The ethnic Pashtun community of Pakistan is taking a long march to Bannu, a district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province located in the north-western region of Pakistan but chances are that you have hardly heard of it. Thanks to a media blackout being enforced by the Pakistani security establishment that none of the media organizations has dared to report it. The only source of information about this peaceful protest by the Pashtun community is social media.
— Said Alam (@saidalammahsud) October 28, 2018
The terror of the security establishment especially the ISI runs deep in the country’s media community. As a result, most of the journalists have kept away from retweeting, liking or sharing the updates from the long march on even their personal accounts.
The rally is being spearheaded by Pashtun Tahafuz Movement which rose in prominence in January 2018 when an aspiring model was murdered in a fake encounter in Karachi. It was the first time when tribal Pashtuns and the urban Pashtun youth converged to seek justice for a series of human rights violations by the Pakistani military.
The first edition of the Pashtun Long March took place in February in country’s capital Islamabad which was widely covered by international media. In fact, a number of members of major Pakistani political parties came forward to support the demands of the Pashtun people. However, this edition of the Long March is absent from the media’s radar signalling the even tighter grasp of security establishment over independent institutions.
The grievances of the Pashtun community include a list of human rights concerns regarding missing youth who are often picked up as alleged terrorists. They have also demanded the removal of landmines from Federally Administered Tribal Areas that have killed many. Pashtuns have continued to remain one of the most suppressed ethnic communities in the country with even Baloch and Hazaras, the other persecuted people joining them in protests during the first long march, putting the security establishment including the ISI in an uncomfortable spot.
They continue to demand effective delivery of human rights and development by the Pakistani state but nothing concrete has been executed as yet. Recently, FATA was merged with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as a cosmetic measure to address the long-standing demands but according to experts, this is nothing but superimposition of a heavy administrative structure with zero change on the ground. Meanwhile, persecution of Pashtun activists remains a normal event in the everyday life of the Pakistani state. A woman activist Gulalai Ismail was arrested earlier this month while returning from London at the Islamabad Airport. She was released on interim bail but her name continues to figure on the Exit Control List (ECL) where her passport has been confiscated as well.
The continuous attempts by Pashtuns to highlight their problems to the world at large are a worrying sign for the security establishment. As the economy of the country is dwindling with little respite from international agencies, the backlash from the ethnic communities such as Pashtun, Baloch and Hazaras can become serious troubles for the military-dominated state.
Till now Pakistani state has successfully pinned blame any such outrages on foreign forces by calling it a conspiracy by ‘India’. But the scale at which these protests are now being organized, it is time that the demands are genuinely addressed else it will attract even greater international oversight. As of the Pakistani civil society, if they don’t abandon their ostrich in the sand attitude towards excesses of the military, history won’t be very kind to them.
PhD Research Scholar, International Relations at South Asian University, New Delhi.