He wore a jaunty smile from inside the police van that took him from a city court to the Peshawar Central Jail in January. For someone who has taken on the might of the Pakistani armed forces like nobody has done in recent decades, Manzoor Pashteen, the 25-year-old pacifist leader of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), was calm, yet defiant. Pashteen, who wants to use passive resistance against the forces, was put in jail on flimsy grounds although the courts had granted him bail. He was finally released on February 25th, after almost a month.
“It is an honour for me to be arrested for the cause of my people,” he tells me. His logic is infectious: “My people write songs and poems in my honour, do you think I care about being put in handcuffs for them?” It does matter, however, to the hundreds of thousands of Pashtun inhabitants of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Waziristan—Pakistan’s border regions—who have closely followed Pashteen and his movement and know that he is being continually persecuted by authorities. The Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) was initially created as a student organisation by Pashteen and his university friends some eight years ago.
I recall him telling me about his journey to become a thorn in the flesh of the Pakistani army: “Back then (in the first years of 2010s) nobody dared talk of what the army and the Taliban were doing to our people. Whenever somebody brought it up, he or she would be told to stop. Calm down, don’t talk about these things. The Pakistani intelligence agency will kill you. Taliban will kill you.”
Everything changed for Pashteen in 2011 when he took admission in Gomal University in Dera Ismail Khan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. “I was studious and a bookworm. My father was a teacher and my parents had a keen desire to see their son as a high-ranking officer who would get rid of poverty from their life,” he said in one of the several interactions I had with him. He went on: “My university had a lot of student unions. One of them was from the Tribal belt. But they were not working for peace, their only activities were organising random concerts besides quarrelling among themselves.”
It blew Pashteen’s mind and he decided to contest the election for the president of the students’ union in his university in 2012. “I had books in my hand and I told the unions that I would be a candidate. They all laughed at me and they told me to go to my hostel and study. What are you doing here? Then I told them that I wanted to serve my people. The Pakistani army and Taliban are very cruel people. They are torturing our people, they are beating our people. So I wanted to raise my voice from a platform. Then they laughed again and told me not to tell such things there because they did not want to be killed.”
As luck would have it, Pashteen got elected as president of the university union. It was then that he launched his pacifist fight against the dreaded state agencies of Pakistan. He started protesting the treatment meted out by the army and the intelligence to the inhabitants of the border regions with Afghanistan. Pashteen and his friends, like thousands of others, have seen their houses reduced to rubble, assassinations in cold blood of tribal leaders, rapes and sexual abuse of women. Fields and roads in their region were (and are) often filled with mines. All of it, Pashteen told me, was done in the name of the Pakistani army’s ‘anti-terrorism’ operations, essentially a fictitious public relations exercise sold to the West in the name of the so-called hunt for Taliban soldiers. According to Pashteen, Taliban soldiers and other terrorists are still housed in army camps.
He said that his resentment only grew and he didn’t want to take things lying down anymore. “We, Pashtuns, have been sacrificed for years on the altar of the so-called strategic interests because of the terrorist groups authorised to operate on our land. Our villages have been bombed and our people have been forced to abandon their homes in the name of anti-terrorist operations. Thousands of young people have been illegally detained or have simply disappeared. Many of our tribal leaders, many religious, political and student leaders, have been shot dead. The Pakistani army shared the same camps and accommodations with the Taliban. None of them have ever been touched, they never killed one. The dead were almost always civilians, ordinary people,” he said. Waziristan, according to the Western media, is the most dangerous part of the world because of the games Pakistan plays.
He remembered in a long chat with me: “Families started to call my friends asking them to stay away from me. My parents started complaining, asking me why I was doing that, why I was leading protests.” They were worried he would not be the best in his class, he added. “They were also anxious that I would be killed. My father tried to pressurise me by not giving me money, and I survived only on water for a couple of days, but I did not give up. I told my father I love humanity above all, and I will go on opposing the inhuman treatment they give to our people.”
Pashteen soon started to receive odd calls from odd numbers, calls from people claiming to be the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and threatening him of stern action. Although he had realised that he was living dangerously, he did not really care, he told me.
Shortly thereafter, the army picked him up and tried to pressurise him into calling off his protests. He quoted them as telling him: “Otherwise, the morale of our troops will go down. Stop, if you don’t want to face the consequences.” But he told them he didn’t care for his life. “You can kill me, torture me, beat me up but I will go on until the end denouncing what you are doing to my people. Stop killing innocents, stop humiliating our women, stop making people disappear, stop cutting the throats of our elders. Stop hosting Taliban in your fort,” was his response.
