How Pashtun Nationalism, Most Stiff Challenge Pakistan Faced, Lost Steam

Pashtun nationalism was a serious challenge Pakistan faced in its infancy long before losing its eastern wing, which is now Bangladesh

Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who was popularly known as Frontier Gandhi and allied with India's national movement under the Congress, was a proponent of Pashtun nationalism.
Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who was popularly known as Frontier Gandhi and allied with India’s national movement under the Congress, was a proponent of Pashtun nationalism.

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

In January 2018, aspiring model Naqeebullah Mehsud’s killing in Karachi turned out to be the tipping point in galvanising Pakistan’s 35-million-strong Pashtuns. Hundreds took to the streets after it emerged that Rao Anwar, a police officer notorious for extrajudicial killings, shot dead Mehsud, 27, and three other men from the country’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

The four men were passed them off as terrorists, fanning the flames of Pashtun anger and providing them with a rallying point. The Pashtuns found a platform in the form of the Pashtun Tahafuz (Protection) Movement or PTM to channelise their resentment.

PTM leader Manzoor Pashteen, then 28, started a ‘long march’ with just 22 people in March 2018. The movement went from strength to strength with tens of thousands joining the PTM’s rally in Peshawar on April 9, 2018. Anwar was arrested a month earlier after eluding police for over a month following a PTM sit-in in Islamabad.

The PTM rattled the Pakistan Army by calling out it over abuses in the FATA during anti-Taliban operations. It demanded the recovery of victims of enforced disappearances, clearance of landmines, demilitarisation, and constitutional rights.

The mobilisation was described as the biggest since a lawyers’ agitation forced military ruler Pervez Musharraf’s ouster in 2008. Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa betrayed his concerns over the movement’s increasing popularity when he called them ‘engineered’.

Bajwa claimed the movement threatened to reverse the military’s counterterrorism successes that reversed the Taliban’s menacing territorial control. The Taliban were within Islamabad’s striking distance in 2009 when they overran the Swat Valley around 100 km from Pakistan’s capital.

The capitulation in Swat called into question the Pakistani state’s viability and fuelled concerns about its ability to guard its nuclear arsenal. It was a double whammy. Apart from the loss of face, Pakistan suffered 11,704 fatalities in 8,389 terror attacks in 2009 as terrorists found safe havens to launch attacks on the Punjabi heartland and financial nerve centre—Karachi.

The Taliban’s ability to strike at will and attacks on military installations, including the army headquarters, stirred Pakistan into action. A buoyed Pakistani Army set foot in the autonomous FATA for the first time in 2011 for sweeping operations to take out the Taliban terrorists sheltered there. This followed an operation that routed the Taliban in Swat within a month in May 2009.

By 2016, the crackdown began showing results. The terror-related fatalities were down to 1,803 that year. They plunged to 155 in the first four months of 2018. The apparent military successes obscured extra-judicial killings, displacement of around two million people, enforced disappearances, and the deep resentment the sweeping operations caused.

The PTM’s campaign brought them back into the spotlight. It gathered steam despite a media blackout, which was blamed on pressure from the military establishment. PTM countered the censorship with the effective use of social media to amplify its demands which included the extension of the Pakistani Parliament and the judiciary’s jurisdiction over FATA.

The region was governed under British-era regulations through the agency of federal political agents, who have powers to exile people, raze properties, and carry out mass arrests as punitive measures. The Pakistani government met the long-standing demand for FATA’s merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in May 2018 and made the region’s people Pakistan’s full citizens.

Besides calls for constitutional rights, the PTM was up in arms against negative stereotyping, racial profiling, and labelling of Pashtuns as terrorists. The tribesmen from FATA have been demonised for long.

Winston Churchill called the tribesmen ‘among the most miserable and brutal creatures on earth’ for giving the British as good as they got. The typecasting has endured even as Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s pacifist Red Shirts movement thrived in Pashtun-dominated North Western Frontier Province or NWFP (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa).

