Our tribal backyard

War on terror cannot be fought with weapons alone. It requires social empowerment with space for alternative options.


Tariq Mahmud June 20, 2013
The writer is a public policy analyst and a former interior secretary

The Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) Chief Minister Pervaiz Khattak, in a recent television interview, was quizzed about his views on the future status of the tribal areas. The anchor shot a direct question, asking whether Khattak wished integration of the tribal region with his province or wanted to see it as a separate province. The chief minister was evasive in his response, saying that personally, he wanted the tribals to lead their lives in accordance with their riwaj. The reply smacked of the typical smugness of our political leadership towards the tribal areas, signifying the belief in the 'leave them alone' attitude. Even before 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan, the region was known in common parlance as ilaqa ghair or as a no-go area. The state had left the area to its own devices without any noteworthy intervention of bringing it into the mainstream.

Under the Constitution, courts do not have jurisdiction in the tribal belt and parliament cannot legislate for these areas without the president’s consent. The Constitution, therefore, gives the president a key role in major policy initiatives and legislative measures when it comes to the tribal belt. However, in the past five years, there was hardly an occasion when the president of the country, in whose name governance in the region is run, could find time to put his feet on tribal soil. A similar attitude prevailed amongst our parliamentarians when they were mulling over the Eighteenth Amendment. The tribal areas did not figure in their reckoning, which required a concerted constitutional dispensation.

The region has caught the attention of the world as the epicentre of militancy and terrorism that sucked two superpowers in deep quagmire in succession. Pakistan’s political elite, despite a spate of upheavals, has treated the region as a backyard of their front-line state. Any reformative move or social engineering in the region was brushed under the carpet on the pretext that the tribals needed to maintain their autonomy and that there must be respect for their code of pashtunwali. This code has been a driving force in tribal society. However, one has to be equally aware of the cataclysmic changes, which has pushed pashtunwali on the wayside as a result of a self-contained pastoral society being caught in a vortex of perpetual violence.

Tribal society had been regulated through the colonial framework of the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR). This system was raised on the basis of riwaj. Power brokers, the tribal elders, Maliks and Khans rallied around the office of the political agent when it came to matters concerning criminal administration. These elders became important cogs in governance and adjudication. A system of collective responsibility and punishment was the hallmark of tribal society. Collective punishment would make a person responsible for his fellow tribesman's liability. This provision violated human rights and also came into conflict with the fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution. The outgoing PPP government introduced some positive steps in the FCR. Children below the age of 16 and women above the age of 65 were made exempt from this draconian clause but these measures are far from adequate. The new dispensation provides for review tribunals, set up by the executive and comprising eminent practitioners of law to adjudicate on appellate decisions. What is needed is a proper road map with timelines to align the FCR with the fundamental rights ensured under the Constitution and extend the jurisdiction of the courts in review matters.

Radicalisation and the spread of militancy in the region have cut across tribal lines and have created new alignments and a locus of power. The tribal terrain has been a theatre of war for three decades with militant outfits now extending their reach all over the country. Coercion and submission, with an overlay of a perceived ideology have trampled all over tribal norms. It is interesting to note the composition of militant outfits, which cuts across tribal divides. A new camaraderie of powerful groups has emerged with a sprinkling of non-Pashtun elements, whose members are now considered naturalised tribesmen. The challenge here needs to be turned into an opportunity. The war on terror cannot be fought with weapons alone. It requires social empowerment with more space needed for alternative options. There is a need to strive for and build effective counter poise over and above the traditional locus of power. It is time to take a lead and introduce an electoral process at the local, agency and the sub-agency levels. These developments should be incremental; a legislative framework should follow a soft launch of local councils with effective fiscal transfers from the federation.

At the regional level, the idea of integration with neighbouring K-P or of a separate province may be premature at this stage. The area can be turned into an autonomous region with an elected executive council looking after governance and development. This autonomous region can be akin to union territories, as in India, where centrally administered regions enjoy administrative and financial autonomy. Delhi, Andeman and Pondicherry are some of these territories, with Delhi having assumed the status of a sub-state.

The security situation may pose its challenges but we have witnessed that despite terrorist attacks, the nation successfully steered through the general elections. It is time for a creative approach towards managing the crisis at hand in the tribal areas rather than ineptly holding back.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 21st,  2013.

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COMMENTS (2)

Faisal | 8 years ago | Reply

FATA is an anachronism of the 21st century. I can't think of any part of any other country that has a similar status. As long as we allow an institution that sees all problems In a security paradigm without any political oversight we are destined to repeat mistakes which have disastrous consequences for the country as a whole.

banjara | 8 years ago | Reply

why can't there be a referendum in fata to determine the wishes of the tribals. one often gets the impression from the fata representative that they wish to be part of the mainstream;; so they should either be made into a separate province or merged with k-p.

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