The scene is reminiscent of a local doomsday: children and women are crying, shouting, mourning and cursing. Men with guns on their shoulders, in black clothes, stand in the middle of a mud house as a bulldozer razes the walls. The bulldozer then proceeds to demolish rooms mercilessly – one by one.
These chaotic visuals can be seen on a video clip circulating on social media. The location is in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) region.
The men in black clothes were from the Levies Force and were following the instructions of the political agent – the local representative of the Pakistani state – under the legal framework of the decades-old, controversial Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR). Many thousands of homes have been demolished under the FCR. The relevant law provides that if a person is found to have committed a crime in the FATA region, under the FCR, the authorities have the power to arrest their entire family, confiscate property and demolish their buildings – all due to the wrongdoing of a single person in the tribe. In other words, there is collective responsibility: an administrative attitude which is a relic of British colonial rule. The FCR acquired its current form in 1901 – the heyday of the colonial period.
The FCR provides for collective responsibility for crimes – an administrative attitude which is a relic of British colonial rule
Recently, many women from the otherwise conservative FATA region gathered at Bacha Khan Markaz, Peshawar, to register their protest against the Draconian laws of the FCR. The gathering was named the ‘FATA Women Jirga’. The purpose of this jirga was to pressure the federal government for the abolition of the FCR and the speedy merger of FATA into the province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP). Dozens of FATA women, of various beliefs, schools of thought and ideologies participated in this jirga.
The people of the FATA tribal belt have been divided largely into two blocs in terms of their attitude towards the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR). There is a debate on many issues – whether the FCR should be abolished or retained; whether FATA should be merged into KP province or kept separate; whether a referendum is the way to decide this, etc. The pro-FCR lobby has been described by some quarters as the ‘privileges and perks strata’ or as local representatives of the Pakistani establishment. An anti-FCR narrative has been increasingly gaining currency these days – with a discourse centred on demands for a fair and transparent judiciary, as well as a desire for the same constitutional rights and civil liberties that exist in the rest of the country. The FCR, so this narrative runs, was promulgated by the British Raj to wreck the anti-colonial freedom struggle. It was for that very purpose, it is argued, that the British rulers had given near unlimited powers to their local administrative representatives, thus making the Political Agent in FATA a local ‘king without a throne’.
After 117 years of the FCR having acquired its current legal form, in November 2016, a jirga of tribal elders and youth was organised in Peshawar by rights organizations and NGOs to brief the stakeholders about the performance of reform committees. The Governor of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, Zafar Jhagra, was chief guest for the occasion. Local maliks (tribal chiefs) and other proponents of the FCR began raising slogans in favour of the FCR. Students and activists from the tribal areas vehemently responded with the anti-FCR slogan of “Go FCR, Go”. The exchange of slogans, arguments and rival chants suddenly transformed into a scuffle: highlighting the fact that tensions around this issue run very high. At this point, security operatives and neutral people intervened to halt the clashes and the rest of the event, of course, was cancelled.
FATA student leader Shaukat Aziz squarely blames the maliks and ‘paid workers’ for the failure of this very important event.
Jamila Gilani, an ex Member of the National Assembly, says of the women jirga that those who she describes as “loongi-holder maliks” (tribal elders who get stipends and seats in local government and NGOs – and many other perks) had planned all along to sabotage the transition process and the extension of the Pakistani constitution to this ‘lawless’ region. She further adds that these beneficiaries of the status quo don’t want to lose their perks and privileges, but popular consciousness and awareness will not accept this Draconian law anymore.
The demand for the complete abolition of the FCR is years old, but Pakistan’s 18th constitutional amendment (in favour of increased federalism) gave it new oxygen. The landmark constitutional amendment all over Pakistan has also encouraged the inhabitants of FATA to assert themselves in their native region, which has so far been controlled by the central government. Due to the increasing pressure, the current government announced the controversial “Reforms Committee” for FATA.
Nausheen Jamal, an activist hailing from the Orakzai Agency, criticises the committee: “It is pathetic that we don’t have a single person from FATA in the reforms committee. It shows the level of seriousness on the part of the government to resolve this issue, which is now over a century old.”
Nausheen even rejects official data about FATA’s population, which says that the seven tribal agencies have four million inhabitants.
