What does it take to hold referendum in Fata on the K-P-Fata merger issue? But before discussing the referendum, let us discuss the unscrupulous pathway the PML-N federal government adopted for the serious issue of Fata reforms. It all started when the Fata parliamentarians submitted a constitutional amendment bill in September 2015 for merging Fata with K-P. However, the PM constituted the Fata Reforms Committee for concrete proposals on the reforms in November 2015. The committee visited all seven agencies of Fata and held numerous meetings with representatives of different political parties, journalists and youth groups in Peshawar and Islamabad for determining the future status of Fata. The report of the committee on Fata reforms was made public in August 2016.
Now Maulana Fazlur Rehman of the JUI-F is the main bottleneck in the way for implementation of Fata reforms. When the committee was constituted, not a single word came out from Rehman, a strong ally of the incumbent federal government, against the mechanism for determining future status of Fata. He shrewdly waited for the findings of the report and once he observed that the findings are not according to his benefit, he moved away. Had the findings been for sustaining the status quo and retaining the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR), he would never have objected on the findings of the committee report. There is not a single mention of ‘referendum’ in the whole report. Either the reforms committee did not consult Rehman or he had something else in mind while the consultations were taking place in Fata. It should be noted that when the Fata parliamentarians submitted the amendment bill back in 2015, it included the signature of one MNA of the JUI-F.
Now back to the referendum in Fata. The JUI-F 2013 election manifesto states “the status of Fata will be decided according to the wishes of local residents.” Fair enough, but how can the wishes of the people of Fata be determined? When the prime minister and the army chief met with Rehman on December 19 to convince him on the bill for extension of superior courts’ jurisdiction to Fata, the Maulana didn’t demand holding a referendum in Fata. Rather, the demand was to get approval from the Supreme Council of Fata Jirga. One wonders from where did this supreme council drop and how does it represent the wishes of local residents. All members of the council are handpicked by Rehman and many are members of the JUI-F.
The fact of the matter is that Rehman does not want referendum in Fata. The only thing he wants is the status quo in the region. All the political parties which are demanding reforms in Fata should immediately demand referendum in Fata. Let the issue be resolved once and for all. The referendum should have been held rather early, when the government was wasting time on resources for the Fata Reforms Committee.
However, there are few questions before holding the referendum, to which the federal government should respond. The recent continuous delay by the federal government to introduce the bill for extension of superior courts’ jurisdiction, despite having put it on the Assembly agenda, has badly exposed the federal government. One such bill has already been introduced by Senator Farhatullah Babar in Senate back in 2014 and has already been approved by the Senate Law and Justice Committee. If the incumbent federal government can’t implement relatively simple and mostly agreed upon findings of its own Fata Reforms Committee, who will make sure that the results of referendum are translated into concrete actions, like the constitutional amendment and share in National Finance Commission award?
However, one benefit of the referendum will be, it will bust the myth that Fata is not ready for reforms. Once Fata votes in referendum, it has to be implemented immediately. Fata has waited for so long to be considered an integral part of Pakistan. Let’s not test the patience of those who are suffering under the draconian FCR, having no recourse to superior courts, no representative structure at the provincial level and no local governments but only members in Parliament who can legislate for the whole of Pakistan, except Fata.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 27th, 2017.