By Rasul Bakhsh Rais
November 10, 2015
The regions, agencies and tribal communities of the borderlands, the historic Sarhad or the frontier, can and should be converted into a separate province. For that matter, the Gilgit-Baltistan regions have equally valid historical claims and a natural right to form their own province with all the powers vested by the Constitution. Before I answer the question of why our rulers have subjected Fata to perpetual ‘reforms’ through unending series of committees, like the one recently announced by the federal government last week, two points need to be made on the merits of creating new provinces out of federal territories.
First, it is the identities of the constituent social groups and their histories that matter when considering provincial status. For centuries, the peoples in these regions, divided into tribes, each with specified territorial space, and very proud of their own, narrow heritage have defined this region. They are all held together by their Pakhtun ethnicity, language, traditions and customs. Their sense of regionalism is as old as their interaction with the outside world, both as a part of Afghan and Central Asian invading armies, as well as ‘buffers’ of the British colonial power and independent Pakistan. Their constant flow and migration to other parts of the country, notably the adjacent districts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P), and their slow but steady integration into Pakistan’s economy and power structure haven’t eroded their self-definition and recognition as such.
Second, the region has been a highway to battlegrounds. The two successive international orders of the Cold War, resulting in the Soviet-Afghan Mujahideen war and Pakistan’s ‘frontline’ role in rolling back Soviet aggression turned this region into a staging ground of battles. The jihadist elements from all over the Muslim world passed through these borderlands. These foreign elements developed alliances and ideological affinities. That shifted the balance of social power in the region from the traditional authority i.e., the tribal elders, to the men with the guns i.e., militias aligned with Arab and Pakistani militant groups.
The effects of the Afghan wars over the decades have adversely affected this region. The rise of militants with foreign support, the remnant elements of the Afghan jihad and proliferation of local militias that have financial support and manpower from the rest of Pakistan have drastically altered the dynamics of society and political relations. Men with guns, and a collection of huge monies from drug trafficking, kidnappings for ransom, smuggling and extortion from the local population have become the norm.
After a long and series of bloody battles, the region has been reclaimed, but the populations remain either insecure or scattered within the tribal belt, or live elsewhere as internally displace persons. The peoples of Fata have endured the hardest of hardships for well over three decades of the Afghan conflicts. The old structure of power, often corrupt to the core and highly dysfunctional, in my view, is too fragmented, archaic and inadequate to meet a wide range of challenges. Colonial institutions such as the political agent, the Frontier Crimes Regulations along with the few political reforms — allowing parties to operate and representation in the National Assembly — along the post-conflict reconstruction programmes have lost relevance and efficacy.
We need a bolder and more confident strategy of political reconstruction of Fata as our fifth province, the Sarhad. Every reason that is proffered against this idea from the point of view of security, backwardness and shared ethnicity with K-P, holds little merit. In any case, more than a common ethnicity, it is the history and identity of the place and peoples that hold value for recognition as a separate governing unit.
Rasul Bakhsh Rais is a professor of political science at LUMS