In late May 2019, Pakistan’s security forces fired at a procession of activists in Khar Qamar area of North Waziristan, which killed several protestors. The procession was part of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (or the Movement for the Protection of Pashtuns). Also known as the PTM, the movement has been seeking accountability for extrajudicial killings and disappearances during the ‘war on terror’ in Pakistan, and also demanded the removal of land mines.
What are the roots of the PTM and why is the Pakistani state suppressing a non-violent movement for civil rights? In this week’s Himal Interviews, we talk to our contributing editor Sarah Eleazar and Sher Ali Khan, who co-authored a longform reportage on the PTM movement, titled ‘Anatomy of a political moment’, for us last year. (The story has since been nominated for True Story Award 2019.) In this conversation with our Editor Aunohita Mojumdar, they update us on the government’s recent crackdown on the movement, the impact of the global ‘war on terror’ on the Pashtun community, and the censored coverage of PTM in Pakistan’s media.
This is an unedited transcription from the podcast. Please listen to the corresponding audio before quoting from it.
Aunohita Mojumdar: Sarah Eleazar and Sher Ali Khan. Welcome to the Himal Southasian podcast.
Sarah Eleazar: Thank you for having us.
Sher Ali Khan: It is just an honour to be a part of Himal’s podcast series.
AM: It’s really good you could join us from Austin today to talk about a story that you wrote for us a year ago – in fact we published it in June last year – about the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement. We wanted to talk to you to see what is happening in Pakistan, because in recent weeks there has been a crackdown on this movement. Could you tell us what the situation is?
SE: The recent crackdown that you’re talking about happened on May 26, it was a Sunday. Ali Wazir and Moshin Dawar, two MNAs in the Pakistani National Assembly elected from FATA [previously known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the region has now been merged with neighbouring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province] they were on their way to Datta Khel – this is a town in North Waziristan – to join a protest, to join a sit in. against reports of torture and cruelty by soldiers. There was allegedly a situation where a woman’s arms were broken by a soldier, and they were all on their way to protest against it. They were stopped at the Khar Qamar checkpoint and they were told that they are not allowed to move beyond that checkpoint.
But consider this: these are hundreds and hundreds of people, they are angry, and the subject of their ire is telling them they can’t move past that checkpoint. So, they went ahead anyway and the next thing we know, the military opened fire on the protestors. There were reports that the protestors themselves were armed. None of the videos that we’ve seen or that have been circulating on social media corroborate any of that. But that is the official statement. At the moment of the attack we were told that three people were killed at the check post. Within hours the people who were in the protest themselves updated on social media that it had gone up to 13. Today, there are unverified reports that the number has crossed 23. So, they’re calling it the Khar Qamar massacre and rightly so. Over 40 people injured, over 20 killed, and dying because of the curfew. So, it’s pretty bad.
This crackdown, however, was followed by another slew of arrests of opposition leaders in Pakistan, in the following weeks. So right now, I would say it is pretty much a state of emergency in many ways. There is still a curfew that is under way in North Waziristan. We read news that three children had died of starvation, because access to medicine, food, basic amenities has been suspended since the Khar Qamar attack on May 26th. Those are the conditions under which the residents of North Waziristan celebrated Eid and the last days of Ramadan as well. That’s why it’s so tragic and so important to raise this issue right now because it’s happening in Pakistan, people are dying, and this is just one of the worst tragedies that has happened this year.
SAK: Yes, I’ll just add on that. I think the developments that took place, some of it was expected: the nature of the movement, the amount of support it gained. And there are certain political machinations which were taking place in the backdrop. One was that the tribal areas, or FATA as it was called, was recently made a part of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. It is the main province from where the current Prime Minister Imran Khan was elected from. The uniqueness of the movement was it started in kind of a spontaneous manner, and it mobilised on a mass level Pashtun youth, Pashtun working-class people, who had been displaced by war, who had been discriminated against due to a variety of reasons.
AM: Pakistan has of course seen a lot of democratic protests and movements, but this particular movement seems to be quite special in the way that it has challenged previous boundaries. Could you talk about the importance of the PTM movement?
SE: The PTM has been written about as a civil-rights movement, as a human-rights movement, as a movement for the rights of ethnic minorities, as a movement for the rights of war-torn, displaced people, and it’s all of that. It is so horizontal and widespread and mobilised in so many ways, and very, very organised at the very local levels at the same time. So former Senator Farhatullah Babar recently wrote an op-ed in the Friday Times about it. It’s titled ‘In search of the truth at Miramshah’ to see what exactly happened with the Khar Qamar massacre. He talks about how the PTM began as a movement against official narratives of extrajudicial killings, for example. In December 2017, Naqeebullah Mehsud, who was an aspiring model, he ran a cloth shop in Karachi. He was picked up by Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Rao Anwar, and was killed and labelled a terrorist. Reports on the ground suggested that the police were looking for extortion money. But that’s how easy it was for them, to term a Pashtun person a terrorist and kill them and get away with it. The fact that Rao Anwar is still not in prison, he is still out, and nothing ever happened to him says a lot.
