The on going political schism in Pakistan is manifested in conflict between civilian and military elites over controlling the system for policy making and resource allocation. It is also reflected in a prolonged political confrontation encouraged by the security establishment to put pressure on civilian governments for expanding its control. But since both the civil and military factions of the ruling elites are predominantly Punjabi, the aforementioned power struggle has largely obscured the deepening fault lines representing the growing alienation of oppressed nationalities like Baloch, Pashtun, Sindhi and those living in Gilgit-Baltistan from the Pakistani state system. The situation in the largest urban center Karachi also reflects the sense of exclusion felt in the rest of peripheral spheres. Such a development can be comprehended by acknowledging the fact that smaller ethnic groups are marginalised by the said power struggle since the political discourse of the country remains by and large hostage to artificially generated issues leaving no space for genuine and vital challenges faced by the people of oppressed nationalities.
Here I shall make an effort to briefly focus on the growing alienation among Pashtuns in Pakistan during the last few years. This sounds ironic because there were serious efforts underway in the recent past by the democratic political forces, including Pashtun nationalist leadership, to find a solution in a federal democratic structure and there was tangible progress on that front a few years ago. The National Finance Commission Award in 2009 and the 18th Constitutional Amendment in 2010 are two examples. However, myopic policies of certain state actors have complicated the situation by adopting extremely oppressive policies.
There are three main issues that are responsible for deepening alienation among Pashtuns today. The first and foremost is Pakistan’s Afghan policy formulated and executed by the security establishment. By now it is quite clear that the term “strategic depth” has been an euphemism for a colonial type of control of Afghan/Pashtun people on both sides of the Durand Line by Punjabi dominated Pakistani ruling elite. Project Taliban is the modus operandi for the implementation of this policy, which is aimed at deconstruction of Afghan/Pashtun socio cultural and historical identity. Since military means remain the main instrument for implementation of Talibanisation, it has involved death and destruction on a large scale, deepening Pashtun alienation to dangerous proportions. The naked design of demolition of Afghan state and nationhood that constitute the content of the aforementioned policy has turned it into a zero sum game reviving the animosity that existed between Afghans and the 19th century Punjabi state of Ranjit Singh. It is not a coincidence that inside Pakistan, Pashtun nationalists have had to bear the brunt of Taliban’s target killings. In the past Pashtun nationalists were suppressed by torture, imprisonment and exiles and now their political activities are blocked through terrorist attacks. Interestingly the main justification for the notorious Afghan policy post 9/11 was the “ compulsion” of Pakistan to “support” Pashtuns in Afghanistan (by supporting Taliban) who were supposed to have been marginalised by the domination of the so called Northern Alliance. But now when millions of Afghan/Pashtun refugees are being thrown out of Pakistan by using the most brutal and humiliating methods, Pashtuns in Pakistan are supposed to remain indifferent! The saga of the well-known Afghan refugee woman Sharbat Gula epitomises the arrogance of the aforementioned hegemonic policy. It goes without saying that this situation is totally unacceptable for Pashtuns living in Pakistan. Convergence of almost all political parties active in Pashtun belt on demanding an end to this policy proves it. Similarly, by choking Afghan Transit Trade and by discouraging trade via Torkham and Chaman, Pakistani policy amounts to economic murder of Pashtuns with a political fallout.
The second burning issue for Pashtuns in Pakistan is the fate of their brethren in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA). Situation in FATA is closely linked with Pakistan’s Afghan policy. FATA has been not only groaning under the colonial structures of governance for the last seventy years even after the independence with no human rights for its people but the area has also been used as a launching pad for three undeclared wars that Pakistan has fought in Afghanistan during the last four decades (1980-89, 1994-2001 and 2003-2016). After 9/11, terrorists coming from different parts of the world were allowed to establish a parallel state in the area for supporting Taliban’s war in Afghanistan. Terrorists occupied the area and turned it into a hell for the Pashtuns living there. Terrorists established their hegemony in the area by killing almost all known tribal leaders and subsequently imposed a reign of terror on the indigenous people while Pakistani state looked the other way. At times clashes would erupt between Pakistan Army and the terrorists and tribal Pashtuns would get caught up in the cross fire. Operation Zarb-e-Azb launched in 2014 has pushed most of the terror syndicate into Afghanistan with some Afghan Taliban bases still operating in FATA. The recent report by a federal government committee (18th such report since 1972) for suggesting merger of FATA in Pakhtunkhwa faces challenges in implementation. It is pretty clear that as long as Pakistan actively supports Taliban’s war in Afghanistan FATA will be kept as a back hole and no go area. Consequently it will remain a socio political backyard and a bleeding wound despite the high sounding rhetoric of the authorities.
The third issue faced by Pashtuns (along with other oppressed nationalities) is their socio economic exclusion. FATA, parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan face the highest incidence of poverty even according to the recently released official statistics. The two most prominent examples of the unfairness in state policy are the capping of net profit from hydel power to Pakhtunkhwa since 1992 (in violation of the Constitution) and exclusion of Pashtuns from the CPEC. The net profit of hydel-power enshrined in 1973 Constitution was received for the first time in 1991 after a delay of 18 years and was capped the next year depriving Pakhtunkhwa from its legitimate income. But all political parties with some political base in the area, including the religious groups, are taking a strong stand on all these three issues. Similar fault lines are also deepening in other marginalised communities in Pakistan but the ruling elites can’t pay attention being too busy in power games. Dissatisfied with traditional politics the younger people are bound to make more radical demands.