South Asia

Pakistan's Pashtuns Rattle Government Even as Media Censorship Takes a Dangerous Turn

Even though thousands attended Manzoor Pashteen's rally in Lahore on April 22, nothing much appeared in the news within the country as most channels succumbed to bullying by state forces.

Lahore: Clad in a dark shalwar kameez, with a red ethnic style cap on his head, Manzoor Pashteen took to the stage amid mad cheering.

For many, April 22 was a regular Sunday in Lahore except the heat wasn’t as unbearable as it can be during this time of year. But hot or not, the arena was packed. Several thousands reached the venue even before Pashteen arrived. Emerging as a huge celebrity in just a matter of a few months, Pashteen is slowly becoming somewhat of an icon in the country and is becoming known as a man who bluntly says what he wants to say.

“We are here to strip the veil off the truth,” he announced into the microphone, his voice reverberating across the stadium. By now, all the cheers had stopped and a respectful silence reigned. “We will speak about all those cruelties that have been taking place in broad daylight but have been wrapped up in a blanket of darkness.”

The Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) or the Pashtun Protection Movement, came about in 2014 as a movement as an initiative to remove land mines in the war torn area of South Waziristan where militants had been driven out by army operations.

But the movement has become a nationwide phenomenon now, and is not restricted to simply talking about land mines and terror.

On January 13, a young Pashtun, Naqeebullah Mehsud along with three others, was killed in a police ‘encounter’ in the eastern part of Karachi on the pretext of having links with terrorists. Naqeeb’s friends and family instantly took up the case and claimed that he was killed extrajudicially. He, they repeated, was only a shopkeeper and an aspiring model, and had nothing to do with terrorism.

Several inquiry teams were set up at different levels including at provincial Sindh level and in the Supreme Court. All of them revealed that Mehsud had in fact been innocent and had been killed in a fake encounter after going missing for ten days. 

The Pathans, or as they prefer to be called ‘Pashtuns’, have repeatedly been targets of ethnic conflict. Profiling and stereotyping is common not just in Karachi where they live in ghettos and colonies, but also in other parts of the country, particularly Punjab and Sindh. Various cleanup operations in Karachi have cost many Pashtuns their lives, many who were innocent of any crime. In parts of Punjab too, there is deep-rooted bias against them, and lately they have been victims of stereotyping as many see them ‘militants’ or ‘terrorists’. As one Pashtun noted, he once saw a costume of a ‘typical terrorist’ somewhere and it included an traditional Pashtun cap.

It is not as if the Pashtuns have always been falsely accused – a few have been found to have been involved in criminal activities. The Awami National Party (ANP) in Karachi itself is said to patronise many small-time criminals and during crime operations in the city, the ANP and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM Altaf), which is also known as an ethnic outfit for the Urdu speaking populace, often clashed. While the ANP cashed sympathy on account of several innocent working class Pashtuns being killed in cross fire, the matter usually died within some time. But this time, something struck hard.

After Naqeebullah was killed, within the next five days, protests began rising in tribal areas in the country’s northwest. The Pashtun community, which claims to have been victims of internal displacement, military operations, racial profiling and prejudice all at the hands of security forces, would not tone down their furore.

With the Naqeebullah case they demanded that a judicial suo moto action be taken. Investigation commissions were formed at the provincial level, and also at Supreme Court level. SSP Rao Anwar, who had led the encounter, confessed to have killed Naqeeb on the basis of a tip off and had not bothered to investigate him. Before any court action could be taken, Anwar and the other officials involved in the encounter went into hiding and remained at large even though a Supreme Court deadline loomed over them. There was news that he tried to flee the country, but was ‘not caught’. Meanwhile Mehsud’s family refused to accept any compensation or make deals with his killers. His parents reiterated that they wanted justice, not money with their son’s killers.

Then the PTM announced a long march, with the capital city on the itinerary.

In an earlier interview, Manzoor Pashteen, who comes from a simple background, had said that he had only left for the Islamabad Press Club with a group of 25. By the time he reached there, the group had expanded into a hundred and then snowballed into one of the biggest long marches in the country’s history. Their demands were all constitutional – they wanted Rao Anwar arrested, the formation of a judicial commission for all the extra judicial killings, and that all the missing persons who had been taken away by security forces must be returned home or face a proper trial in court to prove their guilt.

Manzoor Pashteen. Credit: YouTube

Pashteen’s march to Lahore was part of this protest. He plans to do Karachi next, on the iconic date of May 12, when a gun battle in Karachi in 2007 ended up killing at least 50 people from different political parties. (The recently suspended Chief Justice of Pakistan Iftikhar Chaudhry was coming as part of his protest march. The Pakistan People’s Party and ANP supported the judge while the MQM was against him).

At the old Walled City area of Lahore, at the ancient Mochi Darvazah ground, people from all walks of life converged. Civil society organisations, NGO representatives, academics, students, the working class all came together in solidarity. The late Asma Jahangir’s equally brave sister Hina Jillani – also a human rights lawyer – was also in attendance. Many others who had been recently protesting the disappearance of their friend Raza Mehmood – an NGO worker – were also there. Several had travelled with Pashteen. Among them was Shamsur Rehman Wazir from Bannu, a soft spoken young man with troubled eyes. “We want to cleanse the area of land mines because over 80 people have been badly injured up till now,” he said. “But other than that the attitude at the check posts have been more harassment than security.”

