Unrest in Pak former
tribal areas is troubling

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By Rustam Shah Mohmand

THE former tribal areas in northwestern Pakistan bordering Afghanistan were merged into the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) some three years ago. The step was designed to open up the hitherto segregated areas to development, to ensure more prosperity for the tribes. But the underlying motive was to ensure better management of the border so that any influx of militants from across the border could be prevented. 

In order to eliminate the possibility of miscreants and anti-state elements entering into Pakistani territory, an ambitious scheme of sealing the whole 2600 km long border was launched at the cost of more than $1 billion. The entire border was fenced leaving only a few border crossings that would be regulated for people and goods.  

These measures have caused a profound impact on the lives of the people inhabiting the tribal areas and the socio-cultural landscape has undergone a phenomenal shift.

The merger of the tribal areas have caused deep disappointment in the population. First, there was no plebiscite in the area to seek public opinion on the decision that would alter the status of the entire area. Just a few consultations were held with chosen elders of the area and the scheme was imposed on the people without their consent. Since then, manifold problems on multiple fronts have caused acute anger and frustration that is growing with the passage of time. 

Tribal elders arguing in a case to settle the dispute at a jirga (gathering) in tribal area.

In the former tribal areas, there has been no land settlement like in the rest of the provinces. Earlier, there was a system that ensured the rightful ownership of land for every member of a branch of the tribe. The system was widely respected and it provided a basis for ownership and for inheritance. Now, since the tribal structure of society has almost been dismantled, disputes over ownership of land have multiplied. The unrest has spread. There have been a number of casualties resulting from fighting between claimants of shares in property. 

Land in the tribal lands was scarce because of the rugged terrain and the scarce land was used for growing food grain and fruits. This was the backbone of the local economy. But now, military camps, police lines, residential colonies, offices for a growing cadre of public servants and court buildings have nearly destroyed the agricultural land at a terrible cost to the community and environment. As more and more land is acquired for buildings, offices and colonies, a helpless population watches on in despair. 

In the tribal areas, there was a strict code that kept a check on crime because the principle of collective responsibility was a major deterrent in preventing criminal activity in the area. Justice was speedy and accepted by all. No alternative system of justice that matches its efficiency is now in place. Criminals no longer have any fear of immediate retribution. Disputes which were resolved through institutionalized mediation in a matter of weeks, now take years . Every dispute used to be referred to a council of elders who were well acquainted with the local customs and an outcome would be delivered in 5 to 6 weeks. There was a mechanism to ensure complete compliance with the decision of the ‘jirga’ i.e the council of elders. Now, lengthy investigations follow. Cases are taken up by courts that take years. Poor litigants have to pay hefty lawyer fees and wait for months and years before a verdict is forthcoming. 

Provincially administered tribal areas

Women were an indispensable component of the rural economy. They used to herd the cattle, bring firewood, water and work in the fields. Now there are security barriers. Every few yards there is a ‘security tower’ where soldiers are watching and monitoring movements. Due to the heavy presence of these men, customs of segregation mean the women no longer venture out of their homes, and the rural economy has almost collapsed.  

Such was the strict social code in the tribal areas that non-Muslims who lived there for centuries never felt insecure or threatened. For hundreds of years, Hindus and Sikhs used to live side by side along with their Muslim tribal compatriots. Never were they targeted because of their faith. It was truly an egalitarian society. But after the merger, the peace is disturbed. They feel unsafe and many have left the area.  

The merger was an ill-thought out process, and these issues, which demanded deep political foresight, have instead caused widespread discontent in the people. There is a deep longing for the old system, which provided security, stability and peace. Now, anger against the merger is mounting. People are voicing strong opposition in rallies, meetings and in public pronouncements. This unrest is not a good sign for any border area.

The situation calls for a quick reappraisal of policy before the border becomes more unstable, and poses security threats. The old system, with some adjustments, should be revived.

(Rustam Shah Mohmand is a specialist of Afghanistan and Central Asian Affairs. He has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan and also held position of Chief Commissioner Refugees for a decade.)