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The Pakhtun identity crisis

By Nadeem F. Paracha
The Pakhtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), despite being ignored by the mainstream media, is drawing huge crowds of young and old Pakhtuns.

The movement is positioning itself as a platform to protect the rights and lives of the Pakhtuns from what it considers are elements from within and outside the state bent on demonising and destroying the Pakhtun population in Pakistan. The movement emerged after a Pakhtun youth, Naqeebullah Mehsud, was ambushed and killed in Karachi by the police.

The police claimed he was a terrorist with links to extremist groups. But as it turned out, Mehsud was nothing more than an aspiring fashion model.
The Pakhtun identity crisisIt is true that the Pakhtuns have been facing severe hardships ever since the state and government of Pakistan launched an unprecedented military operation against extremist groups operating in the tribal regions.

Many have been arrested, or gone missing and even killed on the pretext of being militants. In its rallies, the PTM leaders have also lamented the ways the ethnic group has been stereotyped as being fanatical by nature and culture.

There is a lot of truth in what the PTM leaders have been bemoaning. Yet, the sudden emergence of the movement can also be seen as an awakening within large sections of a new generation of Pakhtuns about how and why their ethnicity has become convenient to negatively stereotype.

The Pakhtuns’ ‘noble savage’ image has brought them more pain than pride

Adeel Khan in Pakhtun Ethnic Nationalism: From Separation to Integration writes that, in 1849, when the British captured the southern part of Afghanistan, they faced stiff resistance from the Pakhtun tribes there. The British saw the tribes as the antithesis of what the British represented: i.e. civilisation and progress. The British labelled them as ‘noble savages.’
British authors spun a highly exaggerated image of Pakhtuns.

Such projections of the ethnic group became popular among various South Asian historians. According to Khan, this pigeonholing obscured the many complex intricacies of the Pakhtun psyche. What’s more, the image of the unbeatable noble savage was propagated in such a manner that many Pakhtuns found it rather appealing.

But this image has often been exploited by various forces, including by the Pakhtun themselves. Sana Haroon in Afghanistan’s Islam writes that, during the Khilafat Movement in India (1919-1924), a group of clerics and ulema engaged Pakhtun tribes and preached them armed jihad against the British. They were told by clerics that the Pakhtuns’ ‘legendary bravery’ and passionate love for Islam alone could topple the ‘infidel’ British. Pakhtun tribes were once again in the picture when they made up the bulk of Pakistan’s ‘irregular forces’ which participated in the first Pakistan-India war in 1948.

In his October 23, 2014 essay on the subject, K. Barmazid writes that the tribesmen were gathered by one Khan Khushdil Khan, a local leader from the Mardan area. He asked the tribesmen to prepare themselves for jihad. The tribal Pakhtuns fought their way inside India-held Kashmir but, once in, they went on a rampage.

According to an October 22, 2017 feature on BBC’s website, many tribesmen were killed by bombs rained down by Indian planes that were able to pinpoint the men’s location from the fires that the tribesmen had lit.

When Pakistan became an active participant in the United States’ proxy war against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan, the Ziaul Haq dictatorship — to whip up support for the Afghan Mujahideen — used state media and anti-Soviet intelligentsia to proliferate the idea that historically the Pakhtuns were an unbeatable ‘race’ that had defeated all the forces that had attempted to conquer them.

It is true that the Pakhtuns have been facing severe hardships ever since the state and government of Pakistan launched an unprecedented military operation against extremist groups operating in the tribal regions.

One still hears this, especially from those still opposing the state’s military action in the country’s tribal areas against militant groups. But is there any historical accuracy in this claim?

Not quite. The Pakhtuns have been beaten on a number of occasions. Alexander the Great, Timur Lane, Nadir Shah and Maharaja Ranjit Singh were all able to defeat the Pakhtuns. The British, too, eventually managed to subdue the Pakhtun tribes. Had the British wanted, they would have continued to rule Afghanistan, but they preferred to let it remain a buffer between India and Russia. The Russians (in the 1980s), too, would never have left had the Soviet economy not imploded and the Americans not pumped in a tremendous amount of weapons and money to back the Afghan Mujahideen.

The state need not get too concerned by the PTM. It is not a classical Pakhtun nationalist movement. The generation now heavily invested in PTM is asking some valid questions from the state but, at the same time, it is also questioning the image that was imposed on their ethnic community and then accepted and glorified by their elders — and, eventually exploited by cynical forces — mostly in the name of Islam and ‘Pakhtun pride.’
Earnest Gellner in Mapping the Nation is of the view that indeed the Pakhtuns are an independent-minded people and take pride in many of their centuries-old traditions but, in essence (and beyond the burden of the imposed image), they are largely a practical and pragmatic people. This is what the PTM needs to rediscover to throw off an image that has gotten them more pain than pride.

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 15th, 2018

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