In an earlier interview with Dawn News, Pashteen described the time consuming searches at checkposts – which occurred after every few kilometres. But his complaint was that for the Pashtuns it did not feel as if they were for their own security, in fact the searches were intimidating, bad language, racism, and even accusations of being involved with terrorist outfits.

“This country was made by our fathers and their fathers,” he said in the Lahore rally. “We are Pakistanis too. Treat us like Pakistanis.”

A PTM song in Pushtu broke out in the midst of it all. Da sanga azadi da” was the chorus. “What kind of freedom is this?”

Perhaps because of the bitter lyrics, the words of the song, which is about uprising and fighting for Pashtun rights, have become a hashtag and a catchphrase of sorts. 

The crowd had already been warmed by PTM speakers who had been with the movement from the beginning, including Fazal Mohammad Advocate (Peshawar high court), whose own son had been killed in the APS massacre. Fazal questioned why there had been so much coverage of Ehsanullah Ehsan and other extremist forces, while people like them who spoke of constitutional rights were banned and censored.

Meanwhile, Pashteen jumped right into the demands that were made by the PTM.

“First, our demand was that Rao Anwar should be arrested,” he said. “We all saw how Naqeebullah was made the terrorist first but eventually facts came to light and it was Rao Anwar who was the real terrorist. But we all saw what happened to our demand. But this is not the first time things like these have happened.”

He spoke of extrajudicial killings and said that thousands of Pashtuns had been killed extrajudcially.

“Today there are thousands of parents with broken hearts and thousands of people who don’t know where their sons or brothers are. To prove that we are right we can give you the names and addresses and the times of the incidents and everyone is free to investigate on their own,” he said. “We are not lying dirty people like ‘they’ are,” he said referring to security forces and political leaders.

Media clampdown

Perhaps what is the most controversial part of Pashteen’s rallies is how he openly points fingers at the military’s ‘constitution breakers’.

Referring to past martial law eras including dictatorships by generals Parvez Musharraf (1999-2008) and Ziaul Haq (1977-88), he has more than once openly declared that “Article 6 of the constitution says that whoever sabotages the constitution is a traitor,” he said. “So who is the traitor? Are we the traitors?”

This has not sat too well with some of the top authorities.

By the time Pashteen reached Lahore, Geo TV had already suffered a two-week long blackout. Other channels and media houses had received threats or intimidation regarding the protest coverage.

As a reaction, about a 100 journalists signed a petition where they condemned this trend where freedom of expression was being curtailed.

Senior Journalist Afia Salam, one of the signatories, says it is eventually the culture of self censorship that was becoming more disastrous and damaging than being censored by the State.

“All the time you are looking over your shoulder,” she said. “While no one is really doing anything, there is always a potential threat lurking around,” she said.

Geo came back on air after a behind the doors deal.

But as Afia says the creeping feeling of “Big Brother” is always there for journalists who want to uncover the truth – especially truth of the kind Pashteen is showing.

“This is not just in Pakistan though,’ she observes. “This kind of state censorship is happening everywhere across the world. Take India for example. Even Pakistan is slightly better off than what is happening there under Modi.”

In fear of a lockdown as many channels succumbed to the bullying, it seemed there was absolutely nothing happening in Lahore that Sunday.

Organised protest

This type of organised protest among Pashtun community has never been seen before, but the issues raised by Pashteen are similar to the issues raised by several Baloch protestors.

However, even among his fans, there are those who express doubt.

“What is the purpose of a jalsa like this?” questions Noor, a Pushtun rickshaw driver living in Lahore. “Will it change our fate? I am sure this issue like others will also die down.”

But for others it is a matter of life and death – literally.

“My brother has been missing since four months now,” says a man. “This is the only way we can get our voices heard.”

Missing persons

Pashteen’s demands are all constitutional. but more than that he has always maintained peace and non violence. That is probably why he has won over a large segment of the middle class, and some of the political leaders have ended up supporting his right to protest including Bilawal Bhutto.

However, on Saturday night, the Punjab Police arrested some of the protestors before the rally in an attempt to dissuade them. And his anger could be seen.

“It is in our code of ‘Pushtunwali’ that we remain non violent,” he said in his speech. “So don’t push us against the wall. If some of our peaceful people turn to the other side then it will be your doing!” he cried.

Another reason for his popularity is that he speaks primarily of but not limited to the plight of the Pushtuns. In his rallies he invites all those who have been marginalized, regardless of caste, creed, religion or community.

“They pick us up whenever they want, kill us however they want. What do we do – side with the oppressed or the oppressor?” he roared as people reply “The Oppressed!”

“Tell us how much you sold our people for. We will collect money and buy them back – all 4,000 of them. Don’t release them. Just bring them back.”

Military

While several Pashtuns complain of lack of access to basic service, the military has claimed that it has spent millions of rupees for projects that are expected to bring back displaced people. On April 2, the Director General ISPR stated in a press conference that they had fought for 12 years only to protect the people of the region, to cleanse the area of militants. It has worked but at the cost of many homes being destroyed and many lives being lost in the process.

“We have set up socio-economic development projects,” said General Asim Bajwa. “There is now no more violence there; the entire picture has changed.”

But Bajwa defended the check posts saying they were there to keep any militants at bay. “It’s a security mechanism,” he said. “The soldiers are there to protect you even though internal threat has gone.”

He claimed that these misconceptions came from external forces.

But the locals still see them as part of a war that has destroyed their lives.

“They will try and stop us,” said Pashteen towards the end of his speech. “But they do not understand us. We are those who have been bathed in the blood of our friends and our loved ones. We have nothing else to lose anymore.”

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