The people of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) have suffered for more than a century from the harsh and inhuman laws of the Frontier Crime Regulations (FCR). The British Raj imposed it on the areas to divide the tribes. What the British did to protect their imperial interests in a colony can be understood but what we are doing to our own country defies comprehension.
The tribesmen had great hopes from the Committee on Constitutional Reforms that it would recommend reforms for Fata, but their hopes were dashed to the ground when the 18th amendment was passed without any relief for them. From the outset, the tribal people have been treated like pariahs. They were denied their democratic rights in 1947 when the FCR was retained with no changes or amendment. They were ignored again when a new constitution was framed for the country in 1973.
President Asif Ali Zardari gave them new hopes when he announced political reforms for Fata in his speech on Pakistan’s 62nd Independence Day. The tribesmen expected his next step was, in accordance with the constitution, to turn his promise into reality by issuing a regulation. More than six months have passed since the announcement but there are no signs of its coming into existence. In his inaugural speech in the National Assembly, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani had promised to abolish the FCR.
Two years down the line, on March 4, 2010, while addressing members of the PPP’s parliamentary party in Peshawar he said that the Political Parties Act would be extended to Fata after peace is restored and military operations end in the tribal areas. This excuse is neither convincing nor acceptable to the people of Fata for the simple reason that if return of peace or termination of military operation was to be a prerequisite for reforms, then how come the British introduced the FCR when all the tribesmen were up in arms against them.
Today the overwhelming majority of the tribesmen are with the government which makes it much easier for the administration to initiate the process of political and economic reforms. The beginning of this process will facilitate an early return of peace and tranquillity. The elected representatives from Fata can make laws for the entire country except their own areas. They failed to forge unity at the time of military operations there when they were not consulted — something they have reiterated time and again in TV talk shows. They failed again to bring changes through the 18th amendment.
They should not fail again to stand together in fulfilling the aspirations of the people by urging the president to honour his commitment. Fata is directly under his administrative control. His order becomes law for the area. The tribesmen have waited for political reforms for a long time. False hopes of bringing them at par with the rest of the people were given to them time and again. Their fate cannot be changed unless they are given the right to govern themselves. Once that is done, they will be in a better position to consider changes to the FCR or to scrap it altogether. To enable them do this, the government needs to agree to give Fata the status of a province like it did to Gilgit-Baltistan.
For this they need no approval from the parliament or ruling of the Supreme Court. The constitution authorises the president to change its status if he so desires. Let us hope he takes this bold initiative in the larger interest of the country and resolves this issue on a permanent basis.
The writer is a former ambassador to Qatar ([email protected])