Thousands of ethnic Pashtuns led by 26-year-old Manzoor Pashteen gathered in Pakistan’s northwestern city of Peshawar on April 8 to demand the protection of Pashtun rights.
The Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), or Pashtun Protection Movement, has been launched by young Pashtun activists who are protesting gross human rights violations in Pakistan’s tribal pockets.
The young Pashtuns, who have grown up under the shadow of war, face discrimination and suspicion when they leave their homeland and move to towns and cities. The community, said to be around 15 percent of Pakistan’s population, has quietly borne the brunt of the war against the Taliban for over a decade.
In a first, the youngsters have now taken to the streets, demanding the removal of landmines and putting a full stop to their humiliation at military and security checkpoints. They also want to know the status of “missing” Pashtuns or victims of enforced disappearances and an immediate end to extra-judicial killings.
Their movement gained momentum when a picture of the corpse of a young aspiring fashion model was circulated as one of four militants suspected of having links to the Islamic State in January. Naqeebullah Mehsud, 27, from Waziristan, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas on the border with Afghanistan, had been arrested by police 10 days earlier. Rao Anwar, the officer leading the operation, said the men had opened fire on police and were killed in a gunfight. Following Mehsud’s death, there were accusations that he was killed in a staged gun battle by police.
“We are only against the oppressors,” Pashteen told a charged audience at the rally.
“We are only the ‘agents’ of our nation,” he said, addressing allegations that the movement is being backed by foreign agencies.
Pashteen announced more such gatherings would be held across the country. There will be one in the country’s cultural capital of Lahore on April 22 and another one in Islamabad.
Pakistani journalist Khurram Hussain has called their movement “The Pashtun Spring”.
“What is particularly interesting about this movement is that it is spontaneous, and has an amorphous leadership drawn from a younger generation with no links to organised politics. What is dismaying to see is how their efforts have been ignored by the big mainstream political parties, as well as the mainstream media,” Khurram wrote in the Dawn.
Raza Wazir, a 20-something journalist who grew up in the area, wrote about what it is to grow up a Pashtun amid the war on terror in The New York Times. His Pashtun ethnic origin made him a target for racial profiling, he said.
“The prejudice and suspicion against ethnic Pashtuns like me intensified after the tribal areas became the base for the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, whose bombing campaign killed hundreds in Pakistan’s cities…One night several policemen barged into my dorm room (in Lahore), which I shared with three other students, ethnic Punjabis. After the policemen looked at our identity cards, they took me aside and rifled through my books and my belongings for incriminating evidence.”
The British kept the Pashtuns divided – first through the Durand Line and then within undivided India in three distinct independent provinces or areas – Balochistan, Federally Administered Tribal Areas and North West Frontier Province, now Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan. All three had separate administrative structures and it was ensured there was no connectivity between them. The North West Frontier Province was further divided into settled areas and Provincially Administered Tribal Areas.
Two left-wing Pakistani political parties, Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party and Balochistan’s National Awami Party, took part in the rally.
But prominent leaders of other Pashtun nationalist and religious parties did not participate, despite vows in February that they would give their full support to the PTM.
Demonstrations were also held in Germany, Sweden, Australia, and Afghanistan to show solidarity with the protesters.