Consequences of delaying Fata reforms

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By Ghulam Qadir Khan
Historically, Fata has always been at the periphery of empires. Even when it was considered a kingmaker, it preferred getting booty in return. The area was referred to as Yaghistan (no-man’s land). The British gave it some semblance of government but their efforts were half-hearted. Policies were framed with India’s security in mind. They saw Russian ingress into Central Asia with concern, convinced that Russia would invade Afghanistan and that its expansion would bring it to the borders of India, the jewel in the crown.
They did everything to prevent such a situation. They armed the tribesmen with religion and weaponry. They divided Pakhtuns, who couldn’t unite under the banner of Pakhtun nationalism, in groups so they couldn’t pose any threat to British rule, but could be close enough to be united under the banner of religion if needed.
After independence, Pakistan followed the same policy and in return became the blue-eyed boy of the West. Though Russia never posed a serious threat while the British ruled India, continuation of the policy paid off in the late 1970s when Russia marched into Afghanistan. Fata served not only as the launching pad for Afghan Mujahideen but also provided maximum manpower and logistic support. Among the many adverse effects of the Afghan jihad, one was the spread of militancy to the rest of Pakistan.
The tribesmen always desired development at par with other areas of the country. They wanted it even during the British Raj but schools and hospitals were not developed. After independence, they thought they were equal citizens in a free country. But no – having seen 70 years of discrimination and more than a decade of active warfare, Fata’s people have shown resentment and demanded change. They want to come out of the colonial era and claim equal rights. For once, all stakeholders, including political parties, support the mainstreaming of Fata, pleading their claim to equal rights and opportunities guaranteed by the Constitution.
Fata’s status was determined by the country’s security paradigm; without changing this, reforms in Fata were impossible. The army fenced the western border to stop the infiltration of militants and thus clearly defined the frontier. They disarmed the tribesmen, indicating they would no more be used as cannon fodder, a clear indication of change in the security paradigm. Besides, the army supports reforms at the highest level. The government responded positively and promised reforms, to bring Fata at par with the rest of the country. A committee under Sartaj Aziz was formed to meet stakeholders and make proposals. The stakeholders accepted whatever was proposed by the government’s committee on reforms. Thus implementation of the report should have been easy but in spite of continuous assurances, the reforms are not materialising. The withdrawal of the Fata reforms bill from the National Assembly agenda recently is a case in point.
Unfortunately, the Fata administration doesn’t seem to be very enthusiastic on reforms. The president of Pakistan hasn’t held a single grand jirga to reassure the tribes. Whatever was proposed to be done by end 2017 hasn’t even started. Initially, an idea was floated that the FCR be amended. When that didn’t go well, it was proposed that Fata should be a separate province. All those having stakes in the status quo are supporting a separate province, while an apparent majority of educated youth and political parties are supporting merger with KP. The issue of merger is the last on the reforms agenda yet it is being debated most, probably to create divisions.
The Fata administration could start by embarking on initiatives that don’t require approval from any forum. It could set up the directorate of transition and reforms in the Fata secretariat to work out what is needed for reforms. Knowing the long recruitment procedure, this should have been initiated earlier. The reform report proposes that octroi and other cesses will be discontinued from the current financial year but this hasn’t happened. This can be done with a stroke of the pen, giving relief in millions of rupees. Fata shares the chief secretary with KP. Fata secretaries can be directed to report to the additional chief secretary, KP, a step closer to merger of the bureaucracies, to be followed by Fata directorates reporting to their respective secretaries in KP, reverting to their position before 1998.
It is pertinent to note that officials working in Fata are KP government employees on deputation. The president or Safron should plead for special allocations promised to Fata in 2017.
It’s a pity that the government has failed to grab this historic opportunity and is instead playing into the hands of the few whose stakes dictate maintaining the status quo.
Delaying reforms exposes lack of wisdom and a colonial mindset. The government has been hiding behind the army for too long; the army has made it clear that it supports merger and has taken steps in that direction. The KP Assembly has been forthcoming which might not be the case after the next elections. The demand for reforms has come from Fata MPs; almost all political parties and civil society have extended their full support. When are we going to reach such a broad-based consensus again?
The president, governor KP and minister Safron are either sleeping or have made so many false statements that no one trusts them anymore. Fata’s people are being pushed against the wall. They have been unarmed but are responsible for their territory under the FCR. So either we return their weapons to them or absolve them of responsibility.
The youth is getting desperate, knowing that a few hundred people in Islamabad can bring the government to its knees. They feel they won’t get anything out of the government without showing muscle. Fata’s youth gate-crashed the governor’s programme at an event in Peshawar; no one knows where they will strike next. The government should take immediate measures before someone exploits the situation. Rest assured, RAW and NDS are watching closely and working on alienating the tribesmen.
(The writer is a former bureaucrat and author of Cheegha, The Call. gqkhan57@yahoo.com)