Manzoor Pashteen’s arrest: the Pakistani military establishment’s vile attempt at regaining lost face may backfire. EFSAS Commentary

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The arrest of Manzoor Ahmad Pashteen, an immensely popular civil rights campaigner and the leader of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), in Peshawar in the wee hours of 27 January has engendered shock and dismay across Pakistan, as also internationally. The Pakistani military establishment, in ordering this appalling step, appears to have assessed that Pashteen, who since 2018 has been spearheading a peaceful, non-violent but incisive protest movement against the high-handedness of the Pakistani military, would be a soft target through which the establishment could regain the turf and the tough image that it had been forced to shed over the last few months in the face of the successive threats and challenges posed to it by myriad quarters.

The confidence and decisiveness of the Narendra Modi-led government in neighbouring arch rival India, coupled with the Pakistani establishment’s acute lack of preparedness and options to deal with the problems that this presented for it; the troubles that the exposure of the military establishment’s unclean fingers, dipped deep into promotion of terrorism, by seasoned politicians such as former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif; the massive ‘Azadi (Freedom) March’ of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman; the cluelessness of the establishment’s puppet Prime Minister Khan in handling the acute economic crisis that has engulfed the country; and most recently, the unprecedented ridicule and humiliation subjected upon the establishment by the judiciary, had all dealt stern blows to the standing and the image of the military establishment. In its haste to reverse this trend, the establishment may have chosen a route – going after Pashteen – that is fraught with pitfalls and could, in the final analysis, actually prove to be counter-productive.

A case was reportedly registered by the police unit in Dera Ismail Khan township in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province of Pakistan that alleged that Pashteen and other PTM leaders had attended a gathering on 18 January in which the PTM chief had allegedly said that the 1973 Pakistani Constitution violated basic human rights. Pashteen was also accused of making “derogatory remarks about the State of Pakistan”. He was charged under the Pakistan Penal Code with criminal intimidation, promoting enmity between different groups, criminal conspiracy, sedition and condemning the creation of the country and advocating the abolishment of its sovereignty. After his arrest, he was produced before a magistrate who sent him on judicial remand to the Peshawar central prison for 14 days. Pashteen, under the five charges against him, could potentially be sentenced to life in prison.

Despite being on the radar of the military establishment for quite some time now, Pashteen, unlike some of his less fortunate PTM colleagues, had not been arrested till 27 January. That, given Pashteen’s charisma and wide appeal, had been the wise road to take for the military establishment. The primal craving of the establishment to re-enforce and re-assert its authority sensed an outlet when on 12 January the PTM organized a massive gathering in Bannu district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in which Pashteen called for Pashtun unity in Pakistan. His plan to hold a traditional Pashtun Jirga (tribal council meeting) to highlight the issues faced by the estimated 35 million Pashtuns in the country had also led to consternation in the establishment’s ranks.

The PTM has been a non-violent movement demanding, as underlined in the EFSAS Commentary of 13-04-2018, “basic human rights” for the Pashtuns. It seeks an end to the atrocities of the armed forces against the Pashtuns in the name of security, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and policies such as “good Taliban and bad Taliban”. It also demands the removal of military checkpoints and the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission. In an interview to the Guardian just a few hours prior to his arrest, Pashteen stressed that the PTM was “non-violent” and was only asking for “justice and the Pakistani courts to do their job. The PTM has demanded the formation of a ‘truth commission’ to investigate extrajudicial killings, land mines in former federally administered tribal areas region and enforced disappearances. We want fundamental rights ensured by the Pakistani constitution. We are against human rights abuses and torture. Our movement is to provide justice to the Pashtun minority who have been affected due to the war against terror”.

The PTM, with Pashteen at the forefront, poses a much more serious danger to the hegemony of the military establishment than Pakistani political parties do. For a start, not even the stalwarts of mainstream political parties have had the courage to call out the establishment with the candidness and clarity that the 27-year-old Pashteen has displayed. He said recently, “The Pakistani State promoted militancy. It used Islam as a motivating factor. These are not my words. These are the words of Colonel Imam (a former ISI official) who said he trained 95,000 youth; or the words of then army chief Pervez Musharraf, who said ‘we trained them, we brought mujahideen from all over the world, and they were our heroes’. When it suits them to bomb us, they'll bomb us; when it suits them to send us rations, they'll send us rations; when it suits them to set our people to kill others, they will train them and facilitate them. Waziristan is their captured territory. It took us tribals 30 years to find out that we fought the Russians not for Islam, but for American money”. He further said, “They (the military) train militants here and then the militants carry out attacks in my country and other countries of the world. With PTM's emergence as a movement, the military can no longer operate with impunity to do that and their so-called business has been faced with difficulties”.

An oft-used rallying cry at PTM rallies has been “Yeh jo dehshat gardi hai, isske peeche wardi hai” (This terrorism, the military is responsible for it!). Such direct criticism of the military is extremely rare in Pakistan.

