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

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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 Although they rescinded their separatist claim after Pakistan’s creation, the leaders, such as Abdul Ghaffar Khan, were imprisoned and labeled as the enemies of Pakistan.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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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