Pakistan’s intensifying crackdown on the PTM risks a repeat of 1971



These days Pakistan’s military and civilian leadership is busy in beating drums to draw the global community’s attention to the human rights situation in Kashmir Valley. Prime Minister Imran Khan and many of his cabinet ministers have been shedding tears about the “so-called Indian assault on Kashmir and its people.”

In recent months, Islamabad has gone after the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) –launched by a young Pashtun human rights activist Manzoor Pashteen to address the many grievances of Pashtuns, who are the second largest ethnic group in Pakistan and mostly live in the north-western part of the country, close to the Afghanistan border.

A decade ago, when the Pakistan Army launched the spectacle of Rah-e-Nijat and Zarb-e-Azab – the so-called offensives in the FATA and Waziristan to clear the area from the terrorists, the Army engaged in unspeakable atrocities against the civilian population in the area, rather than stopping the terrorist activity. This was even as the Army used the deadliest of firepower and air power against its own population. Many innocent civilians were branded as terrorist sympathisers. Cases of enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings by the Pakistani Army became the norm. In one such high profile case, in January 2018 an aspiring model Naqeebullah Mehsud was killed by the security forces during a raid on what they described as a “terrorist hideout” in Karachi, claiming that he was a member of the Pakistan Taliban.

Pashteen launched the PTM demanding impartial investigations in these cases of human rights violations by the Pakistani Army. The movement also exerted pressure on the authorities to withdraw the many draconian laws which denied the community even the basic human rights. Among the deadly provisions was the law of collective responsibility which meant that the entire families, villages and tribes had to face punishment for the crimes of one person.

Rather than acting on the demands of the PTM, Pakistan has chosen to denigrate the PTM accusing it of working on “an anti-Pakistan agenda” and alleged that it is funded by hostile foreign governments. It is a tactic often used by the Pakistani military to discredit its critics. Such accusations by the Pakistani state have been accompanied by actions against the PTM leaders.

Earlier this year, lawmakers Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir, were imprisoned on flimsy charges of terrorism, sedition and rioting. Gulalai Ismail, a feminist and celebrated right activists, has been on the run for nearly three months since Pakistani authorities accused her of sedition, financial terrorism, and defaming state institutions. On August 6, her NGO, the Aware girls’ house was raided by more than 30 armed and unarmed security personnel, seeking whereabouts of Ismail. As expected this action was without any legal formalities- the raiding party didn’t even have a warrant!

But that was just the beginning of an intensified anti-PTM campaign. Throughout last month, Pakistani authorities have arrested dozens of PTM activists including Shah Faisal Ghazi and Sher Nawaz in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Kaka Shafee Tareen in Balochistan. New charges have been filed against the PTM leaders with many being arrested on charges of alleged cyber crimes.

The Pakistani Army has not even spared its own others. Lt. Col Adnan Gul Mirza, a Pashtun officer, has claimed that he and his fellow Pashtun officers are being harassed by the GHQ Rawalpindi. As a result, more and more Pashtun army officers are considering to take retirement against this ill treatment by their own government/Army for whom they rendered their whole life.

Naturally this crackdown has sparked angry reactions from the Pashtun diaspora. On August 17, Fazal-ur-Rahman Afridi, a Pashtun human rights activist organised a protest in Rennes, France against extra-judicial killings, torture and arbitrary detentions of their leaders living in Pakistan and also condemned the atrocities being carried out by Pak army in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Another demonstration took place in Brussels on September 6.

On his part, PTM leader Pashteen asserted that the PTM struggle has become highly motivated and the movement would never give up its struggle and their spirits are high despite their members being arrested daily.

Moreover, seeking to legitimise its own position, the Pakistani government has asked the PTM to protest against India on the Kashmir issue. The government had reportedly sent letters to the Pashtun leaders in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and North Waziristan to come out on streets and raise slogans against India. Being victims of Pakistan’s ‘good terrorist, bad terrorist policy’, PTM rejected the government demand.

The administration has also imposed a media blackout on the coverage of PTM’s activities. A TV channel, Khyber TV, where Pashteen had even given an interview was blocked by the Pakistan Army from broadcasting the interview. As a result, PTM activists are relying on social media to get their message out.

Pakistani establishment may do well to remember that a similar rights movement launched by the East Pakistani residents was crushed by the Pakistani state and which eventually culminated into a movement for independence from Pakistan, leading to the creation of Bangladesh in 1971.