The PTM’s insistence on accountability for enforced disappearances has been especially worrisome for the military establishment. It has, Pashteen claimed, therefore tried unsuccessfully to get him to drop this demand on several occasions. Guilty of either having killed the tens of thousands of untraceable Pashtuns extra-judicially, or having incarcerated them without any due process being followed, the establishment would be hard pressed to explain and justify its actions if it were to accede to this PTM demand.   

Pashteen has announced on several earlier occasions that the PTM would not be entering into electoral politics. That has also placed the establishment in the unfamiliar territory of having to deal with an entity that has no craving for power, and hence is susceptible neither to inducements nor intimidation.

It was not surprising that Pashteen’s arrest drew sharp reactions, both within Pakistan and abroad. Soon after the arrest, #ReleaseManzoorPashteen began trending on twitter. PTM leader Mohsin Dawar said, “This is our punishment for demanding our rights in a peaceful and democratic manner. Manzoor’s arrest will only strengthen our resolve. We demand the immediate release of Manzoor Pashteen. We will devise a strategy after consultations. We are up against those who are most troubled by demands for constitutional rights, and we will continue doing that”. His colleague Sanna Ejaz added, “Manzoor was arrested last night on false charges. We never have been anti-State or anti-Constitution. We demand constitutional rights”.

The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) described the PTM’s demands as “legitimate”, which could “not be swept aside by arresting Manzoor Pashteen”. Calling for his immediate release, it added that “Political arrests only aggravate the situation and do not help resolve political issues. It is most foolish and highly condemnable that the voice of tribal youth is being silenced through brute state force at a time when there is urgent need for a dialogue”. Former Pakistani Senator and human rights activist Afrasiab Khattak opined that the arrest “exposes the colonial type repressive state policy against Pashtuns in general”. A large number of politicians and civil rights activists held a news conference at the National Press Club in Islamabad to “condemn” what they termed the “kidnapping” of Pashteen.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani expressed concern over Pashteen’s detention and advised that 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”. The Pakistani Foreign Ministry, surprisingly, termed Ghani's comments “a clear interference in Pakistan’s internal affairs and hence, unwarranted”. For a country whose political and military leadership has a near pathological need to wade into neighbouring waters by unnecessarily and profligately commenting on developments in Afghanistan and India that Pakistan has no locus standi on, the Foreign Ministry’s statement came across as strange and jarringly out of tune.

Amnesty International reacted by saying that “Manzoor Pashteen has been arbitrarily detained for exercising his human rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. He must be released immediately and unconditionally”. Similarly, Human Rights Watch observed that "Pakistani authorities should stop arresting activists like Manzoor Pashteen who are critical of government actions or policies”, adding that “Using criminal laws to chill free expression and political opposition has no place in a democracy”.

The days following Pashteen’s arrest witnessed demonstrations by thousands of protesters in Pakistani and Afghan towns and cities, as well as in the United States, Europe and Australia, calling for his release. At one such demonstration at the National Press Club in Islamabad on 28 January, the police detained lawmakers and PTM members Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir. Video footage from the protest showed Dawar being dragged by the police and taken to a police vehicle. In a brief video message from inside the police van Dawar said that “Such arrests will not prevent us from showing the true face of this State to the world”.

Afrasiab Khattak expressed his outrage at these arrests by saying that “This is State terrorism. The way they dragged people, including Ali Wazir and Mohsin Dawar, the sitting members of parliament, to police vans, said it all”. PPP leader Bilawal Bhutto Zardari tweeted, “I condemn the arrest of my National Assembly colleague Moshin Dawar and others protesting the detention of Manzoor Pashteen. The government would be well served by remembering its oath to uphold the constitution of Pakistan. Peaceful protest is not a crime”.

The PTM is a manifestation of the blossoming social awareness among the Pashtuns, who have been at the receiving end of four decades of their homeland being used by the Pakistani establishment to bankroll Islamist fighters while simultaneously mislabeling the Pashtuns as warlike and denying them their basic human rights. The PTM has exceeded expectations and has attracted large sections of the Pakistani population, Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns alike, with its simple, uncorrupted and widely relevant messages. As long as the movement unwaveringly persists with its non-violent forms of protest, the PTM is likely to remain a force to be reckoned with in years to come. The arrest of Pashteen and other leaders is more likely to add fuel to the flame rather than douse it, more so as the charge leveled by the establishment of Pashteen questioning the Constitution rings laughably hollow in a country in which military dictators have repeatedly and illegally abrogated the Constitution to facilitate their own dubious reigns of unbridled power.

In the present atmosphere of shrinking freedoms and increasing authoritarianism in Pakistan, a feeling of greater alienation is likely to now take roots among the Pashtuns. Elizabeth Threlkeld, deputy director of the South Asia program at the Stimson Centre think tank, recognized this when she described Pashteen’s arrest as “a short-sighted and highly inflammatory move by Pakistan's authorities. Arresting Pashteen risks further fanning the flames in North and South Waziristan and does nothing to address protesters' legitimate grievances”.

Pashteen may end up as a fish bone stuck firmly in the establishment’s throat. Releasing him at this stage would be interpreted as a huge climb-down by the establishment and would further erode its already diminished prestige. As unpalatable as this first option may seem, keeping him behind bars for any length of time will almost certainly prove to be worse for the military establishment.

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