporting the ‘good Taliban’ versus the ‘bad Taliban’, and a regime of enforced disappearances, custodial killings and torture was instituted. One million people were displaced, some of whom settled in IDP camps while others ended up moving to Karachi and other cities.
In 2015, repatriation began and as the displaced families started to return, many came home to razed villages, empty shops and homes bombed to rubble. No one had removed landmines from the area and several people ended up getting killed or maimed from stepping on them. Killing of civilians continued. It is this context that Pashteen has given voice to the local population, bringing their stories to the cities of Peshawar, Lahore, Karachi and the capital Islamabad.
The threat of a broad alliance
The impact of the PTM movement is reflected in how it has triggered a wider debate surrounding the role of the military in politics and citizen rights, and also the state-policy of tacitly supporting non-state actors. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was disqualified from office, has also been leading a campaign calling for civilian autonomy. “Manzoor is a manifestation of these scattered voices and now more and more people are coming forward together in the form of a major movement,” says Arqam. In a political landscape where questioning the state and its policies is punished and labeled anti-state, the PTM has emerged drawing its legitimacy from constitutional demands for accountability. And therein lies the perceived threat and the reason for the crackdown by the government.
“We have twice been refused permission to hold a gathering at Mochi Gate,” announced Ali Wazir, at a meeting in Lahore a day before the 22 April rally, where he was joined by other leaders from areas where the military operations have taken place. There was serious concern that the rally would not take place and a sense of fear that they were up against forces much more powerful than the small group of people gathered on the lush green grounds of Lahore’s Lawrence Garden. There was also anger at the fact that the Pakistan Zindabad Movement, an establishment-backed anti-PTM group, was given permission to stage a protest in front of the Lahore Press Club and hold a rally at Nasser Bagh on the same day.
At the press conference following the Lawrence Garden meeting, there was barely any ‘press’ to speak of, but within minutes, dozens of people had started live streaming the conference on Facebook. The use of social media has been crucial for the movement to provide an alternative to television channels which have by and large followed the line of the army, terming the PTM ‘anti-Pakistan’ and part of some conspiracy against the army. While there has been some favourable coverage in international media, and a little support from Pakistan’s English-language newspapers and independent magazines, for the most part, each meeting, rally or activity is covered and disseminated on social media.
“We have held rallies and gatherings all over Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and FATA, and have not seen as much fear of state repression as here in Lahore… Many of our supporters here have been picked up…They say to us, you will do your jalsa [gathering] and leave, what will become of us?” Wazir told the social media activists on Saturday.
A week before this press conference a lecturer of the sociology, Ammar Ali Jan was dismissed from the Punjab University on allegations that he was anti-state because he supported the Pashtun movement. A few days later, a student activist from Lahore received an envelope with a bullet, and a Post-it carrying the warning that the bullet would be used on him the next time. On 20 April, two days before the gathering, Shahjahan said she was attacked in the Garhi Shahu area and the rally posters in her hand were snatched. The press hired to print banners and flyers for the rally was attacked the same day, and thousands of posters were seized. Most media houses followed unwritten directives for a blackout, while providing full coverage to counter-movement groups. The administration of Forman Christian College sent its students on campus the following sms alert: “Dear Residents, there is some issue going and people from Pashtun community are being arrested by the Punjab Police; all FCC student residents, specifically residents from KP and Baluchistan, must travel by bus to Ewing Hall and avoid any unnecessary travel.”
Within hours of the press conference vans of the Counter Terrorism Department of the Punjab Police surrounded a hotel on Davis Road where PTM leaders and activists were staying. Armed policemen and security officers in plain clothes barged into their rooms and took them into custody without presenting arrest warrants. “If you don’t have warrants, you are abducting us,” Shahjahan told them. “I don’t believe any woman should speak among us men,” one of the policemen told her.
The video shows a policeman on the phone, counting the number of people in the room and saying: “We have Ali Wazir and ten other Pathans [Pashtun people].
“Pathan hain?” cry the activists in the room, “Pakistani hain!” (Are we Pashtun? We are Pakistanis). “Aik ladies bhi hain,” the cop continues. “Wohbhi Pathan hi hain.” (There is a lady. She, too, is Pashtun).
As the policemen led away Wazir, Shahjehan, Fanoos Gujjar (president of the Awami Workers Party, or AWP], Nisar Shah of the AWP, Muzammil Khan (a student and leader of the Pashtun Education and Development Movement, PEDM), and other leaders, more vans made their way across the city to homes and offices of civil-society activists suspected of supporting the PTM. Activist Diep Syeda said that she got away only because she wasn’t home when the police arrived.
Pashteen announced his response to the crackdown through Facebook and YouTube: “Tomorrow there will be a PTM rally at Mochi Gate in Lahore. Punjab Police I’m also coming. If you want to arrest me do it on the road. And if you don’t see me anywhere come to Mochi Gate at 4. I will be there. I too wish to see the jail cells where you have tortured Pashtuns in the past.”
Rallying in Lahore
Activists and supporters of the PTM in Lahore and especially the city’s Pashtun community spent a fitful night on Saturday, waiting for news of the release of their leaders. PTM supporters in the provincial capital cities of Peshawar and Quetta had held protests and many took to Twitter to condemn the arrests. #ReleasePTMLeaders remained trending throughout the country that night. Other reports of harassment, recorded by activists, were coming in as well. When a bus full of Pashtun students from the Bahauddin Zakariya University in Multan was stopped from leaving the city, a student broadcast the police intimidation they were subjected to on Facebook. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s daughter Maryam Nawaz posted a tweet demanding that the PTM leaders be released. Under pressure, the police released the activists who immediately announced that the rally would continue as planned – on 22 April 22, 4 pm, at Mochi Gate, Lahore.
