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Neglected and Oppressed: Are Pashtuns South Asia’s Kurds?


At the beginning of last year, a group of young university graduates from Pakistan’s northern areas protested the State’s policy of oppression and neglect in the Pashtun region that they represented. Led by the charismatic and heroic young tribesman Manzoor Pashteen, the protest soon turned into a great agitation in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, and marked the beginning of what came to be known as the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM)—or Pashtun Defense League. PTM accused Pakistan’s army of atrocities against the local population during the dubious military operations in the Pashtun-populated northern territories. It demanded justice for the Pashtun missing persons, extrajudicial killings by the police in Karachi and thousands of landmine victims in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

Although PTM questioned the rather recent wrongs by the Pakistani State, the Pashtun problem goes back to Pakistan’s origin and beyond. Historically, Pashtuns were settled as a cohesive community on the land that spans Pakistan’s northern Balochistan, large parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the whole of FATA and most of southern Afghanistan. However, in 1893 under the Durand Treaty between the Afghan Emir Abdur Rahman Khan and the British diplomat Mortimer Durand, the British Empire took away land from Afghanistan, which after partition came to belong to the newly founded Pakistan. For the British, this piece of land was a buffer to contain the advances of Imperial Russia southward into British India.

The Durand Line, as it came to be known, split Pashtuns of the region into two halves. Today, Pashtuns live in both Pakistan and Afghanistan with a total population of about 45 million —15 million in Afghanistan and 30 to 35 million in Pakistan. However, the Durand Line remains disputed, as for Pakistan it is an official border between the two States, while the Afghans still entertain irredentist claim about their lost territory. Their aspirations are surely not just about the land but the split of Pashtun families and tribes that once used to live together.

This group-solidarity has been reciprocated by Pakistani Pashtuns. Starting with the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, the Pashtun nationalists of Pakistan struggled for an independent “Pashtunistan” (homeland of the Pashtuns) and opposed their inclusion in Pakistan. Although they rescinded their separatist claim after Pakistan’s creation, the leaders, such as Abdul Ghaffar Khan, were imprisoned and labeled as the enemies of Pakistan. Ghaffar Khan and subsequent Pashtun nationalists could not shed this label of “treachery” that was placed on them by the then ruling elites, because although they remained loyal to Pakistan they also opposed State rulings which violated their rights.

Pashtuns in Pakistan have vehemently opposed the State’s meddling in the internal affairs of Afghanistan, allegedly by supporting the mujahideen and now Afghan Taliban, which they believe has wrought havoc in the Afghan State and society. Although many Afghans have died in the decades-long violence, the main victims there too are Pashtuns as most of the conflict in the post-U.S. invasion has been in the Pashtun-populated south. There is a commonly held belief among Pashtuns on both sides that the main culprit behind their death and destruction is the State of Pakistan.

Pakistan is fiercely opposed to these claims. In recent years, it has grown increasingly insecure and intolerant of any links between the Pashtuns of the two countries. The Pakistan authorities and the media doubted the intentions of Afghan president Ashraf Ghani when he tweeted in PTM’s support in February last year. Mightier and more resourceful than the Afghan State, Pakistan has always swayed circumstances in its favor on the Durand Line issue, while the Afghan authorities have been officially silent on the border dispute. Like the British Empire, Pakistan has treated much of FATA as a buffer for its strategic influence in the region. Run by a special set of draconian laws, Frontier Crimes Regulation, governance in FATA has been from incomplete to almost abdicated, turning the region into an ungoverned space for decades. FATA was however merged with the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Province by the Federal Parliament and the Provincial Assembly of KP in May 2018 which is yet to come into full effect after transitioning through the FATA Interim Governance Regulation for two years.

In this manner, Pakistan has been effective at controlling the land and its people. However, it has failed utterly in poking holes in the impregnable Pashtun ethnic affinity, largely because of its policies that have hurt Pashtuns in millions on both sides of the border. Today, Pashtuns in Pakistan feel alienated and destroyed by the State’s institutions and their ethnic bond with Pashtuns in Afghanistan has grown even more. Bereft of identity, dignity and safety of life, Pakistani Pashtuns feel wholly stateless and in search and struggle for a revived existence through a new social contract with the State. Pashtun’s statelessness resembles the predicament of Kurds in the Middle East.


Kurds as the world’s largest stateless nation

The Kurds, an ethnic group inhabiting the bordering region of Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran, are the world’s largest stateless nation. Their combined population in the four Middle Eastern countries is between 25-35 million. In Turkey, there are 15 million Kurds (20 % of the country’s population), 5 million in Iraq (17 %), 8 million in Iran (7 %) and 2 million in Syria (10 %). In all four countries, Kurds remain discriminated against or oppressed. Under the Shah regime in Iran, all political activity especially that by the Kurds was under tight control.

