They came from all over the tribal regions of north-west Pakistan. Defying a government ban, side-stepping a media blackout, and demanding answers from the military. Thousands of Pashtuns marched to the eastern city of Lahore at the weekend to protest against a history of abuse.
It is being called The Pashtun Long March. It is said around 5000 people assembled, from roadside cart vendors to lawyers, teachers to students.
What began as a protest at the alleged extrajudicial killing of a 27-year-old textile worker and aspiring model, has spawned a nationwide movement against long-held prejudices against the community.
Naqibullah Mehsud was abducted and then killed in early January by a police officer as part of anti-terror operation in Karachi. Pakistani authorities claimed initially that Naqibullah was part of Islamic State and the Pakistani Taliban. This accusation was dropped and an inquiry found he had no links to either group. His killing prompted national outrage. The officer who carried out the shooting has now been arrested after disappearing for more than two months.
Peaceful demonstrations erupted across the country with students holding sit-ins and long marches. Mehsud’s murder ignited a community’s fury of their treatment at the hands of the Pakistani army and the government.
The Pashtuns, an ethnic minority, have long been treated as uneducated, rustic ruffians from the border regions with Afghanistan, known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. This is where the Pakistan Taliban was born, after all.
After decades of neglect and disenfranchisement by the Pakistani state, which has kept the tribal areas underdeveloped and poor, the War on Terror gave the army another chance to enter, control, humiliate and devastate the community even further.
Under the guise of fighting the Taliban hundreds, if not thousands, have died and hundreds of thousands displaced as the Pashtun found themselves caught between the Pakistani army and the Taliban.
This is a region in which Pakistani law allows “collective punishment” and with Pashtun becoming synonymous with the Taliban, few in the community have been spared. It is little wonder US drones are able to operate with impunity here - killing hundreds of innocent people with Pakistan’s backing.
With the decade-long incursion into the tribal areas has come massive upheaval and movement of Pashtuns to other parts of the country; not only have the youth seen a different Pakistan to the devastation back home, in the cities and towns outside, they are faced with the endless stereotyping, discrimination and arrests for simply being Pashtun.
To the working class Pashtuns, the killing of Mehsud could have been any one of them. And they have had enough.
Enter Manzoor Pashteen and The Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) or Movement for the Protection of Pashtuns, who are leading the protests. The 26-year-old from South Waziristan and his young social-media team initially began protesting Mehsud’s murder in the town of Dera Ismail Khan. As support for Mehsud grew, so did the rallies; Pashteen eventually led a mass rally in Islamabad and staged a 10-day sit-in protest in Karachi.
Pashteen says the movement is calling for justice for Mehsud, a reduction in military-enforced curfews in the country’s tribal areas, the removal of landmines, the release of “missing persons” believed to be held by the military, and a truth and reconciliation commission for the crimes committed against the community.
But the resentment felt by the Pashtuns is not new.
The problems faced by the Pashtuns go back to the late 19th century, even before the partition of the subcontinent.
In 1893, British India imposed the Durand line in order to strengthen its control over the Khyber Pass, dividing Afghanistan from present-day Pakistan. This left Pashtuns on either side of the line. An estimated 11 million live in Afghanistan, where they make up the ethnic majority. Today, around 25 million live in Pakistan where they have been marginalised and treated as second-class citizens.
The events of the past 30 years has only cemented the latent prejudices of previous years.
The Pakistani establishment, particularly the army, continues to deny wrongdoing. Those who support the PTM are seen as foreign-backed and anti-national.
But the manner in which the Pakistani media has covered, or rather, not covered the mass protests, only serves as to corroborate the concerns raised by the Pashtuns.
As the past few months have shown, Pakistan’s media is under intense attack from the establishment, with news channels being shut down and rumours of lists of “dos and don’ts” beings issued to media houses which want to continue operating.
The self-censorship has reached grotesque levels, as journalists and editors fear for their licences and lives.
That much of the media has chosen to pretend the movement doesn’t exist only demonstrates how much of a threat they are considered to be to Pakistani authorities.
The struggle for Pashtun rights is not unique. This is Pakistan after all, where the lives of minorities are cheap.
Ask Shias, or the Balochis, who face daily discrimination and prejudice. And their struggle has resonated.
The difference here is that Pashtuns make up 15% of Pakistan’s population; it would be disingenuous to ignore their rage.
* Azad Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera. He is also co-founder of The Daily Vox.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.
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