A group of Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) and other MNAs got really angry and agitated in the National Assembly’s session on February 7 when it became known that the federal cabinet had dropped the Fata reforms package item from its agenda in its last meeting the other day.
They insisted in response to the news that their deadline for adopting the package by March 12 must be met, otherwise they would stage a protest sit-in in Islamabad that would make Imran Khan’s similar forays seem pale in comparison. In their impassioned appeals from the floor of the house, parliamentarians from both the treasury and opposition heavily criticised the move, with Fata MNAs warning the government not to turn the tribal regions into ‘another Kashmir’. Khyber Agency MNA Shah Jee Gul Afridi probably voiced the sentiment of a lot of members when he said we are not concerned about the problems of our own country but have all the time in the world to talk about Kashmir.
He went on to assert that if he was in power, February 5 would be observed as ‘Fata Day’ rather than ‘Kashmir Day’. Afridi said Fata did not have a single university or medical college, gas supply, a CT scan machine or potable water for around 20 million people. Despite these conditions, he underlined, the people of the tribal areas had never veered from their commitment to Pakistan. He revealed that the Jirga that met in Islamabad on February 6 to demand Fata’s merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) had all the political parties attending. This, he added, was a clear message that should have been heeded.
Similar sentiments were voiced by Qaumi Watan Party’s chief Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao, who added that mainstreaming Fata would curtail terrorism as there would be no shelter for terrorists when the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) was repealed. Awami National Party chief echoed the Islamabad sit-in threat if the March 12 deadline was not met.
The Fata MNAs and political parties are pressing for the reform package to be adopted by March 12 while the government has reportedly set a five-year timeframe for the gradual merger of Fata into KP. However, despite the fact that the idea enjoys wide support in the polity, there are a few voices arguing for making Fata a separate province instead. Fast or slow, mainstreaming Fata poses some serious challenges.
The colonial legacy of long standing in Fata included collective punishment of a whole tribe under the FCR for the felonies or misdemeanours of an individual. The British instituted a system of rule by Political Agents in all the seven tribal agencies in Fata, while allowing the tribes to continue their way of life according to custom (riwaj). The whole construct was part of the forward policy of managing the Afghan border and preventing Tsarist Russia’s advance into the subcontinent.
This long unnatural hiatus means the people of Fata and KP have lived under different systems for a long time. Extending the political, law enforcement and judicial system prevalent in the rest of the country, including KP, is a costly and intricate exercise with the attendant risk of all the flaws of the system in the country being imported into Fata too. How the people there would cope with and adjust to an unfamiliar and, in many respects, humiliating treatment by the state of the citizen remains an unanswered question.
The merger is also likely to upset the ethnic balance in the merged province, with the entry of the Pashtuns of Fata tipping the balance and perhaps persuading the non-Pashtun communities such as the Hindko and Seraiki speakers and other ethnic groups to resurrect the demand for a separate non-Pashtun province in Hazara Division.
All the more reason therefore to proceed carefully and with extensive consultations with all the stakeholders. Last but not least, to lend the outcome the necessary legitimacy, a referendum on the question of merging Fata with KP or making it a separate province should be conducted to ascertain the will of the tribal people in the interests of the permanence of the eventual momentous decision.