Pakistani activists of the Pashtun Protection Movement (PTM) march in Karachi in January 2019. Photo: ASIF HASSAN / AFP

Pakistan’s military establishment has finally run out of patience and it looks like it will soon launch a massive operation to dislodge the Pashtun Tahaz Movement (PTM).

The PTM is a movement of Pashtuns who are demanding their fundamental rights and often blame the military establishment for the problems they are facing. The PTM’s main leaders are Manzoor Ahmed Pashteen, Ali Wazir and Mohsin Dawar. They have been accused of receiving funds and support from the Indian intelligence agency RAW and the Afghan intelligence agency NDS. The rise of the PTM in a country where even the mainstream political parties are reluctant to challenge the hegemony of the establishment in the open is nothing short of a miracle.

For many, the main face of the movement, Manzoor Pashteen, is a traitor who has mobilized the Pashtun belt against the military. But for others, Pashteen is the voice of those who were reluctant to come into the open and ask the establishment difficult questions. Pashteen can be a hero for you or a villain, depending on which side’s story you believe. But the fact remains that despite the media blackout of this movement, a young man has mobilized the Pashtun youth and made a name for himself in doing so. He has asked the powers that be fundamental questions that were always ignored by the mainstream political parties due to their fear of being thrown off the power chessboard.

The head of the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) department, Major General Asif Ghafoor Bajwa, on Monday held a press conference on the issue of the PTM. Bajwa sent a message to the PTM that he has had enough and that now action will be taken against the movement within constitutional boundaries. Bajwa also accused the PTM of taking funds from RAW. Since the media in  Pakistan cannot cover the PTM, the narrative of the establishment was disseminated widely, with no rebuttal being presented by the PTM.

The PTM has been successfully using social media platforms for its activities and rebuttals. Even the sitting National Assembly members TM Ali Wazir and Mohsin Dawar, who in response to the DG ISPR’s allegations, held a press conference outside parliament in the evening, but were denied coverage by the mainstream media. This clearly shows how political movements and parties can quickly be declared traitors and how with the help of vague national interest terms, the powers that be can exploit the constitution for their own gain.

The PTM has been demanding the arrest of Rao Anwar, who was involved in the barbaric extrajudicial killing of an innocent Pashtun boy, Naqeeb-Ullah-Mahsood. Anwar has been involved in more than 400 extrajudicial killings but is still roaming free, and the PTM alleges that he enjoys the backing of the mighty establishment.

The PTM has been demanding an end to the good Taliban/bad Taliban policy, and the removal of land mines, which have killed or maimed many children in the tribal area of Pakistan. The PTM also demands that “missing persons” be presented in the courts and be granted the right to a fair trial. The PTM openly accuses the military establishment of spreading jihad-based narratives and extremism across the country, particularly in the Pashtun areas.

On the other hand, the military top brass is of the view that most of the PTM’s demands have been accepted and that the military is busy removing land mines from Pashtun areas, while a commission has also been formed to investigate the matter of missing persons. However, there is complete silence over the matter of Anwar’s arrest and the killing of the SSP Tahir Dawar on the establishment side.

Since even the anti-establishment movements in Pakistan are usually “controlled,” the PTM is a genuine anti-establishment movement and is therefore disliked by the powerful military establishment. One can argue that the PTM, a youth movement, has gone too far by openly accusing the military of sponsoring terrorism. It would have been much better if instead of a military officer, the political leadership and the current government of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf tried to engage the PTM in a dialogue.

The other thing is that calling people traitors has never solved any problem in Pakistan. The PTM consists of the young blood of the Pashtun belt, and many of them have suffered the consequences of the post-9/11 era. Their areas were directly affected by the Afghan war and then the different military operations to root out extremists also negatively affected their lives. One needs to understand the pain and discomfort the PTM’s members have gone through all their lives, and now by labeling them agents of RAW and the NDS, the establishment will further alienate the PTM, isolating it further.

In the political and social discourse, the isolation of a popular movement from the mainstream can never be termed as a positive development and that is the reason that the political leadership always tries to engage the dissidents’ movements in dialogue. The PTM may have been using some slogans against the state but the state cannot force anyone to unconditionally obey its orders without providing justice and relief to the aggrieved.

The other problem is that we recently saw that the murderer Anwar was given VIP status in the courts and issued a clean chit by the system. Moves of this kind eventually create a sense of deprivation among movements like the PTM. In civilized countries and societies, the military establishment is not allowed to intervene in domestic politics and no one from the establishment in those countries simply stands in front of the media and calls a whole political movement traitorous and accuses it of helping a foreign power to destabilize the country.

The dictators who imposed martial law were the real traitors, as they gave birth to society’s perpetual extremist mindset.

The DG-ISPR has said that legal measures will be taken against the PTM, but the problem with this is that the judiciary, which is already being heavily criticized for aligning with the establishment to give birth to the current artificial political discourse, will further damage its credibility by taking up cases against the leadership of the PTM.

Force can suppress political movements for a brief period, but it cannot kill an ideology. Like it or not, the PTM is a reality now and it is very popular in the Pashtun belt. There is only one solution to this problem and that is engaging in dialogue with the PTM leadership and addressing its members’ grievances. The PTM, unlike the mainstream political parties of Pakistan, is not engaging in power politics, so it is not afraid of losing any political space, and that is the reason it cannot be suppressed or silenced with the use of force or the courts.

If Pakistan’s institutions can return to their constitutionally defined roles and stop getting involved in politics and creating false narratives, movements like the PTM will never even come into existence, nor will anyone shout slogans against the institutions and the establishment.

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