G Parthasarathy

Pashtun unrest simmering in Pakistan

G Parthasarathy | Updated on May 02, 2018

Atrocities perpetrated by the army have pushed Pashtuns on to the streets   -  REUTERS

Peaceful protests by Pashtuns for their legitimate rights are being brutally suppressed by a Punjabi dominated Pakistan army

Has the Punjabi dominated Pakistan army learnt any lessons from its debacle in Bangladesh, where its atrocities and denial of democratic freedoms led to an armed struggle and the division of the country?

In its bid to deny Bangladeshis a measure of autonomy, self-respect and justice, the army undertook a pogrom of rape and loot in which, an estimated three million people perished, 200,000 to 400,000 women were raped and 11 million people fled to India, as refugees.

As many as 93,000 Pakistani soldiers abjectly surrendered to their Indian counterparts, after two weeks of conflict.

This was the largest surrender of a professedly professional army, after World War II. Interestingly, this occurred when Pakistan was under martial law, having then being ruled by its military, for well over a decade.

While in any other country, the disgraced army would have shunned a high public profile, Pakistan’s army has continued to dominate national life, claiming to be the “guardian” of the country’s “ideological” and “geographical” frontiers, while undermining and even overthrowing elected governments, to fulfil its wishes, whims and fancies.

The army’s denial of freedoms and its participation in incidents of mass killings and disappearances over the past four years, have set the stage for unrest in three of the country’s four provinces — Sind, Baluchistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the homeland of Pashtuns, bordering the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan. Punjabi domination remains an article of faith, for Pakistan’s men in khaki.

In Sind, the army has for years used the paramilitary “Rangers” to let loose a reign of terror in Karachi against the Mohajirs, (Urdu speaking refugees from India), showing scant regard and respect for the elected government.

In Baluchistan, the army has been engaged in a no-holds-barred war on its people, who are fighting for independence, for over decades now.

Hundreds of innocents have “disappeared” and the supine Supreme Court has not once summoned any army commander, to answer for what they did to those who “disappeared” from their custody.

To make matters worse, the army uses its favourite Jihadis, from groups like the Lashkar e Jhangvi, to target Shias and fuel the anti-Iranian government armed groups (allegedly with Saudi assistance), in the neighbouring Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchistan.

The Punjabi dominated Pakistan army, now fuels cross-border terrorism in all its neighbours — Iran, Afghanistan and India — with whom it shares land borders. In the midst all this, the worthy General Bajwa has voiced reservations about the provisions of the 18th Amendment to Pakistan’s Constitution, enacted in 2010.

This amendment transfers powers on a number of issues ranging from education and employment to social welfare and minority affairs to the provincial governments, apart from curbing arbitrary powers of the President and other functionaries.

In recent days, even the Seraiki-speaking population of the dominant Punjab Province, fed up with domination of their Punjabi-speaking brethren, are seeking a separate Seraiki Province, which will include areas like Bahawalpur and Multan.

But, going by the way the army has co-opted the judiciary, for running a sustained campaign of vilification and persecution of Punjab’s most popular politician Nawaz Sharif and his family, it is clear that even Punjabi political leaders will have to kowtow before their Generals.

Amidst these developments, the most serious challenge the army is facing is the growing disaffection amongst the Pashtuns from tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

Retaliatory attack

In 2014, the army launched its much-touted Zarb e Azb operations, to attack its former protégés from the Tehriq e Taliban in Swat and the tribal areas of North and South Waziristan, to avenge the attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar.

Heavy weapons including artillery and air strikes were used. Thousands of Pashtuns perished and nearly one million fled their homes, or “disappeared,” in these operations, where towns and villages reduced to rubble. Having caused this human disaster, the army passed the buck to the Nawaz Sharif Government to rehabilitate the displaced Pashtuns — an almost impossible task given the vast destruction and displacement.

The distraught Pashtuns have come out in the streets, with demonstrations in Islamabad, Peshawar and Lahore, and another scheduled in Karachi, under the banner of an organisation called the Pashtun Tahaffuz (Protection) Movement. The movement is entirely peaceful, but has scared the army, which has “informally” arranged for a virtual blackout in the mainstream print and audio-visual media, (not entirely successful), of the continuing Pashtun demonstrations.

Running scared of the army, Prime Minister Syed Khaqan Abbasi and Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif have remained silent on these developments. Not so politicians, ranging from Bilawal Bhutto and Imran Khan to Maryam Nawaz, who have openly voiced sympathy for the movement, led by a young Pashtun, Manzoor Pashteen.

Shockingly, the discredited judiciary, including the Supreme Court, has ignored the protests and not ordered an impartial inquiry into the atrocities and killings of innocent Pashtuns, perpetrated by the Punjabi Pakistan army.

All this is happening, when Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves are steadily dwindling. It is clear that Pakistan will again have to go, begging bowl in hand, to the IMF for relief.

It would be important for donor nations to argue in the IMF that there is little chance of recovery in Pakistan, if two of its four provinces are engulfed in violence and the largest province, home to the army, is itself facing calls for its bifurcation.

Ignoring these realities, Pakistan army chief General Bajwa told officer cadets during their passing out parade recently: “As a result of past and on-going operations, Pakistan has eliminated almost all organised terrorist presence and infrastructure, from its soil. We are now going after the residual and scattered traces of this menace, under the banner of Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad.”

Interestingly, the army chief showed no empathy for the sufferings of hundreds of thousands of Pashtun tribals left homeless by his army’s excesses, or express any remorse for destruction of their houses and the laying of minefields, by the discredited army he commands.

Significantly, around 20 per cent of the army’s cadres are ethnic Pashtuns. Have Pakistan’s Punjabi Generals learned no lessons from the history of what happened when they went berserk in Bangladesh?

They may continue blaming India for what happened then. But that excuse will no longer be available, as the Pashtuns, bordering Afghanistan and Iran, are finding Punjabi arrogance intolerable, when a peaceful movement for their legitimate rights, is being ridiculed and brutally suppressed.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan.

Published on May 02, 2018

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