PTM: Protection of Pashtuns or Sub-Nationalist Motives?

No matter what prism and angle we choose to look through, the issue of ethnic, ethnonational, religious, and ethnoreligious fault lines in Pakistan appears constant on the security/insecurity landscape of the country. But we are most likely to overlook and miss the bigger picture if we try to understand the issue in isolation. For example, the bigger picture also reveals that this is not something unique to Pakistan. India is even more diverse in ethnicities, and has a corresponding more number of active separatist movements in its South and North-East, primarily. Not very different is the case of Afghanistan whose very volatility is a direct outcome of ethnicities demanding a share in power and even picking up arms to make themselves heard; something which became even more complex with two direct invasions by the respective superpowers of the world.

The existence of diverse ethnic groups in a country is not a problem in itself. Diverse groups can co-exist peacefully. But it becomes a problem when other factors push a general sense of discontentment in people for the state. This general sense of discontentment is primarily fueled when the welfare functions of the state are lacking.

In Pakistan’s case, it has also been fueled by militancy of which people in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province have been a direct victim.

But the militancy landscape is not as simple as some outsider terrorists coming to attack the locals. The unfortunate situation is that many locals have been part of picking up arms against the state, pushed by hardliner religious ideologues that came to the country when the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan and came too close to Pakistan.

That being one chapter of history, in Pakistan, history is also ripe with small and big groups emerging as small and big movements over and over again, sometimes demanding separation and other times, more autonomy. The most recent of these is the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) which claims to represent the Pashtuns of the country, especially of the erstwhile FATA region. Now to speak about the emergence of PTM, the first on-stage appearance was not anywhere in FATA but in the country’s largest urban city – Karachi. But prior to this, it existed as the Mehsud Tahafuz Movement (MTM) but with the killing of Naqibullah Mehsud in Karachi in 2017, the movement whose expanse was only limited to a tribe saw an opportunity to appeal to the larger Pashtun population. Since then, PTM’s demands and activism have constantly undergone change.

Early on, PTM claimed to be the only Pashtun movement born out of the sentiments and anger of young ethnic Pashtuns who saw themselves and their families as victims of terrorism and injustices during the War on Terror. But PTM gradually revealed itself to be serving and pursuing a very different direction and using the sentiments of Pashtuns as a cover.

The slogans and demands grew more sub-nationalist over time. Ex-FATA was merged in KP in 2018 as a constitutional move that was intended to bring the far-flung region into the political mainstream. But PTM has hindered it by voicing for more autonomy for erstwhile FATA. The demands of autonomy now stand closer to demands for separation. And there is every reason to believe that because the leadership of PTM has historically been aligned with causes like Pashtunistan (a region comprising of Pashtuns of North-West of Pakistan and South of Afghanistan). The leadership’s closeness to the previous Ghani regime in Afghanistan and also to Tehrik e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) who willfully picked up arms against Pakistan speaks a lot about the movement’s intentions.

The ethno-national fault line of Pakistan’s North-West has tactfully been weaponized by PTM to further sub-nationalist desires. Every state deals with matters such as this with high-handedness because, in the world of nation-states, a state’s territorial preservation is a precondition for survival. PTM could have been a facilitator in the process of normalizing the North-West if it were a legitimate movement of the ethnic Pashtun people of the country but with its latest protest demonstration, it only confirmed that it is far from it.


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