July Issue 2019
The New Wave of Pashtun Nationalism
The Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) in the tribal areas continues to attract the attention of the state. Prime Minister Imran Khan, who visited the region more than once and sympathised with the PTM demands, has contested the manner in which these were being voiced.
Those sympathetic to the movement say the government needs to engage with the PTM. What has become problematic is not what the movement publicly states, but what it does not. The military authorities have spoken of how they met the movement’s many demands, by removing landmines, reducing checkposts, and holding jirgas for them, and yet the acrimony persists.
Like many movements that appeared to have erupted all of a sudden, the PTM was not highlighted in the media earlier. That makes some suspect its motives, arguing that there is a hidden hand behind it. But like many other socio-political movements, now that it has made its presence felt, it is easy to say that it had been in the making for a long time. And like many other movements across the globe in recent times, it is certainly going to leave traces. For the state to gain a better understanding of how to successfully engage with the PTM, it must take a look at the history of such movements.
The PTM is symptomatic of a new wave of Pashtun nationalism, mostly centred in the tribal areas – especially in the southern districts. It builds on the blocks of traditional nationalism, but adds its own colour as well.
At its core, the PTM is like a youth movement. Its founder, Manzoor Pashteen, is in his mid-20s. Those now affiliated with the movement were teenagers when Taliban militants started hoisting flags in their areas. They were also once among the displaced persons, fearing for their lives and property. Pashteen was one of the many IDPs of South Waziristan, who had gone to Dera Ismail Khan. Displacement exposed them to political ideas, or “political consciousness,” as one observer put, which was previously missing in the tribal areas.
Senior Pashtun politician, Afrasiab Khattak, argues that the “youth bulge, displacement and urbanisation,” have long been changing the dynamics in Pashtun territory, each in its own way. All three found a home in the new movement.
Of these, the youth bulge is talked about so much across the country that it has become a cliché. There are warnings that if the youth is not tapped properly, they can turn to extremism. Political parties are not immune to such transformations. PM Khan greatly credits his rise to the support of the youth, who were fed up with the rotten systems of the past.
But the youth is not a monolithic entity – all those who fall within this category do not necessarily have the same likes and dislikes. The nationalist parties, too, had a youth bulge to cater to.
When the Awami National Party (ANP), the leading Pashtun nationalist party in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), lost the elections in 2013 – six years ago – it alleged foul play, but it also looked within to find the reasons for its failure. One of its remedies was to form a youth-centric body – the National Youth Organisation (NYO). But the NYO was not a students’ wing. The ANP already had the Pashtun Students Federation (PSF), which was banned in the 1980s and has since, only existed on university campuses exercising the principle of “might is right,” according to one youth leader. The 2013 election results had shown that the ANP had fallen out of sync with the sentiment of the youth. The NYO was formed to bridge that gap.
The NYO had a grandiose agenda and it was given the maximum possible autonomy. Its leaders participated in party meetings and provided their input. The body thought that the old guard had lost, that they had compromised too much, and that it was in the hands of the youth to reclaim the ideals of Pashtun polity.
Addressing terrorism was a core priority of the NYO. The very first point of its foundation document called for ridding society of the “menace of extremism, sectarianism and terrorism.” Parties usually talk in terms of broad ideas, and remedies for terrorism are part of their manifestos. Yet here was an organisation that prioritised finding solutions to it and made it part of its vision.
Within no time, from 2013 to 2018, the NYO created significant ripples (for which the PTM would later be known). When Mashal Khan was lynched to death in a university in Mardan, it was the NYO that mobilised the masses. The organisation went to the tribal areas, Swat and Karachi, stirring support against extremism.
NYO youngsters were known for their straight talk. The ANP’s senior leadership did not like how they were being “confronted” by these youngsters.
In 2018, the group’s central organiser was removed. While the reason cited was his inability to effectively organise the electoral process within the party, it is widely believed he was shown the door for joining the newly-emerging PTM. He wasn’t alone. In fact, the entire organisational structural was disbanded in 2018, only to be revamped later. Khushal Khattak, who was the founding head of the NYO, said, “the proportion of people switching to the PTM from the NYO is greater than [those from the] parent party, the ANP.”
That ousted central organiser was none other than Mohsin Dawar, who later contested the election as an independent candidate, with the backing of the PTM. Dawar was the NYO’s focal person for displaced persons in North Wazistan. It is said that even Pashteen was once asked to join the NYO.
Traditional Pashtun parties have historically desired autonomy for smaller provinces; they spearheaded the movement against the One-Unit system (1954-70), and signed the 1973 Constitution, which stipulated a devolution of powers. Their moment of joy came in 2010, when powers were ultimately devolved with the passage of the 18th Amendment.
The Amendment, and some other measures that aimed at empowering the provinces, made it apparent to nationalist forces that mainstream parties did take the concerns of the provinces into consideration. In the old times, nationalists would usually be criticised if they were believed to be cosying up to parties deemed as ‘patriotic.’ In the 1990s, the ANP’s alliance with the right-of-centre Pakistan Muslim League (PML) invited a great deal of ridicule. A ’90s-era political worker, who switched from the ANP to the PML, only to switch back to the ANP, likened himself to a watermelon: “Green from the shell, but red at the core.”
Today, such associations are no longer an embarrassment for nationalists. Even PTM-backed legislators supported PM Khan, widely viewed as the blue-eyed boy of the establishment.
