The politics of Fata-KPK merger

Aasim Zafar Khan

In its report published in August 2016, the Fata Reforms Committee (FRC) recommended that the tribal regions be integrated into the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) over a transition period of five years. This time is to be used to prepare the tribal regions for integration and to accomplish what the report calls, important objectives and pre-requisites. These include, but are not limited to, restoration of durable peace throughout the region, rehabilitation of displaced persons, and the reconstruction of infrastructure.

A major programme of socio-economic development is also to be initiated during this period. Judicial reforms will be carried out to extend the jurisdiction of the supreme and high courts, capacity building of law enforcement agencies will be undertaken and elected local bodies will be established before the end of 2017.

This week, the Saffron Ministry has forwarded the said report to the federal cabinet and is now awaiting a final go-ahead.

However, not everyone is happy. The criticism of the committee’s recommendations is being led by the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party. “We have only one demand: that all reforms in the region should be in accordance with the wishes of the people of Fata,” says Senator Muhammad Azam Khan Musakhel, from the PkMAP. “If they want a separate province, so be it, and if they want to merge, so be it.”

The party has rejected not only the reforms committee but also its findings and recommendations as well. “The committee went through the whole of Fata in seven to eight days,” says the senator. “It takes three days to just go through one of the agencies.”

The party believes that a handful of Maliks and tribesmen had been brought on board and are being touted as being the voice of the people of Fata. For their part, the party has called a conference on January 30 in Islamabad, which will bring those representatives of Fata which, the PkMAP believes, are the true representatives of the people.

The PkMAP is not alone in opposing the merger. Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman’s Jamiat Ulama-e-Islam (F) has also been on the fence regarding the merger. It was reported in December 2016 that local party leaders had said that all Fata reforms were acceptable, except the merger itself.

According to the report published by the FRC, on the 7th of September 2015, 19 Fata parliamentarians, excluding the JUI-F MNA from North Waziristan, had jointly presented the 22nd Constitutional Amendment Bill proposing integration of Fata into KPK. This position later changed when the committee met the Fata parliamentarians again in December 2015. Here, the 19 members called to “abolish Article 247 of the constitution to make Fata part of the KPK province, or create a separate Fata province or give Fata the status of executive legislative Council.”

However, it is surprising to note that the PkMAP has historically not had any influence or strength in Fata and has mostly been active in Balochistan. Why then is it suddenly standing up on the issue of Fata. “It has only to do with political relevance,” says Rasheed Khan Safi, a long time observer of tribal politics. “Achakzai has been hammered in Balochistan and since he has positioned himself as the guardian of Pashtun rights everywhere. All this is about remaining relevant with the Pashtuns and nothing more.”

In any event, the PkMAP is not alone in opposing the merger. Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman’s Jamiat Ulama-e-Islam (F) has also been on the fence regarding the merger. It was reported in December 2016 that local party leaders had said that all Fata reforms were acceptable, except the merger itself. And on January 26, in Mohmand Agency, according to a local source, workers of the JUI-F staged a demonstration against the merger of Fata and instead called for creating a separate province for the region.

Voices of dissent: Mahmood Khan Achakzai and Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman.

“What Fata needs is either its own province or a council,” says Mufti Mohammad Ijaz Shinwari, General Secretary of the JUI-F’s Fata Chapter. “How can a province that is already lagging behind others in both funds and infrastructure take up the responsibility and cost of an additional 1.3 crore people”?

The JUI-F believes that both KPK and Fata will be left poorer by the merger and that the fundamental aim of Fata reforms, which is to uplift the region and people of Fata, will not be met.

If a separate province is not possible, then the next option is a legislative council based on the Gilgit Baltistan model. “Local government elections should be held from which a legitimate representative council will emerge,” says Shinwari. “They will then have the mandate to decide the future of Fata.”

As it stands, even the JUI-F believes that the outreach done by the FRC was not representative of the people of Fata. According to the commission’s report, “During these visits (to the agencies and FR regions), one session was organised with about 200-300 tribal elders and Maliks and another with representatives of political parties, traders, journalists and youth.”

“The population of each agency and FR is at least two million,” says Shinwari. “How can these 2/300 people decide the fate of so many?”

Unlike the PkMAP, the JUI-F has historically had a stake in the political affairs of Fata. According to Safi, its opposition to the merger also stems from its fear that once the mainstream parties move in, and some form of uplift actually takes place, they will lose their grip on the region. “It is in the interest of some people, that Fata remains as it is,” he says.

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