My father used to work for an organization that would transfer him across different cities in Pakistan every few years. Not as regularly as military men, but regularly enough for me to have attended 3 separate schools in 3 separate cities by the time I was in grade 11.
When I graduated from University, I ended up at a bank that also allowed me to travel across the country. Again, three different cities in the three years I was employed there.
Outside of mandated employment travel, I was lucky enough to see a large part of Pakistan. My father had a love of road travel, and our summer vacations as kids were spent taking extensive road trips, most of them ending up in the picturesque north of Pakistan.
Despite all of this, there were two cities that I always wanted to visit but never did.
The first is Quetta, Capital of the Balochistan province that the Pakistani motherland has always treated like a stepchild. It in turn has treated Pakistan like a rebellious child that would like nothing better than to step out of the house, never to come back again.
The second is Peshawar, capital of the Khyber Pakhtunkwa province, or KPK.
Among the many contradictions that form the country that is Pakistan, the city of Peshawar adds one more dimension to it. At various points in time, it has been plundered and ruled by the Mughal, Durranis Sikhs and British. Home to the prestigious Edwardes college, and the iconic ‘Qissa Khawani Bazar ( literally translated to ‘Story tellers Bazaar’ ), it’s politics has roots in left-wing idealism, but it still remains one of Pakistan’s most socially conservative cities.
Unlike Balochistan and it’s Baloch population, KPK and it’s Pashtun majority population is an active part of Pakistan. From sports heroes to political firebrands, the Pashtun population represents Pakistan and its best and its worse – volatile, unpredictable, but never boring.
Like the Baloch population however, the ethnic Pashtun population is questioning state policies too.
The Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, shortened to PTM, may have taken some by surprise, but to many the only surprise is why it took so long.
The post 9/11 world exposed Pakistan to the poison of terrorism, while it may have been curtailed to a certain extent, it still rears its ugly head every now and then. Virtually every province in the country has been on the receiving end of ruthless suicide bombers but no one has suffered more than ethnic Pashtuns . Subjected to the daily humiliation of military check posts and scrutiny, bombed by jets and heavy artillery shelling but still always deemed the terrorists – never thought of as the victims.
Leadership of the Pakistani Taliban was centered in the Waziristan region until they were pushed out by the military in separate operations in 2009 and 2014. Media restrictions limit travel there, which has also contributed to the negative portrayal of the Pashtun people as perpetrators .
Then there are the disappearances.
Fathers, Sons, Uncles or Nephews, picked up by security officials, never to be seen again. What begins as a hunt for missing family members ends up as a request to simply return the bodies so they may be buried with dignity.
Matters boiled over in January earlier this year when Naqibullah Mehsud, an innocent young Pashtun man, was gunned down by Police in an incident since ruled to be an extra-judicial killing. The Police Officer who orchestrated it all subsequently went underground, only to appear before the courts at the end of March. What has followed across the country since is a peaceful protest by the 30 million strong Pashtun Population, spearheaded by the PMT.
The fear of being picked up by security forces had kept families quiet in the past, but events in the last few months have changed that. As things stand currently, there is a list of approximately 1200 missing individuals. It is claimed that the protest has had an impact, since 8 missing persons have returned in the past month, saying that they were held by the country’s intelligence forces.
For those familiar with Pakistani history, the similarities with the Baloch insurgency are ominous. At the same time, there is one key difference – While the Baloch Insurgency ended up taking a militant shape, the current Pashtun movement has been largely peaceful and has not crossed any legal boundaries. Despite this, the state is handling this situation in arguably the worst way possible by registering cases against the demonstrators. As recently as last week, District administration Peshawar had stopped PTM leaders from conducting members meeting at University of Peshawar Campus too.
Not only is that treading on dangerous waters, it ignores the simple proposition that the demands being presented are legitimate and more importantly, constitutional. The Pashtun Population in Pakistan is far too large and influential to stay quiet for much longer, and the State taking a high handed approach on matters can prove to be extremely troublesome.