We’re peacefully demanding change in Pakistan

Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement supporters protest the arrest of leader Manzoor Pashteen in Karachi, Pakistan, on Jan. 28. (SHAHZAIB AKBER/EPA-EFE/REX)
Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement supporters protest the arrest of leader Manzoor Pashteen in Karachi, Pakistan, on Jan. 28. (SHAHZAIB AKBER/EPA-EFE/REX)

For two years now, the Pashtun Protection Movement (known as the PTM) has been taking to the streets to demand the observance of our constitutional rights. Above all we have been demanding accountability from the military, which has used the war on terrorism as an excuse to kidnap, kill and intimidate citizens living in the northwest, most of them ethnic Pashtuns. At 35 million, we are the largest single ethnic group in the country.

Throughout our campaign for change we have observed strict principles of nonviolence, and we have worked to keep our actions rigorously within the framework of Pakistan’s constitution, which explicitly allows for freedom of speech and assembly. Yet our activists have faced censorship, arrest, and in some cases death.

On Jan. 27, the government arrested our leader, Manzoor Pashteen, on charges of “sedition,” the same excuse the British once used to enforce colonialism. The next day, I and fellow PTM leader Ali Wazir were arrested during a demonstration against his detention — though I can’t say I was terribly surprised. (Last year I spent four months in prison for my political activity.)

Wazir and I are now free again (for the moment); Manzoor is still in custody. But the campaign against us continues.

It is not the elected government of Prime Minister Imran Khan that is behind this crackdown. It is the real government of the country — namely, the military.

All of which raises the question: What are the generals so afraid of?

Current army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa has made it clear that he has a problem with the constitution. In early 2018, Bajwa criticized the 18th Amendment, which was passed by a unanimous vote of parliament in 2010. It was designed to prevent any further military dictatorships and strengthened the federal nature of the country by increasing provincial autonomy and removing anti-democratic clauses. Any other democracy would have sacked a top soldier for daring to blatantly criticize the constitution. Instead, he was granted a new term in office.

Our insistence on the observance of constitutional norms and demands for greater democracy clearly is not to his taste.

The generals also regard us a threat because we stand in the way of their larger plans. They are eagerly awaiting the final U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, which allow them to welcome the Taliban back into power. Yet our movement, which denounces the military’s support for the Taliban, apparently presents a challenge that they cannot abide. The only Pakistan Pashtuns the generals can tolerate are those who support the Afghan Taliban.

Our demands for accountability undermine the destructive status quo, one in which the military selects and cultivates terrorist groups that show a willingness to submit to its instructions. We demand an end to military operations that failed to root out terrorists and indiscriminately targeted civilian populations. We demand the end of extrajudicial killings, so that those who havesuffered can finally feel safe about speaking out. We demand that those who engineered the abductions of innocent people be brought to court to face responsibility for their actions.

Above all, we demand an end to the Pakistani military’s support for the terrorists, who are now regrouping again. The recent escape from custody of Ehsanullah Ehsan, a former spokesman for the notorious Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan jihadist group, is a case in point. The scandal has raised fresh questions about authorities’ readiness to give leeway to religious extremists while reserving repression for pro-democracy protesters like the PTM.

Those who wish to air extremist ideology still have many opportunities to express their views in the Pakistani media. Our movement, by contrast, faced an almost complete blackout on mainstream media. These days it is at least possible to mention the existence of the PTM, though almost always in conjunction with propaganda and lies directed at us. Even reporters in the English-language media, which usually enjoys greater freedom than its Urdu-language counterparts, find themselves under pressure to limit their commentary or reporting on the PTM.

To get our message out, we rely mainly on social media. Even there we face continuous harassment, allowed by the country’s loosely defined cyber-crime laws. Meanwhile, our supporters who are brave enough to take part in public protests face arrest or worse. Those who organize or take part in our political gatherings known that are likely to face sedition charges.

The Pakistani establishment, led by the military, has gone to extraordinary lengths to demonize our movement. As the police shoved me into their van after arresting me last month, one of the constables started chanting anti-Indian slogans, as if he thought that this would anger me. This is because the official media routinely accuse us of collaborating with Delhi, an absurd effort to discredit us as “foreign agents.”

When the Pakistani regime recruits Pashtuns for war and terrorism, it considers us patriots. But when we ask for our rights, we are no longer even considered Pakistanis.

These crackdowns merely reinforce our determination to demand justice. The writing is on the wall for our tormentors. Our people want to live as citizens of Pakistan, not as its subjects.

Mohsin Dawar represents North Waziristan in the lower house of the Pakistani Parliament and is a founding member of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement.

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