In Syria, historically, struggle by the Kurdish people for their rights has led to violent clashes between them and the security forces backed by the Syrian Arab crowds. They have faced severe restrictions as the Syrian government has stripped them of citizenship rights and marginalized them economically. The story of Iraqi Kurds is not very different. They have spent dark days under the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein who, in 1988, gassed 3,200 to 5,000 Kurds in the Halabja chemical attack. Also known as the Halabja Massacre or Bloody Friday, it was a part of the Al-Anfal Campaign in northern Iraq.

However, compared to Kurds elsewhere the Iraqi Kurds have enjoyed cultural rights. In post-2003, Iraqi Kurds had  relief from the civil war after the US invasion of Iraq, as they withdrew into their enclave, now called the Iraqi Kurdistan, in the north of the country. The US under the 2005 Iraqi Constitution approved Iraqi Kurdistan as a semi-autonomous region with its own parliament, army and investment laws, etc. It was mainly because the US could not oppose its one real ally in the country.

However, Iraqi Kurdistan is not officially independent as all countries in the region including the United States believe it is not a feasible idea. The fear in Iraq is that an officially independent Kurdish State might lead to a bloody conflict between Shia and Sunni Muslims for control over resources. Syria, Turkey and Iran are afraid of the rippling effect of an independent Iraqi Kurdistan, as they are themselves facing the threat of Kurdish ethnic-nationalist movements.

The history of the Kurdish issue goes back at least to the early decades of the twentieth century. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, the Central Powers signed the Treaty of Sevres in 1920, according to which the Kurdistan region would hold a referendum to decide its fate. Due to controversy among Kurdish nationalists over borders of the new Kurdistan and the change in the terms of the treaty, as in 1923, the Treaty of Lausanne replaced the Sevres, the Kurdish aspirations for an independent homeland dissipated. It has remained unresolved ever since.

The agony of the Kurdish story in Turkey is beyond the scope of this article but a quick overview is warranted. Turkey, in an effort to solidify Turkish nationalism, imposed restrictions on the political activity by the Turkish Kurds. In Turkey, there is but one identity: that of the Turks. Any deviation from it by the Kurds has been punished for decades. Oppression by successive Turkish governments forced Kurds to pick up arms to wage a war against the State in 1978 when Abdullah Ocalan founded the Kurdish Workers’ Party or PKK. Comprising 15,000 force with a 50,000-plus civilian militia, PKK resorted to a guerilla war to achieve an independent State for the Turkish Kurds. Ocalan and his colleagues had had enough.

In the war that ensued between PKK and the Turkish security forces, 40,000 people were killed. Both sides incurred losses and both were accused of human rights abuses. Both Turkey and the West labeled PKK as a terrorist organization. In 1999, the Turkish forces captured Abdullah Ocalan, who agreed to a ceasefire and suspended the separatist war. However, the end of the war did not mean the end of PKK and the Kurdish problem. In 2004, some in PKK who were disappointed at Ocalan’s decision regrouped its forces and called off the ceasefire. In recent years, the situation has been rather tense in Turkey’s southeast region, where the clashes between PKK and government forces have renewed.

Meanwhile, Turkey continues unabated in imposing its unbridled brand of Turkish nationalism on its diverse ethnic population. Aliza Marcus in Blood and Belief writes, “Turkish television and radio barred the use of the Kurdish language in broadcasts, while Kurdish-language education was banned outright. Kurdish names were forbidden and Kurdish villages’ names had been changed to Turkish ones.” She says that Kurdish history was not included in history books and Turkey’s Kurdish region was dotted with the slogan that reminds its inhabitants that “happy is he who calls himself a Turk.”


Pashtun’s Parallels with the Kurds

There are striking parallels between the Kurds in the Middle East and Pashtuns in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region. Like Kurds, the Pakistani Pashtuns have been unable to make space for themselves in Pakistan, where they have been denied their political and ethnic-based rights right from the outset. The nationalist Pashtun political leadership of Awami National Party (ANP) and Pakhtunkhwa Mili Awami Party (PKMAP) among others have been labeled as traitorous. As an antidote to Pashtun ethnic nationalism, the State has backed the clergy and religious political parties such as Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F) and Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan among Pashtuns to counter ethnic-based politics. It is true that Pashtuns have integrated into the Pakistani State system to some extent as a large number of Pashtun professionals make the cadre of army, bureaucracy and economic class in the country.

However, a few thousand professionals and wealthy elites, especially when they don’t have the decision making power on important national questions, don’t and can’t represent the grievances of millions who have suffered for decades from the State’s neglect and violence. Rather some from this class believe in the State’s narrative, further perpetuating undemocratic and oppressive practices. Pakistan, like the four countries home to Kurds, is not a true democracy and working within the political system for broader rights or autonomy has repeatedly proved an exercise in futility.

