This tribal region of Pakistan just got a little more Pakistani

For seventy years, Pakistani citizens in the northwest region of FATA have not enjoyed the same rights as everyone else in the country. All that is set to change.

Photo by: AFP (Archive)
Photo by: AFP (Archive)

Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) is a semi-autonomous tribal region made up of seven tribal and six frontier regions.

There’s a northwestern part of Pakistan that’s not really a part of Pakistan. 

It’s called FATA – and earlier this month, the government decided to go ahead with reforms that would enable the citizens in the region to enjoy the same rights as in the rest of the country.

The region spans approximately 27,220 square kilometres, sits astride Afghanistan and is home to a population of approximately 3.3 million people. Many are Pashto-speaking Pakhtun tribes and sub-clans.

High rates of poverty and unemployment make FATA one of the poorest and most underdeveloped regions in the country. It also has one of the lowest female literacy rates in the world.

It has often been described as a “lawless region” or a “hotbed of militants.” 


Several militant outfits, including the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan and other Al Qaeda-linked groups, had established strongholds in the tribal areas of Pakistan. (AFP/Archive)

What’s the backstory?

During the Indian sub-continent’s colonial rule era, the seven tribal areas (or agencies) were created by the British to serve as a buffer between Afghanistan and settled areas of what was then northwestern India.

The Pakistan-Afghanistan border, also known as the Durand Line, has long been porous – and disputed by Afghanistan. 

Afghanistan refuses to recognise the border, which was demarcated in 1893, under an agreement between the then-emir of Afghanistan and a British colonial civil servant. The 2,500 km (1,500 mile) border cuts through Pakhtun areas on both sides and Pakistan’s Balochistan province in the south. 

​The proposals include either granting FATA the status of a separate province or merging the region into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

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Soon after Pakistan’s independence from Britain in 1947, various tribes in the region entered into an agreement with the government of Pakistan, pledging allegiance to the newly created state. 

Several other instruments of agreement were subsequently signed to solidify the arrangement. The tribal areas were granted a special administrative status in 1948.

How is the region run now?

FATA is considered Pakistani territory under the country’s constitution.

The region is directly governed by the federal government – under the British-made Frontier Crime Regulation (FCR) of 1901 still apply. Some minor amendments have been made to the archaic law over the years.

Although it is represented in the National Assembly and Senate, the laws made by the parliament do not apply to the region unless specified by the president.

Each tribal agency is administered, including provision of services and development projects, by an appointed Political Agent (PA), a leftover term for a British colonial representative, and a number of his assistants and subordinates. 

Are people in favour of change?

Most political parties are in favour of merging FATA into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. 

Others want to “mainstream” the region, with restrictive integration into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Many also want to replace the outdated law with the rewaj, or traditional, system.


Empty houses in South Waziristan, whose roofs have been removed by the Pakistani army during an operation to allow an "aerial view" of militants who may take refuge there. (AFP/Archive)

The rewaj would allow for the election of representatives in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial assembly. Further details of the proposed rewaj system are not clear.

The proposed reforms would also allow for holding party-based local bodies’ elections.
 
A poll survey conducted by the FATA Research Centre showed that 74 percent of the respondents (54 percent fully, and 20 partially) endorsed the option of merging the tribal region into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Some representatives from the region claim to have the support of 90 percent of the population for a merger.

Dissent 

But a handful of tribal elders oppose the repeal of the law, claiming it would disrupt tribal civilisation and its local customs and traditions.

By and large, almost all voices in the region support the call for reforms. However, there are disagreements over how the reforms should be carried out. Issues of contention include the distribution of resources and sharing of revenues to finance the development projects in the region.

Some political parties are also concerned that the change in the demographics as a result of a merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa might cause them to lose the majority of mandate currently enjoyed. They propose that the region should be granted the status of a separate province.

Who runs FATA now? And who  (and what), is the Political Agent? 

The Political Agent is an appointed male, given the patriarchal system, who is responsible for handling inter-tribal disputes.


Girls' schools in Pakistan's tribal areas are often the target of militant attacks. (AP/Archive)

A Frontier Region (FR) is administered by a Deputy Commissioner of the respective district, who exercises the same powers in the FR, as the Political Agent does in a tribal agency. 

The is no mechanism for the devolved local government system that exists in the rest of the country.

All civil and criminal cases in FATA are decided by a jirga, a meeting of tribal elders. In some incidents, criminal and civil cases are decided by political officers who have been granted judicial powers.

Residents of tribal areas, however, may approach superior courts with a constitutional writ challenging a decision issued under the 1901 Regulation. 

Why reform now?

The plans for the reforms are not new. Proposals for changes were made in 1955 and 1976, but could not be carried out.

Minor amendments regarding political representation were made in 1996 and 2011.

The ruling Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) political party had included FATA reforms in its election manifesto prior to winning the 2013 polls.


Guns have been reportedly sold cheaper than smartphone in the tribal areas of Pakistan. (AFP/Archive)

The reforms are also expected to allow the government to develop the region and improve its law and order.

What are the drawbacks of the colonial era law? Collective justice and tribal law

The tribes regulate their own affairs in accordance with customary rules and unwritten codes. These can be characterised as patriarchal. Collective responsibility for the actions of individual tribesmen and territorial responsibility for the area under their control is also a key feature of government.

What this means is the government can punish an entire family or tribe, including innocent women and children, over the action of an individual. The government can also destroy the properties of a criminal and his relatives as punishment.

Women were given the right to vote in 1996, and were allowed to participate in the political process in 2011.

Considered draconian, the FCR was devised by British colonialists to discipline the Pakhtun population and establish the writ of colonial authority.

Source: 
TRTWorld and agencies