The next morning, the area in front of the stage was flooded with foul-smelling sludge after a sewage drain had been directed to the rally site overnight. “We have been visiting the ground for so many days and there was no sign of sewage then, this was done on purpose,” said Saleem, one of the volunteers. Within half an hour, the first volunteers to arrive rolled up their sleeves and cleaned the area after redirecting the sewage.
By 2 pm, the area had dried up and several other groups of PTM supporters had arrived. As 4 pm drew nearer, the gathering began to take a more organised shape. On the stage sat the main leaders of the movement, along with several prominent faces from local left groups. Posters carrying information and details of those who had gone missing were hung around the stage. In the front stood two young boys, between the ages of 8 and 12, holding posters of their father who was picked up some years ago. Many of the placards held up in the sea of people depicted a silhouette of Raza Khan, an activist for cross-border peace, who was abducted from Lahore in December last year. On 2 December 2017, Raza Mahmood Khan, who worked for an initiative named Aaghaz-e-Dosti, that aims to foster better ties between the youth of India and Pakistan, was taken from his single-bedroom apartment in Lahore. When his friends alerted the police and they broke into his house, his desktop computer was missing. Civil society groups and friends of Khan have been protesting, demanding his release since then. The rally rang with slogans demanding an end to landmines, humiliation at checkpoints, racial profiling and extrajudicial killings.
Pashteen went on to tell the story of Mohammed Noor of North Waziristan, who was educating his daughters Waja Hassan and Wajiha Hassan to become doctors. “The girls were very smart and they applied themselves to their studies dutifully… One late evening, at their home, Noor was sitting in a corner dozing off, and the two girls were busy studying when the sound of heavy bombardment from a nearby village rent the calm sleepy night. Their house was hit all of a sudden, and the two girls died. You think we are lying? Go to Darpakhel village and ask anyone about Waja Hassan and Wajiha Hassan, you will find out. The day after the tragedy, newspapers carried the headlines: terrorists killed in operation on Darpakhel village”, said Pashteen as the crowd cried “Shame!”
Raza Wazir, an MPhil student at Punjab University, who wrote the widely-shared article, ‘To Be Young and Pashtun in Pakistan’, in March for the New York Times, says Pashteen has provided hope to many youths in the FATA and wider Pashtun-majority areas. Raza, who was born in the 1990s, grew up close to the Durand Line under the shadow of war, with his father working in Dubai, part of the large migrant labour force that leaves for the Gulf because of a lack of job opportunities in the area. Raza says the charismatic Pashteen has been able to communicate with people with very diverse backgrounds.
The crackdown on the PTM has continued despite civil-society voices in support of the movement, which has remained peaceful. PTM workers were harassed in the days leading up to the Karachi rally in May with many detained in prisons. Pashteen, who was supposed to fly in from Islamabad a day before the rally, was refused air tickets by every single airline at the Islamabad Airport. He eventually travelled over 900 miles to Karachi by road, and was stopped and harassed at multiple checkpoints in every city on the way.
What Pashteen offers is a pill that may be too bitter for the state to swallow. Any meaningful engagement with the PTM would require the state to admit to its shortcomings and flawed policies implemented in FATA; acknowledge that there needs to be a complete overhaul of the oppressive state structures operational in the area; and make a serious attempt to ensure representation of these marginalised voices and provide reparation. While many believe that the movement will only grow from here, others are more cautious in celebrating.
Arqam says the PTM has been successful in creating broad alliances, welcoming all political parties, and expressing solidarity with other movements such as the Hazara Sit-In led by Jalila Haider. While the movement is not organized enough to contest elections, its influence in steering the national debate on the role of the security-establishment has been central. However, the support from nationalist and mainstream olitical parties, who are looking at the Pashtun vote, may not last beyond the elections scheduled in July 2018. What the state is fearful of, says Arqam, is that the movement could become more powerful, broadening into a universal call against the military. Such fears could lead to an intensified government crackdown against the PTM or attacks by the Taliban against PTM workers which might not be resisted by state agencies. On 3 June, two PTM workers were killed and a dozen were injured after militants attacked a gathering.
“After a very long time, we are getting to hear voices that are political, but non-partisan, and entirely in favour of human rights – regardless of whether those oppressed are Pashtuns, Punjabis, Hazara or Baloch – the PTM is a voice for all,” said advocate and human-rights activist Hina Jillani, commenting on Sunday’s rally. “This is why the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan is visibly and vocally supporting the PTM.”
However, she cautioned, that those responsible for the oppression were just starting to realise that these voices were not going to be silenced, and now that people are listening to them, the state is panicking. “The recent raid on the home of the editor of HRCP’s [Human Rights Commission of Pakistan] annual report was suspicious to say the least. But our job is to expose those behind such cowardly acts, and we will continue to expose them in the future,” she said.
In his speech from atop the stage at Mochi Gate on that Sunday evening Ali Wazir declared to the protestors: “We want to show, to the people of Lahore, the wounds of those hidden behind the mountains of FATA.”
~Sarah Eleazar and Sher Ali Khan are both Lahore-based journalists.