Over the past two years, the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) has defined an alternative future for Pakistan. It has also contributed to the state’s anxiety about its own discursive and political power. The Pakistani state has used all the tools in its arsenal, ranging from censorship to arrests and intimidation. The country’s military in particular has been accused by the PTM of abductions and extrajudicial killings, and has opened fire on the peaceful PTM protesters.
Upon being released on bail after having spent four weeks in prison on sedition charges, the leader of the PTM Manzoor Pashteen simply said, “Prison was a lot better than my home. Its walls were intact. No one had stolen its iron and bricks. The walls were high. No one entered it without permission and violated its sanctity as is done with our homes. There were no landmines there. It was safe as [opposed to] our homes.” The PTM can’t be understood without considering the violence that Pashtun lands and bodies across the country have been subjected to post September 11, 2001.
Thus a gap was created in public consciousness, born out of harrowing violence, war and the violation of bodies. PTM is the political articulation of that consciousness.
However, the PTM is distinct from ‘classical’ Pashtun nationalism. This term has been understood to represent the community’s sovereignty over land within the federal structure of the state. Still, classical Pashtun nationalism can’t be reduced to a territorial claim over land and the rights of self-governance – the defining features of Pashtun nationalism are provincial autonomy, right to and recognition of language and culture and a fair share in the distribution of resources.
Proponents of this classical nationalism trace its lineage back to the freedom struggle against British colonialism. This form of nationalism has its shortcomings, for instance, silencing caste and class questions in Pashtun society and emphasising national discrimination. Nevertheless, historically it has had a progressive bent. The National Awami Party (NAP), the leftwing political platform active throughout the late 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and out of which the modern political program of classical Pashtun nationalism emerged, was a mix of small and suppressed ethnic minorities in Pakistan.
If the PTM is about anything it is about giving political shape to the experience and feeling of pain. Its mission lies in channeling pain to create not only a new Pashtun individual but also a new Pakistani citizen
The anti-colonial national struggle, as well as the regional and identity-based politics of NAP and other leftwing political movements, have created a unique national consciousness among Pashtuns. There has been an evolution of the Pashtun national consciousness throughout history, which has redefined and re-articulated itself over time as socio-political conditions changed. PTM is a continuation of that national consciousness but it is also a departure from it in that it articulates what the mainstream nationalist narrative was not able to. The guardians of classical Pashtun nationalism were the nationalist political parties, operating under the prevailing political conditions, who had limits imposed on what they could say. Thus a gap was created in public consciousness, born out of harrowing violence, war and the violation of bodies. PTM is the political articulation of that consciousness.
In Pakistan, you can only talk about the war on terrorism in the most constricted terms. This has affected those from the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Swat and the adjoining districts in settled Pashtun lands in particular, and Pashtuns and Pashtun land in general, through electronic-media blackouts and internet shutdowns.
A political shape to pain
If the PTM is about anything it is about giving political shape to the experience and feeling of pain. Its mission lies in channeling pain to create not only a new Pashtun individual but also a new Pakistani citizen, creating an alternate relationship between the individual and the state in the process. The securitisation and militarisation of space in Pakistan has affected Pashtuns, while their consciousness has been shaped by the two-decade long realisation that the state can only inflict pain. To reclaim their sense of agency and citizenship the resurgent narrative demands accountability for this pain.
In terms of defining patriotism, therefore, the PTM marks a point of departure from the norm. The challenge of such definition is not to be confused with separatism or other claims of exclusion.
But this violence is not inflicted on bodies alone. Due to the war on Pashtun lands and the racist structure of the state, Pashtuns have been portrayed both symbolically and through popular discourse as innately violent, simultaneously explaining away Talibanisation and also equating Pashtuns to the Taliban. One slogan, which has become a rallying cry of the movement, counters this narrative; not only does it point to their lived reality, but it also counters the narrative of Pashtun ‘responsibility’ for creating Taliban: ye jo dehshatgardi hai, iske peeche wardi hai! (The uniform [referring to the Pakistan army] is behind this terrorism.)
