Why is the arrest of a 26 year old social activist creating waves in Pakistan?
Student of MA in Defence and National Security Studies from Panjab University. Areas of expertise- Defence, Strategic Issues and International Relations.
The Pashtun community was once again pushed to the wall with the arrest of Manzoor Pashteen, a prominent leader and chief of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) by Peshawar police on the 27th of this month. He was slapped by grave charges like criminal intimidation, promoting enmity between different
groups, criminal conspiracy and sedition for making a speech on 18th of the same month and sent to a 14-day judicial custody. In his speech, Manzoor talked at length against the 1973 constitution of Pakistan which was drafted by the government of
Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. His arrest comes as no surprise as he has been one of the most vocal critics of Pakistan’s military. For a country that’s infamous for curbing free speech and dissent using colonial era laws, this is a new low in its recent history
and even more so as Manzoor is one of the most important figures of the Pashtun movement that has been at the receiving end of injustice and oppression for years.
Following Manzoor’s arrest, Mohsin Dawar, a Pashtun lawmaker in the National Assembly was allegedly manhandled and arrested from the National Press Club when he staged a protest against the PTM chief’s arrest.
Manzoor Pashteen’s arrest was widely condemned by the Afghan cabinet along with other international stakeholders. Ashraf Ghani wrote on Twitter, “ I am troubled by the arrest of Manzoor Pashteen and his colleagues. I fully echo the concerns raised by Amnesty International in this regard and hope for their immediate release. While our region is suffering from atrocities caused by violent extremism and terrorism, governments in the region must support and encourage peaceful civilian movements for justice and must avoid any means of force and violence against these movements. On the contrary, differences with such peaceful movements must be resolved through dialogue and engagement.”
Formed in 2014 ,the Pashtun Tahafuz movement is a social movement for human rights of Pashtuns based in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Previously the ex-Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) wasn’t part of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and this region has borne the brunt
of Pakistan’s war against Taliban in the north-west region. The movement earlier known as the Mahsud Tahafuz Movement was formed as an initiative to remove landmines from Waziristan of the FATA region post the war in that area. This tribal settlement, dominated by Pashtuns was governed by the colonial era regulations that called for collective punishment for entire communities, including destruction of property and denial of access to courts. In May 2018, this area was granted the constitutional protections that were earlier denied to it. However, it fell short of assuaging the concerns of Pashtuns. The movement has attracted disproportionate attention as it has been at the forefront of protests against the government demanding accountability for extra-judicial killings, forced
disappearances and casualties from landmines.
Pashtuns are the largest ethnic minority in Pakistan constituting about 15% of its total population. They have also been the most war-stricken community in the Islamic country as the FATA was used as a safe haven by Afghan Taliban for a long time and subsequently resulted in an all out war against it in the region. The rights of the Pashtuns were taken away and civil and military authorities were allowed to operate in the region with little oversight and almost complete impunity. The Pashtun Tahafuz movement gained acceleration and assumed a
national character when Manzoor Pashteen along with others staged widespread protests against the extra judicial killing of Naqeebullah Mahsud by the military. The movement that started from south Waziristan in FATA soon spread to the
rest of the country and got support from other tribal communities like the Baloch and the Hazara.
Some in the Pakistani government circles and hyper-nationalistic groups falsely claim that PTM to the creation of a separate unified state called Pashtunistan for all Pashtuns that are presently distributed between the Pakistan and Afghanistan border. They claim that the movement is a threat because any
possible secession of the Pashtuns from Pakistan will not only result in the loss of strategically located land but also ignite passions within other tribal minorities for a separate state and will result in a total chaos in the country. However, no
member of PTM has formally raised any demand of secession from the Pakistani state. On the contrary, many Pashtuns like Manzoor have made it clear that they see themselves as an inalienable part of Pakistan and want to use democratic
ways to fight for their rights.
However, in order to defame the PTM, Pakistan has asserted on multiple occasions that the movement is funded by India and Afghanistan to cause etho-minority conflict in the region and destabilize the country. This has led to further discontent and frustration within the Pashtun community.
The arrest of Manzoor assumes importance because Prime Minister Imran Khan has been vocal about the needs and concerns of these tribal settlements throughout his political career, unlike his predecessors. In fact, two days before the arrest, the federal government invited the movement for a constructive
dialogue which was in line with Imran Khan’s policy of appeasement of tribals in general and Pashtuns in particular. The Defence Minister Pervez Khattak went to the extent of remarking that the federal government is willing to include the
movement in the mainstream politics, a visible departure from the policy of previous governments. What changed in two days that called for the arrest of the most important leader of the movement has led to speculation around the world.The speech made by Manzoor Pashteen has been blown out of proportion and grave charges have been slapped on him which is not expected to stand scrutiny in the higher courts of law. However, Pakistan’s frequent imposition of sedition to restrict free speech and criticism of its civil and military authority points towards
its authoritarian nature. To make matters worse, the arrest will have wide ranging repercussions for Pakistan as the Pashtun community stands up for itself with more vigour and passion to claim its rights.