It was the government that formed the Fata reforms committee and touted its proposed merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and now it is the government which seems to be backing away from it. The last meeting of the federal cabinet had approval of the reforms package on its agenda but it was suddenly dropped without explanation. This led to a protest in the National Assembly from Fata MNAs from all parties, with Shahabuddin Khan of the PML-N tying a black gag around his mouth.
This is a powerful symbol of the way the people of Fata have been treated not just through this process but throughout Pakistan’s history. The only people who were not represented in the reforms committee were the residents of Fata itself and it is they who should be allowed to decide on their future. Even though the reforms package was not devised by the people of Fata, it did at least propose merging the tribal areas with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, bringing them under the protection of the constitution and gradually repealing the Frontier Crimes Regulation. The original plan called for the process to be carried out over a period of 10 years but opposition parties wanted it implemented before the 2018 elections. Now, with the cabinet slow-walking approval, its future is left in doubt.
Part of the reason the government now seems hesitant to implement its own ideas is that it has met more opposition than expected, with the government’s own allies turning against it. Both the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party and the JUI-F have come out against the proposals, likely because they feel their power in KP might decline if Fata has its own influential political forces. But the representatives of Fata itself are determined that the merger go through. Fata parliamentarians held a convention in Islamabad earlier this week demanding both the merger of Fat and KP and the repeal of the FCR.
Equally importantly, the convention called for compensation to be paid to those who have been affected by military operations in the area and for Fata to be made part of the National Finance Commission Award. Certainly, any merger will come with a new set of problems since Fata is less developed and will need special attention to be brought to par with the rest of the country. But the reason this disparity exists is because Fata has been ignored and treated as separate from the rest of the country since Independence. The government has promised Fata’s people that it would rectify that and failing to follow through would be a grave betrayal.