New Delhi: A year and a half is all it took for Manzoor Pashteen to become a cultural icon among Pakistan’s six million Pashtuns, mostly residing in the country’s northwest frontier with Afghanistan. Sporting a beard and wearing his trademark red and black ‘mazari’ cap, Pashteen’s name has become synonymous with the Pashtun struggle against the Pakistan government.
The Pashtuns are an ethnic group native to Pakistan and Afghanistan. The group’s assertion of its ethno-linguistic identity to seek political rights has been seen as “contentious” by the Pakistan government and a threat to its national unity.
Pashteen, in his late 20s, had formed the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) — meaning ‘movement for the safety and security of Pashtuns’ — along with a group of close friends early last year. PTM was born out of a movement that Pashteen had founded in May 2014, called the Mehsud Tahafuz Movement (MTM).
A civil rights movement espousing secular and liberal views, PTM has since gained widespread support among members of the ethnic group, though the Pakistani government has come down hard on it.
However, threats from the army and subsequent arrests of PTM members have failed to deter Pashteen from protesting against extrajudicial killings and campaigns to remove landmines from the country’s tribal region.
Rise in prominence
PTM rose to prominence in January 2018 when protests broke out against the extrajudicial killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud, a young Pashtun from Waziristan in Karachi.
According to Pakistani newspaper Dawn, the Karachi police had alleged that Mehsud was a terrorist while his family said he was only an “aspiring model”.
Unlike any other cult figure in Pakistan, Pashteen has been able to shed international light on the extrajudicial killings, militarisation and violence at the hands of Pakistani army against the Pashtuns.
With the outfit garnering serious social and cultural influence, Pakistani army spokesperson Asif Ghafoor addressed Pashtun members in May. Ghafoor’s address to the group is significant because Pashtuns were often treated as second-class citizens.
“Pakistan armed forces will not rest until your issues are resolved. We hope that you will not pay attention to their [PTM] rhetoric and instead stop these anti-state forces,” Ghafoor had said.
The restive tribal areas of northwestern Pakistan also saw its first ever provincial elections in July.
Social media as tool for protest
Pashteen had earlier claimed that he and his supporters are considered so “anti-state” by the Pakistan government that they get worse treatment than Kulbhushan Jadhav, the Indian national being tried in the country on espionage charge, does.
“…Kulbhushan Jadhav who, they say, is an Indian spy, is not a missing person and has not been extrajudicially killed. If we are RAW agents, we should at least be granted the same treatment,” he had said.
Pashteen and his supporters claim many among them have been arrested, beaten and killed by police for what so far has been a peaceful protest for justice and an end to extrajudicial murders.
Only last week, several members of the group were booked for “raising slogans against the state”.
Pashteen was also the focus of a top Twitter trend that started the day Prime Minister Narendra Modi won his second term in May. Several images show a man with a red and black cap being manoeuvred by a caricature of Modi to destabilise Pakistan.
Images posted on Twitter also show Pashteen with other PTM members in large protest gatherings.
but there is no justice to bring these culprits to court for destroying our people and land!#StopPashtunGenocide#TributesToAlamzaibMehsud #ReleaseAliwazirMohsinDawar#ReleasePTMActivists#ReleaseMulaBaram#ReleaseHanifPashteen#Justice4Arman#LonglivePTM pic.twitter.com/XCLSGnrEHb
— Manzoor Pashteen (@ManzoorPashteen) August 3, 2019
We are grateful to the people of Mir Ali, North Waziristan who registered their protest today for the release of MNAs Mohsin Dawar, Ali Wazir and PTM's activists. The people of Waziristan remain resolute in their struggle for justice. #ReleaseAliWazirMohsinDawar #TeamMohsinDawar pic.twitter.com/zo53zAsMBv
— Mohsin Dawar (@mjdawar) August 12, 2019
PTM Loralai Protest against the FC’s torture on Qayum Utmankhel. The large number of participants in the protest once again proved that arrests, FIR’s, tortures and force can’t stop us from our struggle. Salute to PTM Loralai comrades for such a powerful show. pic.twitter.com/C7YXpp8Qgb
— Mohsin Dawar (@mjdawar) May 25, 2019
Pashteen has also often used Twitter to raise awareness on issues such as the ‘killing’ of 76 social justice lawyers in Quetta and about Pashtuns who ‘simply go missing’.
3 years back on 8th August more than 76 lawyers were massacred systematically in bomb blast in Queeta.They were finest social & political persons of the province.
Inquiry commission led by justice Faez Esa delievered its verdict but still not implemented & culprits not punished. pic.twitter.com/yWNDOv3HLS
— Manzoor Pashteen (@ManzoorPashteen) August 8, 2019
احسان گل آفریدی کے والد کو پاکستانی فوج نے 3سال پہلے لاپتہ کیا ہے اور احسان گل تب سےلیکر اجتک اپنے والد کے عدالت میں پیش کرنے کیلئے دربدر پھِر رہے ہیں اپنے والد کیساتھ صرف ایک ملاقات کیلئے ترس رہے۔
ڈالروں کے اس جنگ میں کتنے پشتونوں کو ریاست نے ذلیل و بےبس زندگی پر مجبور کئے ہیں۔ https://t.co/LCIO6FZgwd
— Manzoor Pashteen (@ManzoorPashteen) August 5, 2019
In addition, Pashteen also speaks to international media about his work and voices out against the Pakistan military for sponsoring terrorism within the state “as well as in other countries“.
Pashteen knows the dangers of it all, but has sworn to continue his fight against the system. He had even refused to bow down to pressure from the ISI to stop his protests.
“You can kill me, torture me, beat me up but I will go on until the end, denouncing what you are doing to my people,” he had said.
Pashteen is looked up to as a leader who is setting a precedent by challenging an establishment that is not used to giving answers to its people.