Two years on, tribesmen in Pakistan are unwilling to accept the merger
Two years ago, the Pakistan Tehreek-I-Insaf (PTI) government, through a constitutional amendment, changed the status of the tribal areas in northwestern Pakistan and merged them with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The move was made to ensure better control over the border in the face of security threats.
But no formal vote was sought to determine the wishes of the people. The fact that tribal areas had consented to become a part of Pakistan in 1948 on the specific assurance that the system of governance here would not be interfered with, was ignored.
Constitutional and legal issues apart, what must be examined is why there is such widespread resistance within the masses against the whole scheme of the merger.
A few days ago, a representative jirga of all tribes was held in Landikotal, Khyber. The jirga rejected the whole scheme of the merger and vowed to start a campaign for the restoration of the identity and systems of the people of the tribal areas.
People in these areas were used to speedy disposal of their disputes over property or criminal cases. The 'jirgas’ or the consultative bodies of the elders of the concerned tribes were an indispensable part of the system of justice. Such jirgas, comprising neutral elders who were well versed in the customs and traditions of the area, would take just a few weeks-- up to five or six-- to give their findings or in some cases, their verdict in the civil and criminal cases referred to them for either arbitration of recommendations. The parties did not bear any costs. There were no lawyers to plead cases. The system was simple, inexpensive, quick and drew its strength from the trust of the people.
Now cases linger on for months. There is no quick resolution of disputes or claims to property. People realize they have to endure the agony and pain of waiting for years before any outcome. They have to engage lawyers—at great cost and also handle the police, a task that is too formidable for rank and file tribesmen.
Now that the tribal structure that underpinned the whole governance system has been dismantled, people have begun to lay claims to properties –whether on proper or invalid grounds. This has generated a new wave of property related violence that has claimed lives with no end in sight.
Land in the tribal areas was mostly collectively owned by the sub-section of a tribe. There were hardly any ownership disputes because the shares of each household were pretty well established and known to all. Now that the old system has been set aside, disputes over property have arisen all across the area. Unlike the settled areas, no land settlement had taken place in the tribal area. Now that the tribal structure that underpinned the whole governance system has been dismantled, people have begun to lay claims to properties –whether on proper or invalid grounds. This has generated a new wave of property related violence that has claimed lives with no end in sight.
The crime rate was low in the tribal areas compared to settled areas. The reason was simple: Every sub-section of a tribe would bear responsibility for tracing and surrendering an accused to the authorities so that those committing offences would know they can’t hide and would have to face the consequences for crimes they commited. This fear of retribution was the main reason for the low crime rate.
The system was known as one of collective responsibility. It worked as a deterrent because it was steeped and rooted in the culture and customs of the area and its people. Now a person or a group of people can commit a murder and disappear. Because quick retribution is no longer the norm, crimes like murder, dacoit and kidnapping have spiked. People have lost faith in the ability of the system to deliver justice.
With thousands of government employees inducted into the tribal areas to manage different departments, corruption has increased manifold. Land was scarce in the tribal areas. Now that scarce land is being acquired, seized by officials for building office complexes, police stations, police lines, residences, court buildings. It has added to environmental degradation because scarce farmland is now being used for a large number of government offices, housing colonies etc.
The new system is premised and needs deployment of security forces across the length and breadth of the area. Besides the Khasadars and the frontier corps, the army is also stationed at multiple points in each tribal district including the hitherto inaccessible areas. The new camps' check posts have been established on land that was being used to produce food grain and fruits. The deployment of such a large number of forces have resulted in the movement of people being restricted. No longer can women go out freely to fetch firewood, graze their cattle or collect water. The rural economy has nosedived.
To add to the woes of the people, the border has been fenced choking cross border trade and presenting insurmountable difficulties for those who had properties across the border and those who had next of kin living across the border.
There are no immediate signs of any movement being launched to undo the change in status of the area because the people have still not recovered from the shocks of military operations, aerial strikes and drones. They are traumatized. But when they gradually recover and organize themselves in the face of a worsening situation, they will take stock of the damage that is being caused and begin to assert their right to be consulted on decisions affecting their future.
*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.