Manzoor Pashteen

The killing of Ibrahim Arman Loni, 35, a senior leader of Pakistan’s groundbreaking Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), last Saturday in an “encounter” with police in Balochistan province has sparked widespread condemnation and protests among the country’s Pashtun population and members of other allied communities.

Loni was also a Pashto-language poet and an instructor at a local college. He was killed on the same day that the PTM marked the first anniversary of its formation.

Loni was the father of three children and the older brother of a woman who has also risen to prominence because of her fearless participation in this new political uprising that, according to a BBC Urdu report, has gained tremendous popularity even among urban Pashtuns.

Manzoor Pashteen, 24, who is, in another correspondent’s words, rattling Pakistan’s army, has not only galvanized young supporters among his Pashtun tribesmen but has also emerged as a fighter for the rights of other communities as well. His voice resonates with the grievances of those whose rights have been violated for decades with impunity. People could not protest because challenging the army’s power and practices could easily lead to forced disappearance, torture or even death.

Loni is the PTM’s first “martyr,” but he was indeed not first Pashtun to be killed in such a manner. Pashtuns and their neighboring communities in Afghanistan and the regions bordering Pakistan have been facing violence, internal displacement, hunger and various forms of exploitation for decades.

Pashtun wedding parties, mosque congregations and even funerals have been bombed repeatedly throughout these years of conflict. One might ask, then, if violence had already become the new normal for the Pashtuns, why are they reacting so furiously over the killing of “only” one activist?

There is a compelling reason for this. Pashteen, the PTM leader, has completely changed the perception among his fellow young Pashtuns on how they should view their lives and bodies. For years, Pashtuns, mostly those living in tribal areas, thought it was reasonable for the state and its security forces to arrest, torture and kill them. A generation of Pashtuns were so badly intimidated and terrified that they even stopped complaining about suffering in government custody or the use of police brutality, just because nobody was listening to them. They could not imagine that someday someone just like them would stand up and say it aloud in public that it is not OK, under any circumstances, for law-enforcement officials to torture or beat fellow citizens or burn their homes.

While Pashteen’s efforts required extraordinary courage and involved severe risks to his life, he decided to go ahead. Today, his rebellion represents a segment of the Pakistani population (not only Pashtuns) who are fed up with the uncontrolled cycle of violence, body searches, humiliation, displacement, and allegations of being “terrorists.” When he spoke up, people across Pakistan, especially those whose family members had been subjected to enforced disappearance by government agencies, viewed Pashteen as their savior.

And his activism has actually paid off. The government has indeed been compelled to release several “missing persons” who had previously vanished for months or years. These outcomes have fueled Pashteen’s optimism that it is possible to fight for justice and gradually achieve it as well.

While Pashteen must be credited for giving his followers the much-needed realization that they own their bodies and lives, and nobody, not even those in the highest ranks of public office, has the right to torture them or take them away from their families, his other significant contribution was to instill a sense of fearlessness among this supporters.

Today, the Pakistani military seems more bothered by this important civil-rights movement that is spreading across Pakistan and abroad than the traditional mainstream national political parties that only mildly criticize the army. PTM is organizing protests against Loni’s killing in more than 60 cities across Pakistan and in many parts of the world, including New York and Washington, DC. It is impossible for the Pakistani government to ignore this growing public anger.

For any young political and social activist in Pakistan, there is one lesson that he or she learns: Whenever the military establishment feels threatened by somebody’s actions and demands, it will immediately label them as a foreign agent. If they still cannot break the activist, they will accuse them of being a tool in the hands of “foreign forces” who is “paid” to “defame Pakistan.” If you still remain undeterred, they will call you an enemy of Islam and an agent of non-Muslims.

This is absurd. No country should discredit valid questions and objections raised by its citizens by accusing them of having a foreign agenda. In fact, it is the responsibility of every democratic state to teach its citizens a clear understanding of civic obligations, social justice and the ability to distinguish between truth and tyranny. Questioning the abuse of official authority is not unpatriotic. This is a value every responsible citizen must own and be proud of.

Since the government has exhausted and overused these self-defeating tactics of labeling social and political activists as “enemies of the state” or “foreign agents,” it seems to be losing the ability to sell such ploys to the public, and people are insisting on staying focused on the actual discussion instead of concentrating on such distractions.

Pashteen is a unique leader in Pakistan who has preferred to stay focused on his message and mission instead of being derailed by false accusations, Internet trolling, threats and provocations.

One challenge that the PTM is still grappling with is that of acceptance of the Pakistani ruling elite (joined, ironically, by most of the national media). They are unwilling to accept their activism as something normal and democratic. No matter how much the PTM insists on being a peaceful democratic movement, the Pakistani establishment does not approve of it merely because its messages and demands conflict with the military’s interests, policies and vision at so many levels.

The fight, in the first place, is not about being democratic or peaceful or being the opposite. The actual challenge the Pakistan Army faces from the PTM is the “dangerous ideas” of freedom and equality that it is inculcating in citizens’ minds. The fact that the PTM tells its followers that armed forces or security agencies do not have an inherent right to torture or kill them seems like a departure from normal thinking. It shouldn’t be.

Pashteen reminds his followers that it constitutes a crime when security forces abuse their authority, and they should be punished for doing that just like other criminals. But that language and vocabulary, silenced by fear, have been wholly absent from everyday conversations in Pakistan for decades. Pashteen is taking fellow Pakistanis to uncharted waters. This involves an exceptional level of discomfort, uncertainty and, above all, risk. It marks a momentous time in Pakistan’s political history as the PTM is redefining and reinvigorating politics and civil-rights activism in a country with a dysfunctional democracy.

The PTM has already passed the initial hard phases of the struggle, making it difficult for the Pakistani establishment to ignore its demands. While Loni’s killing is tragic, all movements need a leader – and some martyrs – to keep going forward. The PTM cannot expect to be an exception.

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Malik Siraj Akbar

Malik Siraj Akbar is a Washington-based journalist and political analyst. He has a master's degree in public administration from Harvard University's John F Kennedy School of Government. 

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