That slogan is also crucial to how suppression of the movement is justified by the state. This different perception of reality by the periphery (ie, Pashtuns affected by war) and mainstream Pakistan represents the radically different experience between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. In terms of defining patriotism, therefore, the PTM marks a point of departure from the norm. The challenge of such definition is not to be confused with separatism or other claims of exclusion. The PTM is vying for an enlargement of the ‘nation’ in nation state and the erasure of the violence embedded in the hyphenation of ‘nation’ and ‘state.’ To appreciate that, the spatial dimensions of the PTM movement must be understood.
Pashtuns are largely spread across the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, but have also settled in other areas in pursuit of livelihood. Karachi has a large population of Pashtuns. The reasons for their migration within the country can be traced back to colonial-era policies of unequal development and their continuation but also to post-9/11 military operations which resulted in massive displacement. The death of Naqeebullah Mehsud, a Pashtun shopkeeper and aspiring model, also happened in Karachi, and triggered the long march to Islamabad and the creation of the PTM. The contours of the PTM’s national consciousness are not territorially defined but extend to the whole country. An extra-judicial killing in one part of the country gave birth to a nascent and radical movement in another; that’s how PTM represents the integration of land and bodies. It goes beyond classical Pashtun nationalism, and because of their new material circumstances, born of war and violence, includes ‘bodies’ in its articulation of a political programme.
Pashtuns have been portrayed both symbolically and through popular discourse as innately violent, simultaneously explaining away Talibanisation and also equating Pashtuns to the Taliban.
The leadership of PTM belongs to Waziristan, Khyber Pakhtunwa province, but its message finds resonance across the whole Pashtun community. The periphery of the periphery, that is the FATA and Pashtun-majority districts of Balochistan, have been impacted the most by the state’s war economy. In the past, Pakistan has been reliant on US and foreign aid ultimately used for fighting wars – with Pashtun lands often being utilised for these wars. They also have the weakest links to the structure of the state. As a result, these regions are mobilised the most by the PTM’s demands, because they have the most to gain from a new imagined citizenship. The yearning to belong can be no better expressed than in the slogan and anthem ‘Da sanga azadi da?’ (What kind of freedom is this?) That consciousness questions the present state of being and wonders how that being has betrayed its promises.
The PTM’s imagined citizenship includes the right to life. This demand may not seem radical because it is so basic, but therein lies the radical nature of the movement: that what is considered a given elsewhere is removed from the lived experience of Pashtuns who are suffering under war. Another popular song of the movement ‘Pukhtoon ta jwandon ghwarro’ (we demand life for Pashtuns) captures their grievance at being treated as disposable, due to the necessities of war in the mainland. This demand for life also extends the scope of the PTM to incorporate the whole country as a plane of the new imaginary. By demanding that right to life the claim to equal citizenship is asserted.
Perhaps, the only slogan borrowed from older iterations of Pashtun nationalism is that of ‘Lar-o-bar Yaw Afghan’ (All Afghans are one). This slogan particularly evokes insecurity within the Pakistani state because it implies the fracture of the country. It can also evoke either making a separate Pashtunistan (a homeland for the Pashtuns) or joining with Afghanistan. The propaganda and suppression tactics surrounding this slogan, it can be argued, form the basis of Afghan support for the PTM. But this slogan expresses the cultural, historical and linguistic identity of Pashtuns as transcending the borders of Pakistan and also as participants in the project of the Pakistani nation as a people having their own identity and culture.
The PTM didn’t emerge out of a bubble. Neither was it the first to articulate the grievances of people living through war.
This charge of separatism also comes with the charge of an exclusively ethnic movement. This charge erases the conceptualisation of the particular versus the universal. It raises questions around collective self-expression and how it can be done in a participatory, ethical way.
A national consciousness is very different from the kind of nationalism which creates an essential category of a ‘nation’. That national consciousness takes stock of race- or ethnicity-based oppression. Rather than essentialising the ‘nation’, this consciousness seeks recognition in a framework of the universal. The crucial concept is that a particular race or ethnicity shouldn’t become universal and collaboration should be sought with other groups working towards a universal movement recognising the specificity of nationhood. The universal in turn shouldn’t essentialise and erase particular communities (both go hand in hand).
