Photo: Pashtun women from a tribal region of Pakistan hold pictures of missing family members at a rally in Peshawar. AP.
Tens of thousands of Pashtun and Pakistani activists rallied recently in the city of Peshawar, demanding an end to decades of political mistreatment, the removal of military checkpoints in tribal areas, and the release of their friends and relatives who they assert have been taken as political prisoners by the Pakistani government. Radio Mashaal, a branch of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, reported approximately 60,000 in attendance, despite a near-complete blackout of reporting by most Pakistani media.
The movement’s leader, Manzoor Pashteen, has affirmed that the demonstrations are both nonviolent and constitutional. “Pashtuns who have raised their voices against atrocities are being labelled as foreign agents … But we are simple people talking about peace and harmony. Our agenda is peace, and if their agenda is that atrocities should continue, this is wrong.”
In February, the movement staged its first mass demonstration as a response to the killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud, an aspiring Pashtun model, in an allegedly staged encounter. The government stated that Mehsud was a member of the Pakistani Taliban, but this remains entirely unsubstantiated. What the killing did prove, however, was that this young generation of ethnic Pashtuns would continue to be assaulted by the government, as in this extrajudicial killing, but that they were not prepared to so easily accept this systematic abuse. Although education rates remain lowest in Pashtun territories, this generation of the ethnic group is more politically aware than ever.
Mistreatment by the Pakistani government is extreme, long-enduring, and thoroughly systematic. Critically, the Pashtun tribal lands fall outside the jurisdiction of the normal Pakistani judicial system. They are governed rather by the Frontier Crimes Regulations, an outdated system left over from the colonial era. This creates an unjust, inhumane structure and a sharply reduced set of rights for Pashtun citizens. What’s more, Pashtun regions have the lowest literacy rate in the country, there are few employment opportunities, health infrastructure is poor, and communication systems are completely insufficient.
Beyond the systematic oppression, the Pashtun region underwent further tragedy during the height of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda’s clash with Pakistani security forces. Sandwiched between these warring groups, the tribal peoples’ houses were destroyed and businesses devastated in the name of anti-Taliban operations, their mosques were bombed, and their elders were brutally targeted with bombs and beheadings. The Pashtun people were uprooted from their historic villages and for years they were forced to live in tents through both brutal winters and scorching summers.
The protests in Pashtun have brought some victories, but in the fight for equal rights, there is a long road ahead. Earlier this week, the government conceded to escalate its de-mining efforts, with the goal of eventually eradicating the land mines that still plague the Pashtun region. They additionally agreed to remove some, but not all, of the military checkpoints instated there after the rise of terrorism. At the same time, however, police are formally targeting Pashteen and using harsh intimidation tactics on other Pashtun leaders. In spite of this, Pashteen affirmed in an interview with NPR that the movement is underway, with him or not. “No longer will Pashtuns be like tissues that the Pakistani state uses – and then throws away.”