However, unlike the Iraqi and Turkish Kurds, the Pashtuns in Pakistan are not asking for a separate homeland but want guarantees for their basic civil, political and human rights through constitutional and democratic means within the Pakistani State structure. The Pashtun struggle is also different from that of the Kurds in the sense that unlike the PKK in Turkey for instance, Pashtuns have never led an armed resistance so far against the State. The Pashtun Tahafuz Movement is a non-violent struggle against historical political and economic injustices and alleged war crimes during military operations in FATA in the past decade.

The State’s response has been, as usual, one of intransigence and oppression. As the Turkish government, it has shown zero tolerance for ethnic-based rights movements. The State has made every attempt to impose the Islam-based Pakistani nationalism. For Pashtuns in Pakistan, the situation now almost resembles the Turkish — “happy is he who calls himself a Pakistani”— style sloganeering. But the problem with this kind of forced nationalism, just like in Turkey and other countries, is that it may momentarily hold down ethnic rights movement like PTM and oppress political dissent among Pashtuns, but in the long run, it won’t end the problem itself. The Pashtun question will stay forever and their political consciousness will only sharpen until the State shows willingness and respect for their rights and identity as equal Pakistanis.

Aslam Kakar is a Ph.D. Student at the Division of Global Affairs and a Teaching Assistant at the Department of Political Science. Rutgers University, Newark.









Coffee, long walks and reading Camus: The things I would do if I didn’t have to read for school



It is 7:00 P.M. and I am in the Alexander Library at Rutgers University where I go for my Ph.D. My carrel overlooks the busy highway and the river past that to my right. I am looking out the window and thinking about what to do, as I have a million things on my mind. By the way, I came here to read and take notes for the class that I will be teaching in the spring semester, which is around the corner.

I enjoy school and reading for my classes. I really do. But, sometimes it gets meaningless and monotonous. Tonight seems to be one such moment. When I get these moments, I want to leave school work aside and do the things I like. I want to take long, endless walks and get lost in the mist and cold of the day and the darkness of the night.

I enjoy looking at the passing cars, running river, students walking, the buildings and the horizon on a bright and sunny day. But, if you give me a choice, I prefer a cloudy day. There is something about the dark and damp that elevates my energy, albeit not in a  pleasant manner.

But, for some reason I enjoy it. On such days, I love my walks even more. The walk from home to the coffee shop is filled with excitement. I had hardly tasted coffee in Pakistan until I came to the States five years ago. Now I have become addicted to it. Associated with influence from the West, coffee drinking in local parlance back home is a fashionable thing to do.

However, I am far from being a coffee aficionado, as my love for Dunkin’ Donuts to some is one of the poorest of coffee tastes one could have. But, hey! You know what, as the German playwright Bertolt Brecht said, “Sometimes it is more important to be a human, than to have good taste.”

Or as Franco Moschino, the Italian fashion designer, said, “Good taste does not exist. It is our taste. We have to be proud of it.” Anyways, with a cup of coffee in my hand and walking and wandering seem to be the most banal thing, but it brings me joy and meaning.

The meaning of being alive and feeling my existence, as I ponder over life within and without in the expanse of the seeable and imaginable universes, or as the British philosopher Bryan Magee said the “phenomenal” and “noumenal” worlds.

The thing I love the most about Dunkin’ Donuts is its styrofoam cup. It does not burn my hand, and I can open and close it as and when I want to take a sip. It keeps the coffee warm and my hands cool. But, I am afraid that I won’t have that privilege by 2020, as the chain has officially committed to phasing out the cups and replacing it with paper.

Good for the environmentalist but bad for my happy walks and long library sit-ins made possible mostly by coffee cups to my left or right on the desk. But I guess I will have to compromise, as living longer and healthier and with everyone seems better than living just happier, momentarily. Meanwhile, I will figure out something else that can elevate my spirit.

Describing my love for coffee took more time than I had planned to spend on it. But that is the beauty of writing for me. It brings to existence the most banal elements of life. Elements that get ignored and buried under what most of us commonly accept to be essential: Pleasure, sex, money, career, status, etc. You sit to type and words begin to appear one after another on the page. It seems as if writing writes itself.

Anyways, during my boring moments, I read writers that I enjoy. Last week, I started Albert Camus’ novel, The Stranger. Camus, an existentialist philosopher, is a brilliant writer. His style is quite simple but descriptive and captivating, capturing everyday life’s details in a way that fascinates the mind. For example, looking at the main street of a district in Algeria from his balcony, he says, “Next came a group of young fellows, the local “bloods,” with sleek oiled hair, red ties, coats cut very tight at the waist, braided pockets, and “square-toed shoes.”