And that’s sort of where PTM begins, in response to these official narratives. In January 2018, the protest against Naqeebullah Mehsud’s murder blew up, and thousands and thousands of people joined the Mehsud Tahafuz Movement, at that time it was called. The long march to Islamabad, where they sat for over a week and were joined by politicians, by everyone. All the journalists attended it. Asma Jehangir gave her last speech ever there, before she tragically passed away a few weeks later. And everyone, from the politicians to the military, at that time admitted that whatever they were saying had merit and was true.
AM: As you said, the PTM movement started as something which was more localized. But then it seems to have spread, and you mentioned horizontality, Sarah. Can you explain that a little more? Because it seems to have gone beyond its geographical area, seems to have gone beyond the Pashtun community. There has also been some support for it from the mainstream political parties, as well as a larger section of Pakistan’s progressive civil society.
SE: So, when I use the word horizontality, I mean to point at the way it is structured. So it is not in a very organised hierarchical sort of a format. You know, it’s not a political party, it’s not an NGO, it doesn’t have a governing body of sorts. It is a movement and that means it’s everyone’s to claim. So when people realised that it isn’t just localized, these are experiences that are shared over a certain geographical space, and in this case the Pashtun ethnicity. And the Pashtuns have been talking about how they have been racially profiled in the media, in movies and so on as terrorists. I’ve been in touch with the Pashtun diaspora, people who left FATA because of the drone strikes, because of the ‘war and terror’ and moved to other countries where they now hold protests in solidarity with PTM. The PTM has been attacked a lot for having international funding and foreign funding – those typical buzzwords that are used to discredit anything that the establishment doesn’t want to hear. But these are genuine people and they have heartbreaking stories of why they left their homes and why they protest now. So, there is a lot to say about how the PTM has managed to amass such a huge following in such a short amount of time. But it is mostly the fact that their experiences and the way that they talk and share their experiences is so visceral, real and felt by thousands of people that they resonate so clearly with everyone.
AM: And do you see this as an important turning point in Pakistan’s polity?
SAK: I think it is. I think the reason is because of the conscious leadership. Due to the Afghan War there has always been a duplicitous role between the state and the religious actors there. And signing in on the American ‘war on terror’ was a huge mistake, which even Imran Khan also at one point used to recognise. But I think what is more important is the tactics they’ve used and the courage they’ve shown. I think no movement can sustain themselves without that sort of courage, that willingness to stand up to immense pressure, and create ruptures in how we conceive of alternative ways. I think that’s what we were trying to explain through our piece – that something that started from basically a study group or a small group of students in DI Khan [Dera Ismail Khan], that commitment to continually attempt to be heard.
AM: Just to go back to what you were saying Sher about the duplicitous relationship between the state and religious actors, could you briefly explain what you meant by that?
SAK: Starting in the 1980s, the American-backed dictatorship under General Zia ul-Haq, they were part of the Afghan War, which was pretty much funding the Mujahideen and other sort of groups through the tribal areas for a long time. Eventually the 1990s came, the Taliban was formed in Afghanistan. But I think the major point has always been that the tribal areas have been utilised to fight other people’s wars. Whether it’s in Kashmir – sending the tribal people in to Kashmir – or whether using them in Afghanistan against the Soviet government. There has always been a linkage between the Islamisation and these non-state groups. I think, for that reason, you saw always a double policy in play.
And then there were also sectarian wars, there were various wars. And when we say that the people who support the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement [PTM] are sort of the children of the wars, it is literally the case. The tribal system underwent so many transformations due to the Afghan War, due to the drug and gun trade, you saw the role of the Malik [the tribal elders] sort of decrease. The state’s relationship to FATA changed significantly in the 1980s, as the political administrator was less involved in engaging with those tribes. And you sort of saw new power hubs form. And when they talk about these groups, they see them – the Taliban and the state – as two people that have oppressed them.
And what do we mean about that? In the early 2000s we saw a lot of Maliks, killed through war. Then moving forward you see operations take place in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province of Malakand Division, where you see the state having an alliance with the Tehrik-e-Taliban. So, there’s a huge history about the ‘war on terror’, and what people from the PTM would call the ‘terror of war’. And there has been limited attempt by the Pakistan establishment to even consider discussing these issues. We talk about drone strikes and things like that, there has been a lot of academic research on FATA, and it was basically a torture chamber of sorts. You know, where you had limited mobility, you had check posts on every… and it was a war zone basically. The aerial bombing, drone strikes, all these things added up into a whole host of injustices.
