The Pashtun Question
So widespread has been the recent round of discrimination and repression against Pashtuns, the second largest ethnic group in Pakistan, that protests have erupted in different parts of the country, newspaper reports and editorials have condemned the security swoop and non-Punjabi politicians are not mincing words to take the government to task for what they call highly ``discriminatory crackdown against Pakhtuns (as Pashtuns are called in Pakistan) in the name of anti-terror operation``.
Elected leaders in Balochistan called the operation against Pashtuns a ``move to disintegrate Pakistan``. Accusing the Punjab police of ``high handedness``, the political leaders, cutting across party lines, accused Punjab government of `` targeting beard persons and people with traditional turban of Pakhtun, mongering hate and thus damage the efforts of national unity.”
Punjab is ruled by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s party and his younger brother Shahbaz Sharif is the Chief Minister.
This is not the first instance of government forces targeting Pashtuns. For decades there has been a persistent murmur of Pasthuns being discriminated against Pakistan when it comes to jobs or economic development. This muted dissent became louder when Pashtuns began escaping their traditional homesteads in Khyber Pakthunkhawa and tribal areas when Pakistan Army launched a massive military offensive against select terrorists after the 9/11 attacks. Millions of Pashtuns, both from Afghanistan and Pakistan, sought shelter in safer zones in Balochistan, Punjab and Sindh. The Afghan Pashtuns, although settled in different areas in Sindh and Punjab especially, were never given the citizenship or any other rights and remained refugees.
The status of Pakistani Pashtun citizens has not been any better. They have become refugees in their own home and live in miserable conditions in Punjab and Sindh. Every terrorist attack sends Pakistani army, predominantly Punjabi, into the Pashtun heartland, driving innocent men and women with their children out of their homes and villages into refugee colonies and slums of Karachi, Quetta and many cities in Punjab. It is these Pashtuns who are now facing the brunt of a renewed anti-terrorist operation in Punjab and elsewhere after the February 16 (2017) suicide bombing of a sufi shrine in Sehwan, Sindh, which killed over 80 people. The Sehwan attack followed a similar suicide attack in Lahore which killed over 15 people (February 13, 2017). Now every bearded person who looks like a Pashtun is being harassed, made to feel like a terrorist and detained and tortured in secret cells.
The number of Pashtuns is on the rise in Punjab and Balochistan. According to an elected representative from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s own party, PML-N, Prince Ahmed Ali, 70 to 80 Pashtuns living Balochistan’sLasbela district for long have gone missing—a euphuism till now reserved for the Baloch which means illegally detained by security forces, in most cases forever. In Gujrat, Sindh, over 100 Pashtuns have been detained. In Punjab, the number of detained Pashtuns is far higher than this. The story is similar in other provinces with the security forces targeting poor Pashtuns.
If anyone had any doubt about the intentions of the police and security forces, it was laid to rest with shock by a notice issued by a police spokesman of Mandi Bahauddin, a district in Punjab, which, in a nutshell, painted all the Pashtuns as suspects. The pamphlets distributed across the district called on residents to report on Afghan migrants and Pashtuns whom they suspect to be terrorists. Writing in The News on Sunday (March 5, 2017), Yasir Habib Khan, said ``the content was discriminatory, bordering on humiliation of the Pashtuns as an ethnicity. It alerted everyone to their systematic racial and ethnic profiling, especially in Punjab….The house search and re-verification, which the Pashtuns rightly call as ethnic-profiling, is being massively conducted in Punjab, but is also being replicated in interior Sindh after the Sehwan blast. In Punjab, as rightly pointed out, the aim is to look for enemies without.``
He explains that earlier it was the Afghan Pashtun refugees `` settled in this country for nearly forty years, where they have been persistently blamed and actually hauled after incidents of both terrorism and petty crime.`` This sense of discrimination was then extended to the tribal Pashtuns, Pakistani citizens by all means, ``who ran for their lives and livelihoods after massive military operations ``.
The discrimination and repression of Pashtuns is most glaring in Punjab. Writing for Radio Mashaal, journalist Daud Khattak had this to say in his report (March 5, 2017) headlined The Discriminated Pashtun:``A Pashtun living in Punjab is under scrutiny. He is being interrogated with simple but discriminatory questions like: Who are you? Size of your family? Duration of your stay? Number of visits made to Afghanistan? Do you know Taliban? And, then, he is further demeaned. When did you come here? Where do you work? Why did you marry in Lahore? Number of children studying in madrassas? What is nature of your job/business? Where are your other relatives living in Fata and KP?``
Pashtuns living in Punjab are today suspects and there is a growing alienation in the community, like the Baloch and to a large extent, the Sindhis. According to Radio Mashal, the racial profiling of Pashtuns are going to continue for an indefinite period and fearful Pashtuns `` mostly hailing from Fata and KP, are forced to leave their homes and businesses and jobs in Punjab. Some are risking their children’s educational future too.``
Pashtuns, once displaced from their traditional habitat by Pakistan Army’s military operations since 2001, are now forced to flee again, this time from Punjab and other provinces. Would these repression and alienation revive the struggle for Pashtunistan?