Democracy has had a rough time in Pakistan. But 70 years after independence, democracy took a significant step forward in Pakistan with the recent decision to merge the war-torn and neglected Federally Administrated Tribal Areas with the adjoining Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province, earlier known as the North-West Frontier Province. The move will combine the northwestern frontier regions, along the country’s mountainous and dangerous border with Afghanistan, into one administrative unit.
This provides a way for the people of the Tribal Areas to become full legal citizens, to elect their own representatives directly, to have the laws of Pakistan apply to them, to sue for justice in Pakistani courts and to be compensated for the destruction of their homes in the war on terrorism — all rights that they do not have now. The reorganization yet remains to be approved by the Parliament, and after its approval the administrative and legal changes will occur over a period of five years.
However, it fails to address the structural inequities — ethnic bias, stereotyping FATA residents as militants, lack of freedom of movement and ethnic othering — faced by the people of the Tribal Areas and, in fact, it may institutionalize those very things.
The Tribal Areas are variously called the “wild frontier” and “militant terrain” and considered a place with no rules and little regard for life. In this region of three million to seven million (Pakistan has not had a census since 1998), 70 percent of the population lives in poverty, the literacy rate is only 8 percent for women and 45 percent for men, and the infant mortality rate is the nation’s highest. Yet this same region has significant cities like Miran Shah, Sadda and Parachinar, where Pashto literary societies flourish and which produce fabric and shoes coveted across Pakistan.
Before the consolidation, the legal and civic lives of residents of the Tribal Areas were governed not by the Constitution of Pakistan but dehumanizing British colonial regulations that were ratified by the Pakistani state. Under those regulations, the family, village or tribe of someone who committed a crime could be held responsible — and punished — for his actions.
To look at the world through the eyes of the residents of the Tribal Areas is a daunting task. The history that one is confronted with — whether the colonial British era or the postcolonial Pakistan era — is one of deliberate deconstruction of infrastructure, policing and surveillance, aerial bombardments, internal displacement and precarity.
The British Empire formally organized the North-West Frontier Province in 1901, but it had been conducting military operations there since the 1830s and establishing a buffer against its imagined Afghan, Russian and French rivals. The formal part of the making of this frontier zone was to terrorize and bomb into subservience the inhabitants. A deliberate strategy of the British was to burn and bomb villages and settlements for an individual’s crimes.
The collective punishments were only one aspect of the colonial shaping of the Tribal Areas. From the 1880s onward, the British invested in mapping the terrain and enumerating the people to “fully know” the mind of this treacherous frontier, to use the words of George Curzon, the Viceroy of India.
Winston Churchill’s first book, “The Story of the Malakand Field Force,” was a narration of his heroic performance in 1897 fighting a Pathan uprising in the region. Churchill explained the “tribal” inhabitants of this political frontier as the “barbarous people” possessed of “merciless fanaticism” who “freely bought and sold” and “not infrequently bartered for rifles” their wives and daughters. Sadly, these words, and these sentiments, remain unchallenged.
The nearly 40-year war in Afghanistan has produced its own idea of the “tribal” in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas — one that took the British colonial emphasis on “Pashtun” militancy and layered on top the American enemy, the Afghan Taliban. The Tribal Areas went from being a base for Pakistan and American military operations against Soviet troops to a platform for Taliban militancy against the United States and Pakistan. Deemed a geography outside the laws of the nation, the Tribal Areas were found by both the militant and the anti-militant forces a region where violence could be meted out with little regard to its inhabitants.
Pakistan has kept the frontiers in place, legally and spatially. Continuing the colonial practices, the president of Pakistan appoints a “political agent” in the Tribal Areas to keep power centralized. The political agent is the sole arbiter of law and order and one without any responsibility toward the people. The ethnic stereotyping and animosity has deliberately deprived the Tribal Areas of schools and hospitals. The war on terrorism has instead turned it into a landscape covered in police and surveillance stations.
Since the start of anti-militancy operations by Pakistan in 2014, millions of residents have been displaced from their homes, forced to move to Peshawar, Islamabad and Karachi. These military operations remain popular both in Pakistan and with the United States. The displaced people are often denied services or have their national ID cards revoked in the belief that they are Afghan refugees, and they face discrimination and restrictions on their movements in the country.
The new reforms seem intent on keeping in place these colonial and postcolonial racialized policies. The report recommending the administrative reform asserts that progress is difficult in the region because of “the tribal mind-set” — a phrase harking back to the racial caricature of Churchill.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government intends to replace the colonial criminal regulation with an equally disturbing Tribal Customary Law Act, which would establish “tribal elders” to investigate and adjudicate all criminal and civil cases. Unlike elsewhere in Pakistan, in the Tribal Areas a tribal council would act as a jury, though now working with a federal prosecutor and judge. The only rationale for this move is given as “the tribal mind-set.”
These tribal councils will legalize practices such as forced marriages, bride prices and bride exchanges, even though they would be illegal under current civil laws in Pakistan. Hence these reforms fall short of providing the people in the Tribal Areas the legal protections available to other Pakistanis.
It is the first time that someone from the Tribal Areas of Pakistan can contest with the state their rights to live equally in the country. It is the first time that Pakistan will see this region as an intimate part of its nation. It gives hope for a future where all Pakistanis — irrespective of faith, ethnicity and gender — will be seen as intimates of the same nation.
Manan Ahmed Asif, the author of A Book of Conquest: The Chachnama and Muslim Origins in South Asia, is an assistant professor of history at Columbia University.