In this light, the PTM can be seen as reclaiming the right of being different and simultaneously of belonging to a country through the instrument of the constitution. In the PTM’s imagination, the constitution has a life of its own, and can be called upon again and again in order to legitimise the movement. Though the constitution is not a perfect document and is open to change to reflect changing socio-political circumstances, it is a guarantee protecting against the violation of human rights and of the state’s praetorian hold. The abstractness of the articles of the constitution finds materiality in the political programme where those who see the constitution as subservient to the ‘interests of the nation’ are made subservient to the dictates of the constitution. The PTM finds solidarity from people who are not Pashtuns and are not affected by war, because the constitution has the seeds of an alternate tomorrow which can challenge the economy and war-fuelled state through the constant violation of rights of the periphery as well as of people cast as the undesirable ‘other’.
Pashtuns and the state
Pashtuns have a complex relationship with the Pakistani state. It is validly argued that they hold disproportionate representation in some institutions, such as in the army, with between 15 and 22 percent of officers and between 20 and 25 percent among the rank and file said to be Pashtuns.
This is partly due to Pashtuns being the largest ethnic minority of the country, the portrayal of Pashtuns as a martial race by the British Raj (continued by the postcolonial state), and a long political struggle leading to upward social mobility for Pashtuns in some areas. Despite being the largest ethnic minority, they are treated, consciously or unconsciously, as the ethnic other to the de-ethnicised Pakistan: their lands are treated as arenas of war and their people are deployed to fight proxy wars of the state. The PTM aims to disrupt this dual treatment born out of the war economy. Their program is not only non-violent, it is also anti-violence and anti-war.
It is for Pakistan’s future that the PTM and other like-minded movements have newly conceived of the nation. Those on the streets will come out in one form or another every time, with the same passion and energy.
The contestation of the PTM with the state in how to define its existence also raises the problem of time. The PTM’s demand for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission translates this into political terms. The Pakistani state, like all states, believes in the linear flow of time. The past is only a constructed entity where a sequence of events, revised or otherwise, serves to form an ‘official’ history which the state and the polity can self-construct. When it comes to war on Pashtun land, the state wants a linear conception of time to prevail there too. Violence happened, the Taliban and other terrorists committed unspeakable atrocities, but then the state, and specifically the army, came and delivered them to the people. Now, people must move on, with an elegy to the bravery of the armed forces the only way to recall the time passed. Time should flow according to the dictates of the powers that be. On the other hand, the PTM believes in a different flow of time, where the past cannot be forgotten and must be recalled in order to account for all the pain and suffering.
The political arrangement in Pakistan is what some analysts call, a ‘non-coup coup’. The mainstream political parties have acquiesced to the role of the security establishment. Their so-called resistance aims to convince the security establishment to make them their junior political partners. In this scenario, political movements on the margins of mainstream political activity is where the roots of resistance and hope for a substantial democracy lie. The PTM is not the only force vying to define an alternative way of belonging to the nation. The vacuum has also been reclaimed by small but motivated people-led movements: from those fighting for the recovery of missing persons, to women’s rights and feminist groups and student activists. The PTM has not only opened the space for other such movements but also builds on the space opened through others. This dual dialectic movement, ie, between the political consciousness of the people and the political articulation of it by the leadership, feeding into the wave of mass movements and depending on their solidarity, helps the PTM withstand repression from the state.
When Manzoor Pashteen was arrested a few weeks ago, the movement didn’t come to a halt. In fact it further mobilised. This says something about how grounded the movement is; it doesn’t have an organisational bureaucracy or for that matter a formal structure, yet it can voluntarily mobilise many. The PTM didn’t emerge out of a bubble. Neither was it the first to articulate the grievances of people living through war. It is, however, the effect of a changing national consciousness, one that defines consciousness as a dialectical movement. It is only wishful thinking on the part of the state that it can do away with the resurgent anti-war and anti-violence consciousness, nor can it erase the pain stemming from violence. As long as that pain remains, people will find a way to articulate it in one way or another. It is for Pakistan’s future that the PTM and other like-minded movements have newly conceived of the nation. Those on the streets will come out in one form or another every time, with the same passion and energy.
As Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali wrote:
Majnoon was again sighted
in the streets, intoxicated
as before, surpassing the rupture
of every mad love.
Hurmat Ali Shah writes on socio-political issues, and is particularly interested in the national core-periphery relations in Pakistan. He is currently a postdoctoral researcher.