By Afrasiab Khattak
A mysterious flurry of so-called jirgas (a traditional people’s assembly of tribal areas) has been witnessed during the last few weeks. The agenda of these activities seems to create confusion at a time when Pashtuns living in Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) appear to be at the verge of taking steps out of the colonial system of governance.
The aforementioned reforms are expected to take place on the basis of a report furnished by the FATA Reforms Committee, which was appointed by the Federal Government in 2015. The Committee visited all the tribal agencies and held large meetings to ascertain the opinion of the people and prepared their recommendations on the basis of their findings. The strong vested interest representing the fiefdom like colonial rule and vast black economy was expected to put up fierce resistance against reforms, but what came as a surprise was the decision by two political groups to lend their shoulder to the forces of status quo for paving the ground to delay the change.
Interestingly both the political groups opposing the proposed merger of tribal area in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as part of reform package are allied with the ruling PML-N, one in the provincial government of Balochistan and the other in the Federal Government. They didn’t see any problem with the composition of the Reform Committee when it was being formed by their senior partner, or when for the last year and a half it was working on the reform package. The excellencies have suddenly discovered the unrepresentative nature of the Committee when the recommendations have been finalised and the process of implementation has started. To subvert the reform process or at least to delay it seems to be the real objective of the recent political manoeuvring. But it’s a matter of satisfaction that majority of political parties wholeheartedly support the reform process and integration of FATA in Pakhtunkhwa. There have been popular marches and demonstrations in every political agency and the frontier region in favor of merger, unlike the two so-called Jirgas held outside FATA. It’s not surprising because FATA Political Alliance, a conglomerate of major political parties has been working on the reform program since 2011.
The case for the merger of FATA with Pakhtunkhwa not only represents the aspirations of the local people but is also based on the following very concrete historical and socio-political factors.
One, FATA was carved out in the late 19th century by the British to create an additional buffer behind the buffer state of Afghanistan. The proposed merger of the area with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa will do away with the imperial policy of divide and rule. There is nothing sacred about the colonial policy of atomising their subjects.
Two, all the major mountainous passes in FATA open on the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa shaping an integrated communication system. People going from one part of FATA to another enter Pakhtunkhwa province for the purpose.
Three, during the last almost a century and a half of its existence, every FATA political agency has socio-economically and culturally integrated with the adjacent district of the province in a very fundamental way, while a similar integration hasn’t taken place among political agencies. The farmer can become a very viable foundation for further integration. The six frontier Regions are for all practical purposes the sub divisions of the adjacent districts.
Four, massive migration of the population from FATA into Pakhtunkhwa has been taking place over the years. Their absorption in the adjacent districts of the province is a success story without precedent in Pakistan. The population of most of the urban centers in the nearby districts has dramatically increased due to the aforementioned migration without any complication in demographic cohesion. This is the most remarkable testament to ethnic and cultural homogeneity of the people of two regions. At the peak of the IDP phenomena from FATA many experts believed that majority of FATA population is residing in Pakhtunkhwa. These immigrants and settlers constitute a strong demographic bridge for the future integration of the two regions.
Five, there is a precedent of FATA’s merger into another province. In 1955 when Punjabi ruling elites forced the merger of the provinces, regions and princely states in the western part of the country for countering the population weightage of the former East Pakistan by creating the so called One Unit or West Pakistan with its capital in Lahore, FATA was also merged in it.
Six, the bureaucracy of Pakhtunkhwa already operates in FATA through FATA directorates so the merger is expected to take place smoothly as there will be no need for creating new bureaucracies. Hence, no war for turf.
But to ensure a fair deal to the people of FATA and also to ensure their mainstreaming the Joint Session of Parliament needs to approve a package consisting of three things. One, FATA must have proper representation in National Assembly and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly on the basis of a fresh and real census. The present figure of 4.5 or 4.8 million is bogus and is concocted by the bureaucracy. The figures coming from the IDP camps have exposed the falsehood of this figure. The actual figure is expected to be between 12 and 15 million. Correct population figure on the basis of real census is also important for FATA’s genuine share in the National Finance Commission Award. Two, a certain percentage of the developmental funds of the province should be fixed for FATA for two decades so that it can catch up in socio-economic development with the rest of the country. Three, a certain percentage of cabinet berths should be allocated for elected members of the provincial assembly from FATA at least for a decade so that the people of the politically backward area are able to take part in decision making.
There is lot of room for improvement in the implementation mechanism of the reform package. Presently the process of reform is handled by departments/institutions with strong interest in the status quo. For example the Ministry of SAFRON, which has key role will in implementation of reforms, will finish the day FATA is merged because that’s its only domain. Why should we expect it to vigorously work for dissolving itself? Similar is the case with FATA Secretariat and the Governor House. But the biggest omission is the non-inclusion of Pakhtunkhwa government in the merger so far. This is flabbergasting. The Federal Government needs to immediately create a task force consisting of representatives of the Federal Government, FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to work together on the implementation of reforms. Time is of the essence. Inclusion of FATA’s people in the elections for the Provincial Assembly in 2018 requires urgent preparations.