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Victimisation of the Pashtun community and the PTM would only further alienate the people who have already expressed their belief that they have been oppressed by both the militant groups and security agents

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IPRI # 74, 28 June 2020

An olive branch to the PTM in Pakistan: Will the PTI heed to the Pashtun rights movement

  Abigail Miriam Fernandez

The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government in Pakistan has offered to have a dialogue with the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM). The olive branch offered by the ruling government has come after the PTM has been in the news for the killing of one of its young leaders Arif Wazir in Wana in North Waziristan. Even though the dialogue offer has been reciprocated by the PTM leadership, unless the government addresses the issues for which the PTM is fighting, the dialogue will be short-lived.

The Pashtun Tahafuz Movement: A brief profile

The Pashtuns, who are Pakistan's second-largest ethnic group, have remained collateral in the violence between and at the hands of the Pakistani Taliban and the military for two decades. Innocent civilians have been killed in the operations against the Pakistani Taliban, harassed at checkpoints, and treated with suspicion at the hand of the military.

The PTM demands a truth and reconciliation commission to address claims of extrajudicial killings and missing persons. To advocate for their demands the PTM has organised regular demonstrations against Pakistan Army's heavy-handed operations in tribal regions. Although the movement is non-violent, it's anti-Army and anti-terrorism stances have made them a target of the Pakistani military establishment, often leading to detention or arrest of its leaders. The PTM is a strident critic of the Pakistan Army's proxy war policy through jihadist groups and its other associates. The group is the only organized political force that has openly challenged the Pakistan Army. Relations between the PTM and the Pakistani authorities have always remained tense due to issues such as the presence of armed groups and the alleged human rights violations. Wazir's violent death has once again brought attention to the PTM as a growing political movement in the north-west regions, further the killing has provoked an already tense environment in the region. 

The PTM has become the voice for the voiceless Pashtun community and has come to champion the community's issues. It has remained non-violent and has constantly demanded full implementation of the Pakistani constitution and laws in the former FATA regions and has called for the area to be free and open, further calling independent media, so that the realities of the region get noticed. Victimisation of the Pashtun community and the PTM would only further alienate the people who have already expressed their belief that they have been oppressed by both the militant groups and security agents. This perception has been entrenched in years of frustration with successive governments that failed to bring a positive change in terms of infrastructure development, education, civic facilities, and legal and constitutional status. 

The killing of Arif Wazir: Issues at large in the erstwhile FATA

First, the trend of killing PTM leaders to nub the movement. On 1 May, a prominent leader of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) Arif Wazir was shot by unidentified gunmen outside his home in Wana, North Waziristan which left him with life-threatening injuries. Wazir died during treatment in Islamabad on 2 May. Before the attack, the Pashtun leader was arrested in April for his alleged anti-Pakistani speech during his visit to Afghanistan. He spent 10 days in prison, before being released on bail on 27 April. Wazir was shot four days later. He is the 18-family member to be killed in this manner, Wazir’s brother and father were also murdered similarly.

Second, the emergence of Wazir as a strong face of the movement. Arif Wazir was a senior leader of the PTM, a non-violent group that campaigned against extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, discrimination, and surveillance of the Pashtun community by the Pakistani authorities since its emergence in 2018. The Pashtuns in north-west Pakistan have for decades being discriminated by successive Pakistani governments, both civilian and military. As a leader, Wazir was a vocal critic of human rights violations by the military and has led many public campaigns and peaceful protests demanding peace, justice, accountability, and an end to discrimination against Pashtuns. Wazir was regularly arrested and put in jail for his activities which let him to becoming one of the most respected leaders of the movement alongside Ali Wazir, Mohsin Dawar, and Manzoor Pashteen who are main leaders of the movement. He also contested in the elections from KP-114 constituency. However, a month before the poll he was arrested and thus could not complete his election campaign. He was later released on the orders of the Election Commission of Pakistan. Despite such hurdles, he still managed to gather 10,272 votes against PTI candidate 11,114 votes.

Last, similar story across other minority communities. His death drew strong responses from both the Pashtun community and other minority communities in Pakistan. Manzoor Pashteen condemned the murder and stated that this death is a massive loss for oppressed groups, adding that a Jirga should be held to bring a sense of unity among Pashtuns. Mohsin Dawar, a member of Pakistan's Parliament and member of the PTM, accused “state-sponsored terrorists of carrying out the attack. The MQM chief said that the cold-blooded murder of Wazir was the worst form of state terrorism and a cowardly act that deserved condemnation in all aspects.

A long walk ahead: Target killing of PTM leaders in perspective

But why are the PTM, its members, and Pashtuns being targeted? And who is targeting them? The answer to these questions remains uncertain. It is possible that both the Deep State in Pakistan or the militants could be behind these attacks given for their reasons. The Deep State's worry lies in the fact that it does not want to lose control of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) region inhabited exclusively by Pashtuns which it has kept under tight control for several years. Further, the Pakistani state is suspicious of the PTM's increasing solidarity with Afghanistan. The suspicion has led to paranoia due to the nature of the movement and the geographic proximity with Afghanistan. However, there has been no organized Pashtun separatist movement since the 1980s.

However, the killing of Wazir and discrimination of the Pashtun people only highlight Pakistan's sustained intimidation, censorship, arrests and persecution of Pashtuns and the crushing of the PTM, a movement advocating for the rights of ethnic Pashtuns. The Militants, on the other hand, are critical of the secular nature of the movement for which they constantly target the PTM.

The PTI government must make this a meaningful dialogue with the PTM leadership to make a positive change in the lives of the Pashtun community for an offensive strategy that would only alienation them further and could create serious problems in the future.


Abigail Miriam Fernandez is a Research Assistant at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS).

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