Pakistan sees a new ‘Badshah Khan’ as Pashtun hero takes on army

Pakistan has more than 35 million Pashtuns, the second-largest group among the country’s population of nearly 210 million.

Written by Sushant Singh | Islamabad | Updated: May 21, 2018 6:51:40 am
Pakistan sees a new ‘Badshah Khan’ as Pashtun hero takes on army Manzoor Pashteen has been drawing huge crowds in Pakistan

DRAWING comparisons to Badshah Khan, a young and charismatic Pashtun leader is giving the jitters to the powerful Pakistan army. A trained veterinarian, who is never seen without his trademark “Mazari hat” or “Pashteen hat”, 26-year-old Manzoor Pashteen has been drawing huge crowds across Pakistan for the past three months with his non-violent Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), as he takes on the army.

“He is basically saying that I am a Pashtun and I am fighting for the rights of the Pashtun people. The PTM is getting a lot of support. Any person who has suffered due to terrorism or militancy or operations by security forces, anyone who has been mistreated at a check-point, they all support the PTM. They have had some big public meetings all over Pakistan,” says veteran journalist Rahimullah Yusuzai.

The PTM started off as a conversation among student leaders at Gomal University in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province in 2014. It was then called the Mehsud Tahafuz Movement, and was confined to South Waziristan, the area in which the Mehsud tribe lives. As Mehsud tribesmen from FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) call themselves Pashteen, Manzoor draws his surname from there.

The PTM remained a floundering movement until January, but gained unexpected momentum following the death of Naqeebullah Mehsud, an aspiring model from Karachi who was killed by police as part of a raid on a group of militants aligned with the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. An investigation showed that Mehsud had no ties to the terror group.

Following Mehsud’s death, the PTM held a series of rallies throughout the country, called the ‘Pashtun Long March’, drawing more and more crowds. As part of the march, a 10-day dharna was held in Islamabad, where provocative slogans were raised against the army, the most popular being “Ye jo dehshatgardi hai, iske peeche wardi hai (Behind this terror, there is the uniform)”.

Marvi Sirmed, an Islamabad-based journalist with The Daily Times, who attended the Islamabad dharna of the PTM, says, “Manzoor Pashteen is a new Pashtun hero. After Badshah Khan, he is the second Pashtun who has mass appeal among Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns.”

The PTM originally had five main demands, including Abolition of Frontier Crimes Regulation in FATA, release of missing persons and an end to extra judicial killings, stopping humiliation at security checkpoints and removal of landmines in FATA. Some of these demands have been partially met by the army but the PTM has now expanded its agenda. It now wants international guarantors for any agreement with the government, and trial and arrest of former dictator Pervez Musharraf.

Pakistan has more than 35 million Pashtuns, the second-largest group among the country’s population of nearly 210 million. The movement’s anthem is ‘Da Sanga Azadi Da (What kind of freedom is this)?’. After the Islamabad dharna, whenever the PTM has held public meetings, they have openly criticised the Pakistan army.

Yusufzai says the PTM’s criticism of the army is “not normal” in Pakistan. “The army actually believes it has offered tremendous sacrifices and brought peace to Pakistan. The army has been alarmed by these kind of allegations and that’s why there is a feeling that the army tried to counter it by supporting and creating a ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ movement and held meetings in different parts of Pakistan, especially KP and FATA.”

“The army establishment sees Manzur Pashteen having the appeal of Frontier Gandhi. Since he calls for a purely peaceful struggle to win Pakhtun rights, he is very dangerous. It would have been far simpler had he called for armed struggle — they could have easily crushed him and his PTM,” says Pervez Hoodbhoy, professor and columnist for Dawn newspaper.

An annoyed Pakistan army has reacted by trying to force an undeclared media blackout of the PTM. The journalism advocacy group Reporters Without Borders issued a statement last month, saying, “The latest subject to be placed off limits is the Pashtun (Protection) Movement, which has been organising protests in defence of Pakistan’s Pashtun minority and denouncing human rights violations by the military targeting Pashtuns.”

But Pashteen and the PTM have got around this through social media, with the nervous army unable to counter them on Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp, platforms beyond its direct control.

“Compared to Pakistan, rather intriguingly, internationally the coverage of the PTM is huge. It is very consistent and very frequent and that also has created some doubts in the minds of the Pakistani people and Pakistani establishment,” says Yusufzai.

Major General Asif Ghafoor, DG, ISPR, says, “There is a need to find out who is supporting and funding them (the PTM). There are faultlines which are being exploited by hostile forces.”

The army is also worried because of the example this movement sets for other dissenters. “This movement is important for all the resistance movements in Pakistan and has opened gates for every dissenter to go explicit and be more confident,” points out The Daily Times’s Sirmed.

Adds Yusufzai, “As young people have borne the brunt of the suffering, they are the biggest supporters of the PTM. This is a time of reckoning for Pakistan.”

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