The charges were serious and so was the tenor. There was no mincing of words. Time was up for the PTM, warned the DG ISPR Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor, hinting that some kind of action was being contemplated against the group’s leadership, though there was no elaboration.
The briefing again highlighted the growing political role of the military’s media wing as a number of non-military subjects were discussed, including madressah reform that should come under the education department. But the remarks about the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement were perhaps the most worrying.
It is not for the first time that the PTM leadership has been accused of working on a foreign agenda. But the allegation of receiving funding from hostile intelligence agencies is extremely disconcerting. Some specific details were given about the group’s alleged foreign links, a charge that was denied by the PTM leadership.
Certainly, given their seriousness, the allegations must be investigated. But public indictment of political leaders some of whom are elected members of parliament, without substantive evidence that could prove the charges in a court of law carries its own perils. More worrisome is getting the security establishment directly involved in a matter that should be dealt with politically and through a legal process. Engaging in public polemics is damaging for security institutions, and only reinforces the perception of the state’s growing militarisation.
Curiously, the warning has come just days after Prime Minister Imran Khan publicly endorsed the demands of the movement, though deploring the tenor of its leaders and their anti-military campaign. The PTI had also offered party tickets to top PTM leaders in the last elections.
Meanwhile, a Senate committee had invited PTM leaders, including Manzoor Pashteen, for a hearing. Mushahid Hussain, the chairman of the committee hailed the event as historic and stressed the need for a continuing dialogue. Where were the charges of foreign links and foreign funding then? Would the prime minister and Senate committee chairman not be aware of seditious activities?
What prompts public scepticism is that several Pakistani political leaders have faced charges of being foreign-sponsored. Even prime ministers and others holding high public offices have been declared security risks and foreign agents in the past. Political leaders accused of treason were often allowed to take the political centre stage after they mended fences with the security apparatus. One such example has been that of the MQM that had long alternated between being ostracised as a foreign proxy and becoming part of successive governments.
Surely, one cannot condone the provocative slogans and inflammatory rhetoric of some of the PTM leaders, but looking for a foreign hand behind the rise of a popular nationalist movement does not help resolve the basic problem. Both the civil and military leadership acknowledge that there have been genuine reasons for anger on the part of the tribal population. Being in the conflict zone for almost four decades the people of KP, including former Fata, have suffered not only because of fighting but also due to the negligence and apathy shown by the state.
It was the anger particularly among the young generation of Pakhtuns that caused the PTM’s rise as a mass movement. Instead of seriously addressing the causes, there seems to be an attempt to prevent it from getting media coverage. Such moves only prove counterproductive and increase the alienation of an already angry generation.
In fact, in this age of social media blacking out events in the mainstream media does not work. It was the closing space for rational dialogue at home that caught the attention of the international media, which contributed to strengthening the narrative of Pakhtun victimisation, however false it may be.
It might be true that the Pakhtuns are not in any way a marginalised ethnic group, and they have significant representation in the establishment. However, ordinary people have suffered most in the so-called war on terror. They have also been the main victims in the past when militancy was perceived as a tool of foreign policy. Millions of people were displaced from their homes for years. Many of them went back to the ruins of their homes after the military operations. Their anger was galvanised by the rise of the movement.
Notwithstanding the conscious efforts of some elements to turn to chauvinism, the movement has so far remained peaceful, and there have not been incidents of any violence in its protest rallies, which is quite a rare phenomenon in Pakistani politics. The move to turn it into an anti-state movement can only be criticised, and the use of force would fuel negative propaganda.
There is no denying the sacrifices rendered by Pakistan’s security forces in eliminating militancy and bringing the former tribal areas into the national mainstream. It is wrong to blame the security establishment for everything that has gone wrong in the strife-torn region. But any attempt to suppress the protests will only widen alienation.
It may be true that in this age of hybrid war, hostile foreign intelligence agencies are exploiting discontent for their own vested interests. But the inept handling of the situation will only help their agenda. Any rash action could be disastrous for the country. Warnings of the sort given at the briefing can only make people angrier.
It is an issue that must be dealt with politically. The prime minister has taken the right approach in handling the problem. The allegation of foreign funding is very serious and no state can tolerate foreign meddling in its internal matters. There is an urgent need to investigate the matter and action must be taken if the charges are substantiated.
More important, however, is that the blackout of the PTM should be lifted. The Senate committee has done a right thing by hearing the PTM leaders. This kind of dialogue must continue. A rational dialogue is the only way out of the problem.
Zahid Hussain is an author and journalist. Views are personal.
This article was originally published in Dawn.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.