An idea whose time has come
The delay by the government in presenting the FATA Reforms Bill in the National Assembly (NA) inexplicably at the last minute and sans explanation has evoked a series of walkouts by the combined opposition in protest. The only explanation for this delay doing the rounds is the desire to get its two allies, the JUI-F of Maulana Fazlur Rehman and the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party of Mehmood Khan Achakzai on board. Both have opposed the merger of FATA with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), ostensibly on the basis that the tribal people’s will be ascertained, but critics say because they have a vested interest in maintaining a separate identity for FATA so as not to lose their hold on the tribal areas. A recent meeting amongst Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, COAS General Qamar Javed Bajwa and the Maulana failed to achieve agreement on the issue. Critics have pressed the government not to continue appeasing its allies and to implement the long overdue mainstreaming of FATA. Delay can also open the door for Afghanistan to resurrect its past irredentist claims on the tribal regions, which acceded to Pakistan in 1947. An example of this is the suggestion the other day by the Afghan Consul General in Peshawar to hold a referendum on the issue in FATA. That may open the Pandora’s box of Afghan opposition to the Durand Line as the international border once again. For all these reasons and the overriding argument that this is an idea whose time has finally come (70 years after independence, it is good to remind ourselves), the government needs to fulfil this historic duty and task as soon as possible. In the light of the above, therefore, it is heartening to see reports that the high-powered National Implementation Committee (NIC) on FATA reforms has endorsed the merger. All that remains is for the government to announce the measure, something it seems to be avoiding or perhaps procrastinating over while it continues efforts to persuade its recalcitrant allies named above. Chaired by the prime minister, the NIC met last week and also decided that FATA would elect 23 members to the KP Assembly in the general elections in 2018. Further, the NIC decided to do away with the controversial sections of the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) immediately while allowing the rest of the FCR to continue for the moment as a supplementary dispute and conflict resolution mechanism with a sunset clause to repeal it in its entirety once a proper judicial system is in place in FATA.
While all this is going on, the KP government and 11th Corps Peshawar have reportedly gone ahead with finalising an implementation plan for the merger, complete with phasing of the required steps and the resources required for the same, which of course will only become available once the federal government stops dragging its feet in exaggerated deference to its spoiler allies. Another issue is the proposal to allocate three percent of the National Finance Commission (NFC) Award for the next 10 years for the uplift and development needs of FATA. Although consensus is wanting so far on this since the provinces and the Centre will have to forego this amount, the prime minister after chairing an earlier meeting of the NIC in October 2017 had directed the Finance Minister to seek endorsement of the proposal from the NFC.
No one thought the long-standing aspiration to bring FATA out of the colonial-era construct imposed by the British to safeguard their northwestern frontier would be quick, easy, or painless. The government seems to be planning for it wisely without ignoring the difficulties or the need to proceed step by step. The only complaint is that it seems so far to be held hostage on the issue by its two allies, a situation that flies in the face of a historic repeal of the colonial past and opening the door for the people of FATA incrementally to enjoy the same rights and privileges as any other citizen of the state.