Prominent leader from the Awami National Party (ANP) and womens’ rights activist Bushra Gohar, takes a similar view. She dismisses the political administration’s claims about the FATA population as ‘rubbish’. She reveals that as a result of the last military operation in North Waziristan, some 70 to 80% of the population of this one tribal agency migrated to ‘settled’ areas of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province and the rest of Pakistan. The record shows that they were almost one million people – from just one of the seven tribal agencies that constitute FATA. She further criticises the last census, saying “I must say that the data was not collected as it normally happens in a door-to-door campaign during the census. [The data] was prepared instead in the Political Agent’s (PA) office instead!”
Bushra Gohar feels that the acronym and term ‘FATA’ itself evokes the image of a wild, alien and terrifying area
Bushra Gohar, in view of all this, demands a ‘correct’ census in the country, emphasizing that without accurate data one couldn’t formulate developmental and other plans for any region. This is a demand that is gaining currency among political leaders in many other parts of Pakistan, often for similar reasons.
But it is also a demand fraught with complications. All over Pakistan, established political interests are deeply uncomfortable with the possibility that such a new census might reveal seismic shifts in the ethno-linguistic compositions of various regions. In doing so, they fear, it might hurt the electoral strategies of mainstream political parties and established forces.
Amina Nasir, a feminist writer and staunch defender of womens’ rights, highlights how progress in FATA is held back by more than just administrative and political disputes. It runs deeper: “The deprivation of women from representation means keeping out half the population when it comes to progress in the social, political, economic spheres”, she puts it bluntly.
Amina is convinced that the problems of a deeply patriarchal society act as a further barrier to political and social progress in the FATA region.
Bushra Gohar goes further, saying that the acronym and term ‘FATA’ itself evokes the image of a wild, alien and terrifying area. “The inhabitants of the region have faced enough atrocities for the past three-and-a-half decades – from the so-called Afghan Jihad to the War on Terror,” she laments. “The Pakistani state and its puppets in the shape of a few politicians, maliks and political agents cross all limits and violate basic human rights on a daily basis. They keep the FATA residents suppressed and in a state of continuous suffocation.”
Bushra says that her party, the ANP, demands the merger of FATA into the KP province on the earliest possible timetable and the extension of the Constitution to this last corner in the country to be deprived of it.
The demand acquires even more urgence in light of security issues in the region – particularly the rise of the Taliban and other Islamic fundamentalist armed movements in the region. Lateef Afridi, a senior lawyer and local legal expert, says that the rise of Sufi Mahammad was due, at least in part, to the ‘Special and Adal’ regulations in the Malakand administrative division, because in common law we have vast space and a victim could appeal against the any decision. “Every Tehsil needs three civil judges and one session judge” and then give a due time to them to resolve different disputes. “British have given a neat and clean system but later the rulers ruined the beauty and corruption interwoven Afridi narrates.
Activist Nusheen Jamal asks why it must be, even today, that people from FATA are still struggling for their basic identification and fundamental political rights as citizens. “Deliberately we were kept backward and tribal. We came to know after Talibanisation, the ensuing conflict and migration away from our home region that we actually ought to be have equal rights in the country.”
A sizeable chunk of public opinion in FATA feels that the region would by now have been successfully merged into the KP province, had it been for the fact that two allies of the federal government opposed the move. Two powerful and seasoned politicians of very different political persuasions, Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman and Mahmood Khan Achakzai, insist on a referendum before any decision is finalised.
Bushra Gohar insists that during the British rule there were such regulations in some parts of the Sindh and Punjab provinces, but that these were brushed aside without any such referendum as the new Pakistani state came into being. She asks why it is that such a policy could not be adopted for the FATA region too.
Nausheen Jamal feels strongly about pro-FCR politicians and the pro-FCR stakeholders generally:
“Those who like the FCR so much should come and live here, instead of staying in Islamabad and deciding our fate from there. This is top-class hypocrisy: these people are enjoying the free atmosphere of faraway metropolitan cities but preach the FCR’s blessing to us!”
Nausheen Jamal observes,”It was injected in the minds of the tribal people that they are ‘Azad Qabail’ (free tribes)”
The FATA Students Federation arranges awareness programs in schools and colleges in the region and has organised rallies and gatherings in the KP provincial capital Peshawar. The president of the student federation is Shaukat Aziz, a young, vocal, energetic and committed activist, who has been in jail just a month ago. He is unfazed: “I have dedicated myself to let the youth know the philosophy behind the slogan “Go FCR Go”. I hope to free our coming generations of this black law.”