Khan, popularly known as Frontier Gandhi, was closely allied with India’s secular national movement under the Congress banner. He opposed the province’s merger with Pakistan when it was carved in 1947 and called for a separate nation of Pakhtunistan covering Pakistani and Afghan Pashtun areas.

Khan willed to be buried in Afghanistan rather than Pakistan and maintained close ties with India, which decorated him with its highest civilian award, Bharat Ratna, in 1987. New Delhi’s Khan Market, frequented by elites, is named after his brother, Abdul Jabbar Khan, for his role in ensuring safe passage for Hindus, who came to India in the aftermath of the subcontinent’s bloody division into India and Pakistan.  

Pakistan’s anxieties over PTM have to be seen against this backdrop too. Many PTM leaders, including two lawmakers, were detained in June 2019 after the group’s supporters clashed with Pakistani troops at a security post.

In April 2019, the Pakistani military’s spokesman warned PTM ‘their time is up’ and accused the group of having received funding from Afghan and Indian intelligence agencies. Another PTM leader Gulalai Ismail fled the country.

PTM’s mobilisation raised hopes among many of Pakistan’s adversaries that Pashtun nationalism would gain enough momentum to eventually lead to the country’s disintegration. But it was a very simplistic expectation even as Pashtun nationalism was a serious challenge Pakistan faced in its infancy long before losing its eastern wing with Bangladesh’s creation.

Pashtuns have been the backbone of the Pakistani state since its inception. Pakistan counted on Pashtun tribesmen to capture Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) in 1947 when it could not directly use military force under pressure from the British to capture the region.

Pakistan was able to hold on to one-third of J&K despite India’s superior military force because of the tribesmen from NWFP. It could have captured Kashmir Valley by preventing Indian troops from landing there in October 1947 had not they wasted time in pillaging en route to Srinagar.

Pakistan was able to integrate Pashtuns further with their greater representation in the state institutions and to tame separatist elements within the NWFP. In 1948, the Pashtuns accounted for under 10% of the population but 19.5% of Pakistani army personnel. As many as 19 out of 48 top military officers, including army chief and military ruler Ayub Khan, were Pashtuns in the 1960s.

Pashtuns acquired greater stakes in the state and polity during Ayub’s rein to further blunt Pashtun separatism. Three more Pashtuns went on to lead the Pakistan army after Ayub Khan.

In his book Pakistan: Nationalism Without A Nation, academic Christophe Jaffrelot writes that right from the beginning, the intensity of Pashtun nationalism turns out to decline in proportion to the possibilities of upward social and political mobility opened by the new state.

The Pashtuns continue to be represented well and more so in the army. Brookings Institution’s Stephen P Cohen and Pakistani academic Hasan Askari Rizvi estimated that they accounted for 15 to 22% of officers and between 20 to 25% of ordinary soldiers.

The Pashtuns, who now account for 16% of the population, dominate the transport business and have given Pakistan its most popular sporting hero in recent times—Shahid Afridi. Former Prime Minister Imran Khan, the only other sporting hero who rivals Afridi in his popularity, too is of Pashtun extraction.

Pakistan’s highest test scorer Younis Khan is a Pashtun. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has become a major nursery for the national cricket team. Pashtun cricketers have of late outnumbered those from Lahore and Karachi, the traditional cricket centres in Pakistan, in the national team.

Yet Pakistan viewed PTM’s campaign with suspicion despite the group’s insistence on staying within the constitutional limits, partly because of the psychological impact of its 1971 dismemberment.

And there are still proponents of Pakhtunistan across the border in Afghanistan, including the Taliban. Afghanistan refused to recognise Pakistan in 1947 citing claims over the NWFP. Afghanistan has long counted India as its closest ally, the reason enough for many in Islamabad to suspect them of fishing in its troubled waters of Pakistan’s Pashtun belt.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide

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