History is a true witness of the matchless sacrifices and unshakeable loyalty of Fata’s people. They are the true patriots and beneficent friends of Pakistan. Even their unfortunate marginalisation has failed to dent their patriotism.
Despite their strong cultural and historical linkages with Afghanistan, the tribespeople of Fata joined Pakistan after Independence in 1947. At a single call, they reached Kashmir and joined the war of liberation against the Dogra Raj. Defending the western border for 50 years, they allowed the army to concentrate on the eastern border.
The whole tribal belt was transformed to a garrison town while the US and the USSR were embroiled in a war in Afghanistan. Instead of schools and colleges, a series of training centres were opened and mujahideen were brought into Fata from all over the world. The people of Fata did not complain and wholeheartedly fought the war in Afghanistan. They also welcomed millions of Afghan refugees.
Unprecedentedly, the people of Fata also welcomed the Pakistan Army after Musharraf adopted a U-turn in policy following 9/11. For almost a decade, the tribespeople of Fata bore the brunt of the war on terror and Musharraf’s admitted double game. However, they remained silent out of consideration for the larger national interest.
Despite their matchless sacrifices, the state failed to ‘own’ them and has not mainstreamed them politically. Abject poverty, sheer backwardness, and unbridled extremism reign supreme in the tribal belt. The people of Fata are still subjected to the draconian Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) which was introduced by the British government in 1901. In addition, Article 247 of the 1973 constitution bars the people of Fata from approaching any court of the land to have their grievances addressed. The constitution has also stopped the supreme legislative body from making any laws in their favour.
As a result, the shocking plight of Fata’s people augments their sense of marginalisation and relative deprivation. Many of them are fed up of their current status. They want to challenge the imposed status quo, break the shackles of the FCR and merge with KP. For the first time, the army also seems to be in favour of changing the status quo and ‘mainstreaming’ the tribal areas.
The prime minister constituted the Fata Reforms Committee under the chairmanship of Sartaj Aziz. The committee claims that it has visited the tribal areas and consulted all the relevant stakeholders. In its final report, the committee has proposed the merger of Fata with KP through a roadmap that is to be completed within five years. In the interim period, three percent of funds from the divisible pool has been recommended by the committee to be utilised for the development of Fata.
Accepting the proposals, the people of Fata, their representatives and all major political parties like the PTI, PPP, ANP and the JI are asking for the immediate merger of Fata with KP.
But the issue was, unfortunately, sabotaged at the last moment and dropped from the agenda of the latest cabinet meeting. The main reason for this appears to be the government’s reluctance to allocate the proposed fund. The proposed the three-percent share is not enough to rebuild Fata and needs to be enhanced. But the government is obsessed with the construction of metros and roads and is not ready to allot the share to Fata. According to a reliable source, the finance minister insists on a share of one percent for Fata from the divisible pool.
To avoid blame, the prime minister appears to have launched two of his most trusted allies and effective proxies to make the issue controversial: Maulana Fazlur Rahman and Mahmood Khan Achakzai. Isn’t it unfortunate that the prime minster has ignored the collective voice of the people of Fata but is paying attention to the wishes of two political figures? Through fallacious arguments, they have misled the people and created useless controversies. By demanding a separate province, they want to preserve tribal traditions and jirgas. They are asking for a referendum to determine the fate of Fata. However, these demands are unfeasible, illogical and unconstitutional.
First, their demand for a separate province is impracticable, unfeasible and seems to be a figment of their political fancy. The geographical complexities, typical tribal dimensions and scarcity of financial resources will make it almost impossible to form and sustain a separate province.
Second, the protection of tribal traditions is nothing more than a baseless excuse. It is not only the people of Fata who have unique traditions that need to be preserved. The people of Faisalabad, Kalat, Khuzdar, Larkana and Lahore also have their own traditions and live happily within the mainstream with their traditions intact. Almost 80 percent of Fata’s people either directly live in KP or commute to the province on a daily basis without any threat to their traditions. Merging Fata with KP will not affect their traditions but will uplift their socio-economic plight.
Third, the argument surrounding the preservation of jirgas also seems to be implausible and even undemocratic. Though jirgas have a special importance in the tribal context, the concept is not alien in other cultures and parts of the country. It exists in KP, Balochistan and even in Sindh and Punjab under different names. Jirgas play a critical role in these communities, but their major decisions are made in their provincial assemblies. Merging Fata with KP will not affect jirgas. It will just give people a chance to make major decisions involving collective welfare through their chosen representatives in the assembly.
Fourth, their demand of a referendum also seems unconstitutional as it violates Article 247 of the constitution. Surprisingly, the demand comes from Maulana Fazlur Rahman, whose father was among those who framed the 1973 constitution. Section 6 of Article 247 read as “The president may, at any time, by order, direct that the whole or any part of a tribal area shall cease to be tribal area, and such order may contain such incidental and consequential provisions as appear to the president to be necessary and proper: provided that before making any order under this clause, the president shall ascertain, in such manner as he considers appropriate, the views of the people of the tribal area concerned, as represented in tribal jirga.” The reforms committee has already ascertained the views of the people through their jirgas while visiting each agency.
It is pertinent to mention that, in practical terms, Fata is closely linked with and merged with KP. The governor of KP is Fata’s chief executive while the Fata Secretariat works in Peshawar. Similarly, the office of the political agent of Khyber Agency is in Peshawar while the office of the political agent of Orakzai Agency is based in Hangu. Having no direct connectivity with the rest of the country, the people of Fata use road links through KP to access others parts of the country. Moreover, the people of Fata use universities and hospitals in KP. If both regions are practically connected to one another, then there is no harm if Fata is formally merged with KP.
Isn’t it surprising and hypocritical that Dr Malik, the right hand of Mahmood Khan Achakzai – who was elected by 4,539 votes – can make decisions for the whole of Balochistan but Alhaj Shah Gee Gul Afridi of Fata – who received 30,000 votes – cannot make the decision of Fata’s merger in KP?
To sum up, we have reached a decisive stage and are facing a now or never situation. The prime minister should heed the collective voice of Fata’s people and implement the reforms committee’s proposals to ensure a bright future for the region. If he fails to do so and allows himself to be influenced by a few leaders, he will make a strategic blunder that will serve as an egregious breach of the people’s trust.