By Afrasiab Khattak – Daily Dawn Karachi

The extension of the Political Parties Act to the Federally Administered
Tribal Areas (Fata) is a development of historical proportions.

The political agency system started shaping up in the 1870s when the British
occupied some Afghan territories and lumped them with British India.

Colonial authorities chose their finest military and civil officers to craft an
administrative system that could cater to their interests in an area considered
a ‘frontier’ of the empire with czarist Russia. Fata was first and foremost to
be an additional buffer behind the buffer state of Afghanistan. So it was
important to vigilantly guard it against political movements and influences.

The whole design of Fata was aimed at keeping the area as a political
‘non-conductor’ like a piece of dry wood that is not a conductor of electricity.
One has to accept the fact that this colonial design succeeded to a great
extent. Fata became more of a ‘strategic space’ than an area inhabited by people
who could aspire to fundamental rights.

Fata proved itself effectively as a buffer zone by blocking the impact of social
and cultural reforms introduced in Afghanistan by the modernist king Amanullah
Khan and preventing these from entering eastern Pakhtun society. Similarly,
Bacha Khan’s political movement remained confined to eastern Pakhtuns and could
not penetrate Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, Fata could not be decolonised even after the departure of the
British as the pro-West rulers of Pakistan decided to maintain the status quo.
History vindicated the wisdom of the colonial strategies as politically dormant
Fata was used for launching attacks against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan in
the West’s war against the erstwhile Soviet Union. National and international
terrorist groups have turned Fata into a no-go area and a black hole. The people
of Fata are the worst victims of terrorists. Their tragedy is largely
unregistered and unrecorded.

Political parties have had a de facto presence in Fata since the 1970s. Some
groups were even able to get their nominees elected to the National Assembly and
the Senate. But they could not contest elections as representatives of
Pakistan’s political parties and were considered to be ‘independent candidates’.
Now after the extension of the Political Parties Act to Fata, political organisations are legally within their rights to hold political activities in
the area.

A meeting was convened by the governor of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Barrister Masood
Kausar, to discuss a proposed code of conduct for political parties in Fata on
Oct 14, 2011. Representatives of 10 political parties took part in the
brainstorming session. It was pointed out during the discussion that conducting
political activities involves the implementation of fundamental rights like the
right to association, the right to freedom of expression, the right to vote and
the right to access to information.

The aforementioned fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution of Pakistan
are justifiable through higher judiciaries of the country. Since Fata is out of
the jurisdiction of the higher judiciary, who will ensure the implementation of
fundamental rights there? The governor of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assured
participants at the meeting that his administration would leave no stone
unturned to implement the people’s fundamental rights.

Political parties resolved that they would not allow armed people to join their
public meetings and that they would refrain from indulging in hate speeches. The
governor assured the participants that the political administration would also
entertain the pleas of local political leaders for the resolution of day-to-day
problems faced by the people. He asked all the political parties to introduce
two representatives each in every political agency as their focal persons for
coordination with the administration.

Initially, some religious parties will have the upper hand in terms of
organising political activities as they are less likely to attract terrorist
attacks (the Jamaat-i-Islami has already held a few public meetings). But in the
long term, matters are expected to change completely as there is a lot of
reaction in Fata against the brutal suppression of the local population by the
extremists. Since some of the religious parties are closely identified with
extremist militants, the Fata population holds them responsible for their
agonies.

Apart form political parties, other elements present in civil society also need
to be strengthened in Fata. Media networks and press clubs have mushroomed in
Fata on an unprecedented scale but a number of Fata journalists have also been
murdered or kidnapped. The state should be pro-active in providing security to
journalists. A free media will play a very important role in the transformation
of Fata into a modern society.

It goes without saying that socioeconomic and political development is possible
only if the government is able to cleanse Fata of terrorism and reconcile the
alienated tribesmen. Similarly, one would hope that the government will not wait
for another 64 years to usher in the next instalment of reform to properly
integrate Fata with the Pakistan state system.

The writer is a member of the Pakistan Senate & Provincial President of the
Awami National Party Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.