AM: I think what you are mentioning about historical continuity of the relationship of the state with that area, the role of the American government, the Pakistan government and the Taliban, I think it is really important to mention that there has been a continuity. Because, I think for a lot of people, the relationship between the Taliban, the American government and Pakistan was kind of a self-contained time capsule, which happened during the Cold War. But what you’re pointing out here is that it has continued now during the ‘war of terror’. But many people now will find it puzzling, because whereas during the Cold War, the war was fought in Afghanistan, and therefore perhaps didn’t impact Pakistan quite as directly, right now this is very much within Pakistan and many would wonder why the Pakistan state is allowing its own territory to be used in this manner.
SE: Al Jazeera made an interesting short explanatory video on this very question recently, in which they talked about how America’s ‘war on terror’ in Afghanistan pushed out a lot of the militants to FATA, which is where the training camps began during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan at that time. So the militant training camps have existed in FATA ever since the 1980s. This is something that former dictator General Musharraf has also talked about in many of his interviews – that we created FATA as a nursery for militancy, we were the ones who made it militant.
So when the ‘war on terror’ began, a lot of the militants from Afghanistan came and settled into FATA – the fact that the water was porous, the terrain was harsh, there is no development in these places, and it is just so easy for anyone to get away with anything. So, a lot of safe camps were built during that time, and FATA became deeply sort of militarised that way. A lot of my interviews recently on FATA under drone warfare, for example, revealed that the people there were terrified. They were terrified of the Taliban in the markets, the Taliban coming to their homes, they were terrified of drones, they were terrified even more so of military operations, because military operations would mean razing entire villages and towns to rubble. And that is what happened. So, there’s a lot that the people there have gone through, simply because the state had certain ideas and plans of what that space can mean to them and their larger politics.
SAK: It’s important to remember that Pashtuns make up around 15 percent of Pakistan’s population. Since 2003, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, allied militants, military operations – you know, tens of thousands of Pashtuns have died. These were the hotbeds where the actual war was going on. I feel that this was a failure of news reporting at that time, the lack of information. The campaign’s initial demands – and I think it has expanded to a certain extent – but the main demands are that: these campaigns are for an end to illegal killings, forced disappearances, harassment by security forces, and accountability for their losses, and also basic things like clearing the land mines and those things.
AM: So, what you’re pointing out here Sarah and Sher is that the response of the state has been to target the larger civilian population, but not really to take action against the violent extremists, thereby putting the population at the mercy of violent state repression as well as the extremist groups.
SE: That’s what the PTM claim, that’s literally the heart of their grievance. The state can never endorse this narrative, the state so far at its kindest has endorsed their demands that it says are genuine, because the PTM has been very careful from the very beginning to emphasise the constitutionality of their demands, and the fact that all they are looking for are equal civil rights and liberties as the rest of the people in Punjab, in Sindh and other parts of Pakistan.
AM: Yes, I found that quite puzzling, because in the same conference where, I think, the military spokesperson was saying the PTM is anti-national, anti-state and their time is up, he was also recognising the justice of their demands, and saying that the state was trying to address them. So, on what grounds are they actually being declared anti-national?
SE: Because they are pointing at the military’s complicity in the entire mess that they find themselves in.
SAK: We probably wouldn’t be hearing about this movement had it not been happening under a certain set of circumstances. And recognising that, one thing is that the ‘war and terror’ has expanded within Pakistan. If the drone strikes increased the ability for the global ‘war on terror’ to occur in a certain way, locally we have seen that occurring in various other facets: it’s went into the campuses, it’s went into the factories, went into those spaces which historically were see as autonomous. Now the battle for the state is not external threats, but is actually internal, and within that you have professors being picked up, you have activists being picked up. In the case of PTM, they’ve had many people picked up across the board, and in some cases those disappearances have been for longer periods of time.
But you have seen what I would call the ‘war on terror’ increasing into everyday life and everyday spaces, and I think that is what sort of makes PTM so potent. And the fact that they are not nationalists in the traditional sense – they do value cross-ethnic alliances, they supported the Hazaras sit-in, they’ve engaged with a lot of left groups, they’ve tried to welcome as many people as they can. They’ve sort of tried to resolve all tensions, which did not allow people to come together. I think that is because of the fundamental change in politics that is taking place over there.
AM: And they also have received support from mainstream political parties to some extent, have they not?
SAK: I mean it emerges out of the failures of these mainstream political parties. The sort of pro-establishment politics of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which was embodied by the pro-ANP [Awami National Party] or PTI [Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf]. PTI was one of the first parties to actually speak out against the ‘war on terror’. One would argue that much of the support that came out in the current elections was due to the fact that many of PTI youth members and many of PTM’s main officer bearers were from PTI. In fact, Imran Khan’s political party or Pakistan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf did not even field an opposing candidate against Ali Wazir. Previously we had a lot of pro-state, anti-American, pro-Islam sort of politics. Now you have a political movement which is openly advocating for humanist policies, anti-war, anti-oppression… so it is a very different sort of context at the moment.
