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

In recent years, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was a brutal thorn in the side of Pakistan. By resorting to massive suicide bomber attacks, the TTP killed thousands of innocent people, including women and children in mosques and churches. The 2014 massacre of 132 children at the Peshawar Army Public School and a suicide attack that slaughtered 125 young men in a single village near Lakki Marwat were harrowing.

Last year, the Pakistan Army was finally able to crush TTP decisively. Today, TTP as an organized entity no longer exists in Pakistan, but ethnic/identity politics in the Pashtun belt has become a new challenge. Many people see the politics of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) as a continuation of war against the state of Pakistan through other means. Others, however, see the PTM as merely a crude struggle for political rights after the failure of TTP violence.

The PTM is pursuing identity politics in the former Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA) and seeking more and more political space by appealing to Pashtun ethnicity. Despite its apparently peaceful intentions, its identity politics inspires considerable concern.

Many doubt the stated motives of the PTM. Terming the PTM a proxy warring force would be an overstatement, but there are concrete reasons why the identity politics of the PTM are viewed with so much suspicion by the Pakistan government and citizens alike.

The British Empire during the colonial period in South Asia used a ruthless but highly effective strategy of divide and rule. The aim was to encourage internal divisions within a colony, preventing people from forming any organization capable of challenging the British colonial power. Regrettably, the a tactic still employed by governments today.

Around the world there is a tendency for groups to form alliances based on shared traits, such as skin color, race/ethnicity, sect/religion, and even sexuality. This is known as identity politics, known by some as political tribalism.

Weak national identities bring about severe security issues because countries with divided identities are more vulnerable and more prone to internal conflict. Politically unstable countries are easily coerced into serving the needs and interests of other, more powerful, nations. Countries with hegemonic designs encourage sub-nationalism and foment identity divisions in a target country to create political instability that can be exploited by the more powerful neighbor.

Francis Fukuyama in his book Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (2018) warns that while we can be proud of our identities, they can also divide us.

In the 20th century, left-wing politics concentrated on class issues, with activists and political parties focused on the economic well-being of poorer citizens. Trades unions held far more sway than they do today, and there was demand and broad support for an active welfare state.

In recent years, identity politics has fractured the political left, which today, instead of fighting for economic equality, is focusing on the recognition and rights of smaller and smaller groups in society. In doing so, it has divided oppressed groups into yet more fractured sections of society, each with its own distinct interests. Such small groups have little or no chance of challenging a society’s all-powerful elites.

Now we have a situation where the government of Pakistan, after alienating the tribal areas for a decade, is bringing the people of FATA into the mainstream. Meanwhile the PTM is pushing Pashtun into isolation.

Harvard University research fellow and proud Pashtun Saira Bano Orakzai says in a recent article that the time is ripe for the people of the tribal areas to make a clear choice: to struggle to restore rights and peace or to struggle against Pakistan’s institutions and ideology. The latter, he argues, will only lead to entanglement in perpetual conflict. The PTM has become a new obstacle standing in the way of the people of FATA achieving, for the first time, mainstream status in Pakistan.

Identity for any group of people is emotionally important. No one expects Pashtuns to abandon their identity, or to stop taking pride in the community which they proudly represent. Instead, in the diverse culture of Khyber Pakhtunkhaw province, in order to combat divisiveness and infighting its people need to build strong, overarching identities that they can all be a part of.

The PTM leadership encourages infighting and incites violence for which it is being tried in courts of law. The PTM has clear secessionist tendencies and does not stand for the objectives it preaches. As well as being funded from unknown sources, the organization’s links to hostile foreign agencies and the huge international media attention it attracts draws deserved suspicion from an already cautious establishment.

If the PTM truly aims to see large-scale change that benefits the neediest Pashtuns, it must not divide the people of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa along narrow identity lines. Instead, it should create a shared political community that is based on liberal and democratic principles. Such a strategy will surely bring clear economic, security and political rights to the people of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in general and the people of former FATA in particular.

The PTM should help abolish Frontier Crime Regulations (FCR) and assist the people of Pashtun tribal areas in joining the mainstream of Pakistani society. Let the concept of the elaq ghair (“unruly land”) of the tribal areas be a thing of the past.

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