Reclaiming the Frontier
The News, March 02, 2008
The ANP victory and the MMA defeat, although expected, was a refreshing change. Those of us who belong to the North West Frontier Province had certainly had enough of the attacks on music stores, draconian attempts to curb female literacy, and most importantly, sustained violence in the form of rockets, missiles and suicide bombings that continue to endanger the lives of innocent victims all over Pakistan but most often in NWFP.
Friends and family recounted stories of polio vaccines being denied to children, of women being too scared to venture out, and even men fearing for their lives. But it hit home doubly hard when on my annual vacation last year I was advised by family members not to venture to my village, an oasis called Paniala, set in the shadows of the Sheikh Badin Mountain. This had been a ritual for me for as long as I could remember. Returning to the memories of my childhood, where afternoons were spent eating freshly plucked mangoes from our orchards and evenings playing football in the sandy fields overlooking the cold stream encircling the village, fabled to have taken root when Haji Baba, impressed by the piety of the locals, struck his staff and water gushed from the earth as a spring.
For the first time in my life, I felt alien in my own homeland. Constraining myself to the city was extremely frustrating. Travel advisories were for foreigners, not home-grown blue-blooded Pashtuns. My mother had specially instructed me to bury her in the village so that I would not lose connection with my roots. Thus, making the annual pilgrimage, saying fateha on her grave, was extremely important. But I had no choice. Violence had so gripped our area that even when planning a trip to a small rural community one was at the mercy of terror-mongers.
To Pashtuns, all this came with the added burden of being labelled socially backward trigger-happy terrorists. Leaving the western world aside, even within Pakistan, I got the feeling in some of my conversations with Pakistanis from other parts of the country that they felt that Pashtuns had nothing to offer except violence and degradation.
One even said that NWFP should merge with Afghanistan as it has nothing in common with the rest of Pakistan. That hurt, especially since I, along with the majority of my fellow Pashtuns have taken great pride in our Pakistani identity. This is evident from the large number of Pashtuns who are employed in Pakistan's military and bureaucracy. Although one cannot deny that there is a minority view that harps on the Punjab having usurped resources and rights, the overwhelming majority of the Pashtuns are fiercely patriotic Pakistanis.
In reality, sympathy for the Taliban is not limited to Pashtuns but runs across the length and breadth of Pakistan. It transcends ethnicity and suspects involved in aiding terrorist organizations have links to various parts of Pakistan. But disassociating the Taliban image from the Frontier had become an onerous task for us. Until the glorious 2008 election!
The election has proven otherwise. It has proved that Pashtuns are no different from the inhabitants of the rest of Pakistan. There has been a resounding cry for change from all quarters, and Pashtuns, like all other Pakistanis, have called on the secular parties to take charge and deliver in these difficult times.
The ANP would be wise to recognize why the people of NWFP have voted for them and not the others. In my view, this is because they represent the complete antidote to MMA and their pro-establishment stance. This is not a Pashtun separatist vote as much as it is an anti-status quo vote and it must be understood as such.
The pressing issues are terrorism, an independent judiciary, rampant inflation, and a desire for openness. Justice Tariq Pervez Khan of the Peshawar High Court never ceased to lift my spirits in the four months between July and November by taking up a plethora of cases and deciding them on principles of justice and fairness that would make any Pashtun proud. A revival of Pashtun folklore and culture would also be welcome after five years of claustrophobic Hasba-bill inspired policies.
Sarhad, or the Frontier, may be a geographic description rather than an ethnic one, but in my view, it is not one without connotation. Legends evoke romantic images of the brave Pashtun from the wild rugged frontier, who would give his life to protect a woman's honour. I kind of liked being associated with that image, I must confess.
Somewhere along the line, it all went horribly wrong however. Rugged turned to ruthless and brave became barbaric. Suicide bombings and rocket attacks are everyday occurrences and the MMA legislation focused on confining women rather than targeting the perpetrators of the violence. It is that that needs to be turned around. This is why the ANP has been voted into power so that it can revive the old image of the Frontier, one that the Pashtus are desperately seeking.
Misinterpretation of the vote could lead to a fate not dissimilar from the MMA's. Changing the name of the province to Pakhtunkhwa is not the question. People have not voted the ANP into power so that they can change the name of the province into something unpronounceable by all other groups. And what of the Hazarawal, the Hindko speakers of Peshawar, or the Seraiki speaking belt that is intermixed with the Pashtuns in my native Dera Ismail Khan area? Do we Pashtuns really need to alienate the other communities who reside in our province? Or would we rather alienate those who are behind the violence?
Changing a name is easy. About as easy as asking women to lock up or mandating shop closure for prayer time. But it does not accomplish anything. It does not positively impact the lives of people who want peace, justice, employment and affordable commodities. Those are the real issues of the Pashtuns, much like those of the rest of Pakistan. So my appeal to ANP would be: It's not so much about re-naming as it is about re-claiming the Frontier.
The writer is a hedge fund manager based in London. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org