But the passage of the 18th Amendment does not necessarily guarantee that the demands of nationalist parties would be met. For much of what has been promised, a lot is yet to be delivered. Even now, provinces continue to wrangle with the centre over the distribution of funds. They agitate even at the slightest hint of debating whether the amendment should be scrapped. According to Afrasiab Khattak, the message these debates send out is that “the steel frame of the state is not happy with devolution.”
The frame was constructed by administrators, who stay, while politicians come and go. Khattak says the new nationalist is more focused on the administrators and not the parties. The demand that the amendment, or Constitution, be implemented in letter and spirit is not directed towards the parties, but a wide array of administrators. The ANP’s demands to the authorities, on financial allocation, are not dissimilar to the PTM’s demands to the authorities on security arrangements.
Yet challenging the administrators is fraught with risk. This is seen most clearly in the case of the PTM’s demand for the demilitarisation of the tribal areas. The movement has also challenged the foreign policy principles of ‘geography is destiny.’
Consider the much-discredited ‘strategic depth’ policy for Afghanistan, conditioned on the buffer status of the tribal areas. After 2001, the tribal areas rose to international infamy at the hands of militants, who were using North Waziristan in particular, as a springboard for various missions.
Whereas the traditional nationalists had complained of a financial imbalance between the mainstream and the fringes, the newer generations are more focused on the security imbalance – that certain parts of the country are kept safe at the expense of other parts.
Khattak summarised the emergence of the new nationalist streak to the “four-decade Afghan war and its fallout.” It is a classic case of what happens when humans are ignored on the geopolitical chessboard.
While much of the focus of the PTM is on straight talk with security institutions, the group has the potential of upending the old order in other ways too.
The tribal areas were long kept out of the mainstream in the name of tribal culture. To residents of the region, this is a mere excuse. A Pashtun nationalist leader once asked how Pakistani state authorities “pontificate to the whole world” of the blunder of stepping in to Afghanistan, where the valorous and vengeance-seeking Pashtuns were sure to resist, but conveniently ignore applying the same warnings for themselves in the tribal areas.
The PTM’s ability to overturn the image of the simplistic tribal Pashtun may have a lasting impact. The movement’s supporters get extremely annoyed when told that militancy crept into their areas because of their tribal values such as melmastia (hospitality).
The civil administrators appointed in the tribal areas would often justify the area’s peculiar code for achieving stability amidst warring tribes. Again, PTM supporters reject this; as per the government committee deliberating the future of the tribal areas, most of those in favour of mainstreaming were youngsters. The PTM’s rallies are also mobilised by women. It is in this context that the organisation, or any new Pashtun movement, will leave lasting impression: the power to question the entrenched social dynamics.
While Ghaffar Khan (aka Bacha Khan) is known as the founding father of what is today the ANP, essentially, he led a movement for social reform in Pashtun society. The extent to which the new movement sows the seeds of reformation may determine its validity in the long-run. This can even make it different from other nationalist forces.
For every major ethnic group, there is no single ethnic party. In Sindh and Balochistan, a variety of nationalist parties exist. To be fair, Pashtun parties are fewer in number – only two, if the religious or national-level parties are counted out. The ANP is popular with Pashtuns in KP, while what is now the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PMAP) is popular among Pashtuns in Balochistan. For a variety of reasons, the popularity of these two parties now overlaps with provinces that have a Pashtun population. But there is one other Pashtun-inhabited administrative unit, with its distinct set of problems, that must be dealt with.
The erstwhile Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) was long kept – long here means over a century – distinct or special. Political parties were barred from functioning in the area; contestants could only be independent candidates. Even the 18th Amendment, the leap towards devolution, could not deliver for this centrally-controlled territory. It was only eight years ago, in 2011, that political parties were permitted to operate there. The parties’ presence in the tribal belt required investment, just like their links with the youth.
In any case, a party or movement hailing from the tribal areas, like the PTM, would naturally appeal to the locals and can very well carve a niche for itself in the region. According to Khushal Khattak, a young Pashtun activist, the ANP and PMAP (previously the National Awami Party), have, historically, catered to either northern KP or northern Balochistan. Even the traditional Pashtun parties have ignored the southern belt of KP sandwiched between PMAP’s and ANP’s vote banks. The Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), too, has a strong presence in that belt, on the religious spectrum.
It is this peculiar position of the PTM’s leadership that makes it a force that cannot be ignored by any party. The JUI-Fazl (JUI-F), with which it shares the space, is engaging it. The PMAP members have spoken in support of the group. And the ANP had served as an introductory platform for many of its members. Any one party trying to make inroads in the area will have to deal with this movement, and pay heed to what it is saying. The PPP’s Farhatullah Babar has also reached out to it.
Seasoned politicians agree that the existence of a multitude of Pashtun political entities is a result of their dispersed presence. In an era of infrastructural and digital connectivity, their sense of solidarity can increase. Already, social media has covered the gap between scattered Pashtuns, providing news to likeminded individuals in different parts of the country and abroad.
The PTM is the latest incarnation in Pashtun nationalism and one which has the potential of leaving a lasting impact on Pashtun society as a whole. While state authorities have tried negotiating with them, there are counter forces who see engagement as capitulation. What authorities should not ignore is the fact that the movement has indigenous elements that make it draw crowds.
Perhaps the most telling case of the relevance of nationalism is Aftab Sherpao. A former major, who switched to politics after the assassination of his brother, Sherpao was a member of the PPP before joining General (R) Pervez Musharraf’s cabinet as interior minister. And yet today, he wants the state to correct its path in the tribal areas and Afghanistan.