But Malik Abdul Ghaffar Koki Khel defends the FCR for FATA and justifies it as the sole factor binding FATA with the rest of country and ensuring stability in the region. “We are afraid of corrupt police investigations and slow judicial system, it would be an ugly form of government for the tribal population”.
Lateef Afridi comments on the going campaign of “Go FCR Go”, saying that if the government wants to impose its alternative ‘FATA Riwaj Act’ as a reform for the FCR, then they might as well retain the original FCR. “FATA doesn’t need any Act but its people should be treated like true citizens of Pakistan. The Constitution needs an amendment for the merger of FATA into KP. Only then will the tribal will automatically enjoy basic rights under Pakistani law.”
Shaukat further says in his firm voice full of conviction: “Our team visits the schools and colleges in FATA and delivers lectures on this outdated, stagnant law [the FCR]. And now we have huge youth force and can build up enough pressure on the administration.”
The seasoned politician Bushra Gohar adds that FATA, being the border area near Afghanistan, is being kept intentionally backward: the unfortunate region was a colony of the British along with the rest of South Asia, but since independence, the central Pakistani governments have not treated it much better.
In 2011, the PPP government brought amendments to the FCR. The then President Asif Ali Zardari exempted children, women and disabled people from collective responsibility.
“It was injected in the minds of the tribal people that they are ‘Azad Qabail’ (Free Tribes), and some elements would even take pride in providing shelter to criminals from settled cities.” She adds that when guns were taken away from these populations, it taught them that they are not nearly as ‘free’ as they had been earlier told.
Amina Nasir further adds that despite the immense barriers and restrictions for women, the South Asian Subcontinent has given birth to many immensely famous and capable female leaders – Benazir Bhutto, Begum Nasim Wali Khan, Indira Gandhi and many others.
The political administration and maliks (tribal chiefs) don’t agree with such intense criticism of the FCR, since they see it as the basic reason for peace and harmony in FATA. They are of the view that before the recent climate of terrorism and militancy, for one century FCR had kept an ‘exemplary peace’. Malik Ghaffar, taking such a view, says it will be injustice with the people of FATA to merge them into KP. He insists: “We have a pure and speedy justice system, the traditional jirga – and since centuries the inhabitants trust it!”
Mureeb Mohmand, a local journalist, has a different view: “FCR is an obsolete and oppressive law – it is neither democratic nor does it belong in the 21st century. It should be abolished but in a slow and gradual manner, so as to make the people comfortable with the transition, otherwise it could all backfire.”
Amina Nasir says that you need a change of mindset, to shift from conservative mindsets, and that would automatically encourage and embolden women to participate more openly in politics. She sees the FATA Women Jirga as an important step in that direction in KP and FATA.
In the recent past, in a parliamentary body, it was disclosed that a huge amount has been embezzled in the name of ‘peace lashkars’ in the FATA areas. FATA officials said that they had paid Rs 110 million in the Bajaur Agency to a ‘peace militia’ to counter terrorist militants. Another 250 million were given in South Waziristan, 30 million in the Kurram Agency, 10 million in Mohmand and 10 million in the Khyber Agency.
Nausheen Jamal says that due to lack of audit and transparency system in the FATA administration, various powerful quarters are involved in massive corruption and misappropriation of taxpayers’ money. She is not impressed by the government’s proposed “Riwaj” legislation either.
Bushra Gohar compares the Riwaj Act to what she calls a “second white elephant like the FATA Secretariat.”
Malik Ghaffar, skeptical of all the opposition to the FCR, himself also criticizes some of the aspects of the existing FCR legislation, but he is of the opinion that the law is suited to the people of the tribal belt. In case of abolition of the FCR, Malik Ghaffar says he and his companions would campaign for a separate province. “The province of KP is already under much strain and it won’t be possible for the weak and poor economy to carry FATA with itself” – Ghaffar expresses his objections.
With Bushra Gohar and her party the Awami National Party (ANP) taking a very different position, it appears the battle-lines in FATA are drawn for the foreseeable future.
Abdur Rauf Yousafzai reports for The Friday Times from FATA and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He tweets at @raufabdur