August issue 2002
Circled in Controversy
The word jirga has its roots in the Turkish word meaning ‘circle.’ Members of a traditional Pashtun jirga in the past, and in some cases even now, sit in a circle while discussing issues concerning their communities. In the Khyber and Orakzai tribal agencies, as well as in many other Pashtun areas, jirga members sit cross-legged on the bare ground as equals in a classic example of egalitarianism.
The concepts of jirga and shoora are rooted in Islamic societies and have served the need for arriving at decisions concerning local disputes, election of tribal chiefs and relations with other communities.
In Afghanistan, the concept of the Loya Jirga has now become a revered Afghan tradition, playing an integral part in the country’s concept of governance.
In Afghanistan, as well as in the NWFP and certain other parts of Pakistan, the jirga is considered a Pashtun institution. Many communities find that the jirgas resolve disputes quickly and at very little cost. This was particularly true in areas where the police was corrupt and insensitive to the needs of the people and the courts were slow and unjust in deciding cases.
Recently, villagers in Dir district in NWFP opted to resolve their disputes under Shariah through the Ulema instead of approaching law, enforcing agencies. Certain police stations in the NWFP have virtually no work because the people take their disputes to local religious scholars and tribal elders instead. In most cases, reconciliation is achieved and feuding parties are saved from spending time and money in waging legal battles. The unresponsive nature of the state machinery and indifference of the authorities to public needs also prompted the people to look for alternative modes of justice. Petty disputes are often resolved in jirgas while some cases of a serious nature invariably go to the police and the courts.
The NWFP government issued orders forbidding the Ulema from deciding cases under Shariah in settled areas of the province. However, it failed to stop the Ulema and tribal elders from continuing with this practice in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Thus, jirgas in the tribal areas have been punishing murderers under Qisas, ordering the demolition of houses, the social boycott of offenders convicted of other crimes, and banning drugs, music and television. Liquor, heroin, opium, hashish, video-cassettes and recorders and television sets have been publicly burnt in some parts of the tribal areas. Till recently, in the Bara tehsil of Khyber Agency, 10 kms from Peshawar, a tribal jirga-cum-Shariah court set up by the Afridi tribes, used to decide cases ranging from murder to adultery and order public executions and lashings. Facing tough opposition from the local population, who insisted that the rule of the jirga and Shariah had contributed to a dramatic drop in the crime rate, it was with great difficulty that the government put an end to this parallel system of justice in Bara. FATA tribesmen are averse to the police and courts in settled areas and would like to continue with their “riwaj” (customs and traditions) based on a loose concept of jirga and Shariah. However, at the same time, they want amendments in the Frontier Crimes Regulations to enable convicts to appeal against judgements made by political agents.
The jirga system is not necessarily the ideal forum to settle local disputes. Corruption has filtered down to the jirgas, and allegations of bribes being accepted for favourable decisions have become the norm. Earlier, jirga members would be chosen keeping in view their age and place in the community. Now money is the key that determines the role a jirga member can play in resolving disputes. The emergence of new power centres based on wealth, social status and political influence has also diluted the authority of jirgas. A jirga member is supposed to guarantee implementation of decisions made collectively and through consensus. This can only be done if he is powerful enough to force his own clan to abide by his word. However, it has often been observed that jirga members are defied by their own clansmen, foiling attempts to implement decisions. The gradual influence of the state into hitherto remote and inaccessible areas through various development projects, has also affected social structures and diminished the power of the jirga which is being increasingly pressured by the political administration in FATA to take decisions dictated by government officials.
Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Peshawar-based senior journalist who covers events in the NWFP, FATA, Balochistan and Afghanistan. His work appears in the Pakistani and international media. He has also contributed chapters to books on the region.