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Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Fill the political vacuum in FATA

Daily Times Editorial: Fill the political vacuum in FATA

The chairperson of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Benazir Bhutto, has filed a constitutional petition in the Supreme Court (SC), seeking enforcement of the Political Parties Act in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) to allow normal party activity in the region. The Act, framed in 1962, has debarred political activity and thus ousted the area from the ambit of all election laws normally applicable in the country.

Despite the fact that political parties cannot function in FATA, the region has 12 seats in the National Assembly and eight in the Senate. No party is allowed to nominate its candidates or enter the region for electioneering. At the same time, no inquiry is made into the political functioning of the religious parties in FATA and, although the elections are on non-party basis there, the successful candidates are always clearly known to belong to the dominant religious party there.

Although it is not articulated, the policy of not extending the Political Parties Act to FATA, a very important unit of the federation of Pakistan, meant the area was “completely handed over to religious parties to operate from mosques and madrassas”. These parties carried out their election campaigns masqueraded as religious activities. The result is that, over time, the 20 candidates elected from FATA have stood aside from the policies normally recognised as valid in the rest of the country. They have also submitted to the whims of a single religious party, while no alternative party is present in the region to express dissent.

There was a time when our politicians in power used to exploit FATA seats as “buyable” supplementaries to their legislative contest inside parliament. The region was not yet Talibanised, meaning that there was no politics of intimidation called Islamic governance in FATA, and the successful candidates were mostly linked to drug smuggling, gun running and car-theft, and were not only cajoled into voting for the government but also into shelling out large sums of money to MNAs and senators putting a price tag on their votes. If that system was corrupt, the current system feeds into the system of parallel government in the country.

The Tribal Areas of Pakistan, known as “ilaqa-ghair”, cover an area of around 27,000 square miles, mostly along the border with Afghanistan, with a population of 3.1 million according to the population census of 1951. Since there is no way for the census officers of ever knowing how many people dwell in houses sealed to scrutiny by tribal laws, this figure remains a “guesstimate”. Today, the population of FATA might well be around 7 million. There is free movement in and out of the region and no one can be sure about the frequent “injections” of foreigners into the seven “agencies” that FATA comprises.

The non-extension of the Political Parties Act into FATA is but one factor in keeping the region as a “badland” of law and order, a kind of Bermuda Triangle of the writ of the state suited for the likes of Osama bin Laden armed with money and ideology to make his base there. There are draconian laws like the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) that raise the hackles of anyone minimally moved by a sense of human rights. FATA is also a black hole of government revenue. WAPDA has to write off its bills there and has been forced to supply free electricity to an area where it can’t send its meter-checking staff.

It is true that, in 1948, the tribal jirgas of the FATA region had reached an understanding with the founder of the nation, Quaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah, over the retention of their “special status”. But that did not mean that Pakistan was doomed forever to retain the region as a “tribal museum” where no law applied. In 1947, tribal warriors were used as “proxy” fighters in Held Kashmir, but that policy of the state, coming to full flower in the 1980s and 1990s, was allowed to run without much long-term analysis. Today, it is the potential undoing of the state itself as the “irredentism” of FATA spreads into the settled areas of the NWFP.

Among the federally administered areas, the Northern Areas have the benefit of the Political Parties Act. The advent of the “politics of the plains” has introduced a kind of pluralism there which still stands as an antidote to state-induced sectarian conflict. Even in the Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (PATA) the functioning of political parties with their different agendas under the Constitution has allowed — as in the case of the recent ANP-dominated Swat jirga — the prevention of the terrorists of Al Qaeda from taking over directly.

As the supreme court adjudicates the petition filed by the PPP, the above facts will make clear the predicament Pakistan faces in FATA today. Foreign powers are threatening to attack the area while Pakistan, under obligation to defend it, has hardly any locus standi there. The first step towards integration of this region into Pakistan must start with the extension of the Political Parties Act there at the appropriate time. *

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