SE: I think what Aunohita is trying to point out here is also, if I’m not wrong, towards Bilawal Bhutto’s recent statements about the PTM?
AM: Yes, and also I think you had written about how the mainstream political parties did support the rally in Lahore earlier.
SE: They weren’t supporting the rally in Lahore per se. So, what we wrote in the story was that when the movement began and when the Mehsud Tahafuz Movement led a long march to Islamabad to protest against the murder of Naqeebullah Mehsud in January 2018, that’s when all major political parties went on stage, expressed complete solidarity, and saw in that moment space to do their own politics and get their own name out. But what we’ve seen is complete silence later on, until and until recently when the entire opposition in the Parliament has come under attack. I think it is very important to look at why now mainstream political parties, including the PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz) leaders, condemning the attack on them. And there’s a very interesting reason for that, which is that they are under attack themselves.
AM: This is also I think an unprecedented situation in Pakistan where the leadership of the mainstream political parties, which as you point out also have been wanting themselves, but their leadership is behind bars.
SE: I mean when you talk about the overall high politics of Pakistan, both mainstream political parties have seen… at least one was convicted in a case which disqualified him for life from politics and also got him a ten-year jail sentence. Then you have Pakistan People’s Party, which is also dealing with corruption cases. I will just be very cognisant in understanding that PTM has always tried to maintain an independent stance. For me, the real thing is that you’re seeing people mobilised on their own, take initiative on their own, on an everyday level. It is a very unfortunate situation right now, and I can’t understate the courage of Ali Wazir, Mohsin Dawar – all these people who have sacrificed, because they are facing immense pressure right now.
AM: Sher, you are talking about the courage of political activists, but I would say that it also takes immense courage for journalists such as you and Sarah to report on these stories at a time when the state apparatus is preventing the reporting. And your story has also been nominated for the True Story Award, and rightly so, because of the way you have reported the story and put yourself also at some risk. But can we talk a little bit about this censorship of the news in the Pakistani media, because that, too, seems to be at an unprecedented level.
SE: I would completely agree, with you on that. In fact, we were following everything about the PTM this whole time, because I have been researching on this. The day of the Khar Qamar massacre, the very next day, there were so many journalists on Twitter, talking about how nothing in the media is worth trusting when it comes to the PTM or when it comes to the massacre of the checkpoint. Journalists that I have followed, journalists that I know would have been sitting at their desk when they would have received that story to edit, going on Twitter and being like do not trust what’s being written. And there’s a reason for that. The story that came out the very next day was the exact opposite of what thousands of people were sharing on social media, through videos, through photographs, through audio recordings – everything in their power, Facebook Live what not. What you saw and read the next day was completely the exact opposite. They made them look like they were… the army was attacked by those goons at a check post and that was not true. And just the fact where journalists come and say ‘do not trust a word that we’ve written’ becomes a moment where you realise we’ve hit rock bottom in many ways. And it began last year, when government ads were pulled out of media houses, when media starts shutting down because there was no access to extra funds for salaries and so on.
SAK: There has been a huge amount of crackdown, on journalists, and obviously, Pakistan has a huge history of violence against journalists. But in the context of reporting from the North Waziristan and South Waziristan, access is very limited. There is a certain sense of despondency in terms of the role of the mainstream media, because it was such a complex issue. But there are some very strong voices, who have, despite all these threats and harassment and all these arrays of problems, they have continued to voice their opinion regarding PTM.
SE: There’s Asad Hashim for Al Jazeera who’s written a really good story on this. But more importantly the BBC story that came out, titled ‘Uncovering Pakistan’s secret human rights abuses.’ It came out on 2 June, and it was by Dera Ismail Khan correspondent for BBC News. The very next day the ISPR [Inter-Services Public Relations] came out with a Tweet saying this story is “a pack of lies”. That’s how easy it is for the state to just come out and completely negate everything that a reporter has to say about his reporting and experiences and quotations and stories from the ground. And even when we were reporting on the story on the rally in Lahore last year, there was such an environment of fear, just talking to reporters, to editors about: will we cover this story? How will we cover this story? How many words can we assign to this story? What is the timeliness? How do we look at the urgency of this story? Can we maybe shelve it for another day? There was a lot of fear, and there still is. There are certain stories you know that you can’t report on if you want to be employed by a media house in Pakistan, and this is one of those cases.
AM: On that hopeful note we will bring this particular podcast to a close today. Thank you so much to the two of you for joining us today for this podcast.
SE: Thank you
SAK: Thank you so much