Pakistan’s Pashtuns march for justice


Usama Khilji

When Naqeeb Mehsud, a 27-year-old aspiring Pashtun model residing in Karachi, was killed by the police, there was an outcry on social media by his family and friends, leading to a police investigation and the eventual sacking of Karachi’s Malir district chief of police, Rao Anwar. While Anwar was found to be responsible for 400 other such murders, he has not shown up for court and remains at large.
Mehsud’s murder has sparked an unprecedented outcry among Pashtuns against the trend of extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances across Pakistan. Especially since 9/11, the term “missing person” has been very prevalent in Pakistan’s public narrative, with average citizens, political activists, journalists or people suspected of links with terrorist organisations disappeared or killed. More than 1400 cases remain pending before the Commission on Enquiry of Enforced Disappearances.
Pashtun Long March
Karachi, where Mehsud was killed, is home to the largest urban Pashtun population, who are also the second-largest ethnic group in the city. After Mehsud was murdered, his tribe (Mehsud), which is from the South Waziristan Agency (SWA) in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), united with Pashtuns from other regions and tribes in what has come to be known as the Pashtun Long March to ask for justice and accountability.
Organisers of the march, which began with a sit-in on February 1 in Islamabad, and ended on February 10, submitted a list of demands to Pakistani authorities. They included the prosecution of Rao Anwar, the formation of an inquiry into extrajudicial killings of Pashtuns in Karachi and elsewhere, an end to collective punishment and discrimination against locals in the FATA, and removal of landmines from South Waziristan, which have killed at least 18 people.
The reaction to Mehsud’s murder has not been restricted to the Pashtun Long March. In Dera Ismail Khan, bordering the SWA, locals set fire to the office of pro-government Taliban out of frustration after authorities failed to arrest the militant killer of a local man.
In Landi Kotal, Khyber Agency, protests have been held against mass arrests, brutality, and night raids of the houses of locals, and in Swat, protests have also formed against the increase in the number of security checkpoints and barriers in their areas and “maltreatment” at military checkpoints. Recently authorities agreed to hand over military checkpoints to the police.
History of FATA
These protests must be put in the context of the FATA region’s history. FATA formed the buffer between the British Empire in India and Afghanistan, an area close to the Russian Empire’s sphere of influence in the 1800s.
The Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) of 1901 was a criminal law promulgated by the British to grant autonomy to the Pashtun tribes in exchange for a promise of security against Russian invasion. After the partition of India and Pakistan, the Pakistani state has continued to implement the FCR in the tribal areas, using it as a base to launch the resistance against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, with the help of the CIA.
Following 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan by the US, the tribal belt was relatively restive with large swaths of it under Taliban control, until the Pakistani military launched operation Zarb-e-Azb against militants there in June 2014.
The FCR had already left a legal vacuum in FATA, leaving the Pashtun tribal population without any recourse to fundamental rights, formal courts, or a policing system, as well as a lack of socioeconomic development opportunities. This is partially why there is a large number of Pashtuns in Karachi today.
After major parts of the FATA were cleared by the Pakistani military operation against the Taliban, millions of displaced persons are now returning to the area that has been left with little infrastructure. Many of these internally displaced persons (IDPs) have endured the trauma of living under the Taliban, then through a military operation and displacement, as well as widespread discrimination.
For instance, the Sindh and Punjab governments unconstitutionally barred entry of IDPs from FATA after the military operations, and citizens hailing from FATA are often profiled as terrorism suspects.
This public narrative, including in the media, has played a major role in making these extrajudicial killings possible. Additionally, anti-terror laws such as the Protection of Pakistan Act 2014, the Anti-Terrorism Amendment or Act and the Actions (in Aid of Civil Power) of 2011 have legalised arbitrary detention of suspects without a warrant, as well as given policing powers and immunity to the military, both of which have affected due process and human security.
In the case of Naqeeb Mehsud’s murder, the movement for justice picked up pace because the perpetrator was a civilian police officer. Had military personnel committed this crime, it would have been far more difficult to bring them to account.
When a Ranger trooper named Shahid Zafar was caught on video in 2011 executing an unarmed man in an extrajudicial shooting in Karachi, he was sentenced to death by a court, only to be later pardoned by the Pakistani president.
Protest achievements
Youth groups have led mobilisation efforts through social media and brought aggrieved groups together to resist the high-handedness of the Pakistani state towards Pashtuns. Several positive aspects of the Pashtun Long March should be noted.