Pakistani activists of the Pashtun Protection Movement (PTM) take part in a protest last year against the arrest of party leader Alamzeb Mehsud in Karachi. Photo: AFP / Asif Hassan

The chief of Pashtun Tahaffuz [Protection] Movement (PTM), Manzoor Pashteen, was arrested in Peshawar, capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, on January 23 in the latest crackdown initiated by the state against the rights group.

Pashteen, along with nine fellow PTM leaders, was sent on a 14-day judicial remand over sedition charges leveled against him in a First Information Report (FIR) filed on January 18 in another KP town, Dera Ismail Khan.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a Pashtun-majority province, has seen the rise of the PTM over the past two years, after the movement emanated in the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which was merged with KP in 2018.

The movement was sparked by the killing of Pashtun youth Naqeebullah Mehsud in a staged gun battle in Karachi in January 2018. The demonstrations to demand justice for Mehsud evolved into a list of demands for the Pashtuns in the former FATA, including curtailing extrajudicial killings, locating missing persons, and clearing the area of landmines.

The movement’s leadership accused the military of using the tribal areas to harbor terror groups, with the colonial-era Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) facilitating arbitrary actions by the security machinery. It maintained that multiple military operations against terror groups in the tribal areas had caused significant damage to the life, property and rights of the local Pashtuns.

While the FCR was repealed in 2018, and the merger with KP initiated, the group’s leadership continue to allege that the military is still running the tribal areas without any checks, which has resulted in the continued denial of rights for the local Pashtun community. Even more ominously, the tribal areas along the Afghanistan border continue to be strongholds for Afghan-Pakistani jihadist groups, including the Khorasan faction of Islamic State (ISKP).

The military, along with the government, refutes the PTM’s claims and accuses it of working on a foreign agenda. Despite attracting tens of thousands to rallies across the country, the PTM has been regularly dubbed “anti-state.”

The group’s popularity, however, can also be gauged by two of its leaders, Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir, being elected to the National Assembly in the 2018 general election. However, just like the national media that have been barred from providing any coverage to the PTM, the group’s leaders are regularly censored in the parliament and press clubs, and have been taken into custody as well.

In May 2019, military personnel opened fire at PTM protesters at a check-post near North Waziristan’s Khar Qamar area, underlining the menace of state violence that looms against the Pashtun rights group. The Khar Qamar firing prompted Dawar to go into hiding, after which he handed himself over to the authorities, while Wazir was arrested on the spot. Both Dawar and Wazir were accused of attacking an army check-post, and were granted bail by a Peshawar High Court bench in September.

Even so, despite the continued targeting of the PTM and the state-propagated allegations against its leadership, the movement’s chief Pashteen hadn’t been taken into custody. Where the growing number of followers of the influential young leader see him as a voice speaking up to power, and his trademark red cap as a symbol of resistance, the state accuses him of channeling Pashtun grievances to destabilize Pakistan.

Pashteen’s arrest, therefore, is being seen as the state enhancing its bid to silence the PTM. The arrest came after the group’s rally in the southern KP town of Bannu on January 12, where Pashteen, Dawar and Wazir all addressed supporters, attracting a strong crowd again.

“Pashteen is likely to have been arrested owing to his speech in Bannu, where he spoke of gathering [nationwide] Pashtun leaders. We are going to protest against [Pashteen’s arrest] nationwide and worldwide as well – wherever the PTM is present,” Dawar said.

“I would like to ask all our workers to remain peaceful, as always. Our narrative is strong, our truth has the strength [and] our non-violent movement is powerful [enough]. FIRs don’t scare us. The movement is going to grow [further],” he added.

Protests demanding Pashteen’s release sprang up this week nationwide, especially in KP. More PTM leaders were arrested in Islamabad on Wednesday, along with protesters from the Awami Workers Party. Dawar was among those temporarily detained over the protests.

The PTM leadership say they will continue to exercise their right to dissent and demand the rights they’ve been deprived of. However, observers fear a further increase in the targeting of the PTM.

“Manzoor Pashteen’s arrest indicates a level of exasperation and weakness on the part of the insecure security state,” said Bushra Gohar, a leader of the leftist Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party (ANP), which was founded by the son of the late Pashtun independence activist Abdul Ghaffar Khan. “It seems to be at a loss as to how to control the movement. PTM’s message of peace, constitutional rights, justice and a truth commission resonates with many.

“PTM questioning the return and regrouping of Taliban in the erstwhile FATA [and Khyber] Pakhtunkhwa is another major challenge for the security state. PTM is questioning the very foundation of the security strategic depth policy,” Gohar said.

Abdul Ghaffar Khan, known fondly as Bacha Khan or Frontier Gandhi, advocated a separate homeland for the Pashtuns when Pakistan was created in 1947. While his descendants have reconciled with being a part of Pakistan over the decades, the ANP and other Pashtun nationalist groups continue to strive for the rights of the local Pashtuns.

The PTM is the latest manifestation of this ethnic nationalism, which critics argue has been deemed “anti-state” like its predecessors because of its upholding of the Pashtun identity and challenging the official state narrative.

“Anyone, or group, that challenges the stated controlled security narrative is labeled a traitor and anti-state,” Gohar said. “This has been going on since the creation of the country. I don’t see things improving under the present unannounced martial law. The only way [forward] is to address genuine grievances of the Pashtun victims of war and form a truth commission. It has to be a political process instead of controlled by the security forces.”

Critics maintain that the military is practically in charge of the country, and with the state’s continued role in Afghanistan and the prolonged Taliban talks, the security establishment needs the status quo in the former tribal areas to continue to exercise control over jihadist groups that give Islamabad leverage in the Afghan peace process. The PTM leaders also maintain that they have been asked to accept the return of Taliban in the tribal areas, where the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is gradually resurfacing.

The PTM openly targeting the military establishment and accusing it of harboring terrorists in public rallies has further enraged the army leadership. However, the PTM argues that it is merely highlighting what former army chiefs and intelligence heads have already confessed.

After Pashteen’s arrest, there are fears that the security establishment might treat the PTM like the nationalists in Balochistan, where unimpeded military operations over decades have violently suppressed a separatist movement. “There is a possibility of the movement going the way [of the Baloch separatist movement]. These people can play into the hands of the Indians, who can mislead them and fund them. So yes, things can escalate,” said Lieutenant-General Talat Masood, a former secretary at the Ministry of Defense.

The PTM has been accused of being predominantly funded by foreign agencies, along with being backed by the Indian spy agency Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS). But none of the allegations have been proved.

“If they are conducting themselves in any way that is anti-state, then they should be properly exposed with evidence. Then the pressure of the public within the province and nationwide can be directed against them. But the matter needs a political solution. Using force or taking the leadership to courts [without proof] will only complicate issues,” Masood said.

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