I love this description. Only these two lines tell me a lot about the Algerians of the time. “Red ties,” tight coats, “braided pockets” and “square-toed shoes” show that they were fashionable and perhaps under the influence of the West as Algeria was a French colony until 1962. I may be wrong but the description is exquisite and gives a way to speculate about the lifestyle and culture of Algeria. Camus died in 1960, before the independence.

The square-toed shoes reminds me of my childhood and the fashion wave of the shoes that once engulfed the village. It was so much in vogue that we wanted them at any cost for Eid (a Muslim holiday), even if that meant fighting our uncle inside the shop and on the busy streets of the city.

Camus does to his reader exactly what E.L. Doctorow says good writing should: “Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader – not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.”

At another place, while describing the funeral procession of his deceased mother, Camus says, “I also had a look at the warden. He was walking with carefully measured steps, economizing every gesture. Beads of perspiration glistened on his forehead, but he didn’t wipe them off.” “Beads of perspiration” on the Warden’s “forehead”—  are’t you fascinated by this? I love the level of attention. What James Salter said about writing explains why I love Camus’ style. Salter believed that “writing was greater than other things” in life.

He says: “Call it a delusion if you like, but within me was an insistence that whatever we did, the things that were said, the dawns, the cities, the lives, all of it had to be drawn together, made into pages, or it was in danger of not existing, of never having been. There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real.”

Perhaps, it is the same belief, or delusion if you will, that seduced me to write than read tonight. I fear that if I don’t write about certain moments of my life, they would be in “danger of not existing, of never having been,” as Salter so beautifully puts. But the company of coffee, long walks and Camus may help me to preserve them.

My 2018 lesson for you: “where there is a will there is a way”


You may be fed up with the oft-repeated proverb, where there is a will there is way, but to me, it rings true every minute of the day.

In 2015, I graduated with a master’s degree in Peace and Justice Studies from the University of San Diego. I spent two years looking for a job but could not find one apart from part-time gigs here and there.

For those years, I worked side jobs at a gas station and in restaurants. I washed dishes, cleaned toilets, worked as a server and delivered sandwiches on a bicycle.

This may be something normal for many, especially first generation immigrants, in the West, but I think it is not easy to go through this after obtaining a graduate degree with a prestigious Fulbright scholarship.

There are many reasons why getting a job was so difficult but I don’t want to dwell on that here. What I would like to share is my attitude during these tough moments of my life.

These side jobs shattered my confidence, for sure. I felt disappointed and heartbroken. It becomes especially painful when you have no one to depend on. Many immigrant fellows will relate to this better.

However, there were a few things that I did to save myself against losing completely to this adversity. I kept a positive attitude. It is easier said than done but if you set your mind to it, it is doable. What helped me the most in keeping an optimistic view of my world were books.

I have mentioned in my previous posts on this blog the books that kept me going and emotionally alive. Thanks to Victor Frankl for his masterpiece, Man’s Search for Meaning. This book gave me the kind of optimism and perseverance that I perhaps would not be able to have on my own.

I read many other books and started writing during this time. I used to read at the gas station and in the restaurant whenever it was convenient. I remember at one point the only thing that gave me energy was the six books on the shelf in my room in Metuchen, a town bordering the Thomas Edison’s hometown in Central New Jersey.

I knew from the beginning that if I didn’t get a job, I would apply for a Ph.D. It was just about whichever comes first. Getting into a Ph.D. program was not easy either. In 2016, I applied to seven schools in the United States but was not accepted in any.

The applications cost me a lot of money, left me broke and shattered my confidence again. But I did not give up. In 2017, I applied again to six schools including two in Canada. This time, I was accepted at Rutgers University in New Jersey and at the University of Manitoba in Canada.

I chose to pursue a Ph.D. in Global Affairs at Rutgers University. When I started my Ph.D. at Rutgers, I also started teaching as a part-time lecturer of English writing there.

Lest I forget, let me say that my point is not to recount my accomplishments, but to share with you this recent journey of my life. It has been a difficult ride but totally worth it. Life is still a struggle and will always be but some moments are easier to bear than others.

Perhaps, I am in a phase now where the most difficult hurdles may be over, but life can bring surprises of all sorts anytime. In difficult circumstances, I remind myself of the little accomplishments I achieve every day while keeping my eyes on big aims.

I finished the third semester of my Ph.D. this month and passed the Quantitative Methods, which was one of the hardest classes, thanks to the support of my dear and close people. I am excited for beginning the new semester and new year, and for teaching a class as a teaching assistant, which is another huge milestone of the year.

Lastly, there are many other wonderful things that happened this year, but I will leave it at that. The lesson that I wanted to leave for you, the readers, is that don’t give up. There will be hardships in life, but always remember, “where there is a will there is a way.”

Happy New Year!

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