Bajwa’s assurance to FATA
Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa has told a tribal Jirga in Landi Kotal, Khyber Agency, Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) that he is very much in favour of the proposed merger of FATA into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province. However, he added, nothing would be done without the stakeholders’ consent. No decision in the matter would be imposed from the outside. A meeting of pro-merger and anti-merger elements would be organized in the near future to deliberate on the matter. He went on to dilate on the reasons for FATA’s suffering, chief amongst which over the last four decades was a consequence of the Afghan wars that saw militants, mujahideen and terrorists based there. Not only did this lead to the emergence of a Pakistani Taliban, it added to the historical woes of the tribal areas because of an anachronistic colonial construct in pursuit of the British occupying power’s security considerations on the northwestern frontier of its Indian empire. To achieve this objective, and knowing well the penchant and history of the Pashtun tribes of the area to resist any occupier, the British imposed a draconian system of control. This included collective punishment of tribes under the notorious Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR), total control of the lives of people in FATA by Political Agents appointed by the Governor-General, the absence of even those minimum rights available to the indigenous inhabitants of the rest of the subcontinent, and the ‘system’ of ‘gold and guns’ to bribe the tribal Malliks (chiefs) to keep their peoples quiescent. If today, some of those Malliks pose a vested interest roadblock to the merger of FATA with KP, while the dialogue suggested by General Bajwa may not be a bad thing, no section that benefited from this antediluvian construct in the past can be allowed to block the emergence of the people of FATA into the light of day in the modern world out of the darkness and backwardness in which they have been deliberately frozen for more than a century. Some political forces, for example Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s JUI-F, have been resisting the notion of the merger of FATA with KP, ostensibly on the ground that the wishes of the people of FATA should first be ascertained. It is not clear whether General Bajwa’s proposed meeting of pro- and anti-merger elements springs from and is a response to such objections, but if handled properly, it could serve to let the air out of this and other vested interest balloons. And while FATA’s fate is being pondered, we should not forget the Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (PATA), which may be considered the ‘poor cousins’ of the people of FATA. All these areas, FATA and PATA, should now be merged into KP, the colonial legacy done away with, and the rights of the tribal people as full citizens accorded to them.
It is a matter of regret that Pakistan, despite emerging as an independent state 70 years ago, failed to overcome the legacy left behind by British colonialism vis-à-vis the northwest frontier of the new state. They say old habits die hard, and in this case, partly at least because of the irredentist claims of Afghanistan on this area, the colonial legacy was considered the best defence and security bulwark for this frontier. However, this construct was retained at the expense of the people of the tribal regions. Better late than never, it is a step that is long overdue. Unfortunately, while the governments at the Centre (PML-N) and in KP (PTI) as well as parliament have been seized of this matter since long, an effective decision in principle (so far only lip service) and an efficacious implementation plan have been mooted time and again without a leaf stirring on the ground. The merger of FATA and PATA with KP is only the first step in a perhaps lengthy process of bringing the political, legislative, administrative and social conditions at par with the rest of the country. This mainstreaming process of the benighted tribal areas cannot and should not be subject to further delay.