In former lawmaker Bushra Gohar’s words, Pashteen and his PTM are “a continuation of Fakhre Afghan Bacha Khan’s nonviolent struggle.” Since 2012, the movement has only become bigger pulling in crowds to the streets. Pashteen’s crowdpulling prowess became famous. In 2018 when Naqibullah Mehsud, a human-rights activist and aspiring model, was killed by the police who then tried to cover up the dastardly act by projecting it as an outcome of a clash between terrorists and law enforcement forces, hundreds and thousands of people turned up to mourn his assassination.
“The state killed our friend and a member of PTM,” Pashteen told me about the incident. “And they did not even let us lodge an FIR against his killer, a retired police officer. We were harassed while going to attend his funeral. They even shot at my car.”
Pashteen avers that intelligence agencies and the Pakistani army have been using such heinous tactic for years. “If they want to eliminate someone who is becoming particularly uncomfortable, they try to mount false accusations against him, make him a terrorist and kill him. They then place a weapon and other so-called ‘evidence’ and propagate it as yet another success in the fight against terrorism,” he explains. Since Naqibullah’s death, the student movement has simply transformed itself into a national movement supported by millions. The PTM often takes to the streets to protest against the draconian laws that govern tribal and border areas, laws that the PTM asks to repeal or, at least, review because they violate fundamental human and civil rights.
It is like the law of the jungle or worse. For instance, if someone commits a crime in the Tribal region, the whole village and the tribe and family they belong to are punished. It doesn’t end there. Pashtuns are then forced to abandon houses and villages to make room for the Taliban and members of the Haqqani Network. Pashtuns are also meticulously subjected to shameful ethnic profiling determined by the notorious Watan identity cards, which discriminate the bearer on the basis of ethnic and regional belonging. They are special identity cards, which are issued by intelligence agencies. “Pakistani soldiers treat us like animals,” Pashteen told me. He then elaborated, “They beat us up and destroy our homes. They also steal things from our houses. Soldiers once stole my father’s books in his home in Waziristan. In fact, books are of no use to them and so they burnt all the books at the centre of the village,” Pashteen said ruefully. According to him and his colleagues, forces employ similar tactics in Balochistan. They include extra-judicial killings, forced disappearances of activists and intellectuals, torture and unjustified arrests.
A curfew has been in effect for almost a year in Waziristan, with very brief spells of its suspension. Police had even arrested two elected members of parliament leading a peace march, Ali Wazir and Mohsin Dawar, and kept them in jail in solitary confinement without formal charges for months. Over the past year, thousands of people have disappeared without a trace in this region. The last to disappear two months ago was Idris Khattak, a human rights activist who had also worked for Amnesty International. Pashteen was recently also arrested from his home in the middle of the night by agents in plainclothes. He was produced before the court only when the hashtag #ReleaseManzoorPashteen went viral on social media. The formal accusation is that of sedition and of having spoken “against the constitution”.
The Pakistani army is notorious for its ‘give a dog a bad name and hang him’ policy, targeting its own citizens. Talking about ridiculous charges hurled on the likes of him, Pashteen had told me earlier, “PTM had five demands, but now they have become six.” He dwelt upon them in length: “Our first demand is to punish Rao Anwar, the killer of Naqibullah Mehsud and many other Pashtuns. The second demand is to implement a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in order to give justice to those who perished in extrajudicial killings. Our third demand is to present all the missing persons in a court of law. If someone is guilty, punish him and if someone is not guilty, free him. Our fourth demand is that the army should stop, after any event, to torture, beat and kill all the people of an area; they should [under]take search operations only for the suspicious people. Our fifth demand is to remove the landmines from the Tribal areas, and the sixth demand is to stop the occupation. They occupy our houses, colleges, mines of our areas. They’ve occupied everything of our area. This has to stop.”
To express solidarity with their charismatic young leader, thousands of people took to the streets in all the cities of the country following Pashteen’s arrrest some weeks ago. Result: large-scale arrests and mindless persecution. In fact, for months now, the Army and the secret service have stepped up J Edgar Hoover-style efforts to promote internecine wrangling within Pashteen’s movement. It followed the directives given by the former chief of public affairs of the army, Major General Asif Ghafoor. Ghafoor, according to people close to the matter, had stated that “their time is up”, referring to the movement led by Pashteen.
For his part, Pashteen has always been aware of the priorities of the government that is after them. In fact, he makes public his views very often. At a rally last year, he had said: “During the same day in the same city (Peshawar) there was a protest of mujahideen fighters in solidarity with Kashmir. The security forces didn’t disturb them but arrested and tortured the peaceful nonviolent PTM members asking for human and civil rights”.
A year on, things have only become worse.
A few weeks ago, while the former Taliban spokesman Ehasanullah Ehsan “escaped” from the safe house provided to him by the Pakistani army, the army was busy cracking down on peaceful demonstrators demanding their constitutional rights. Pashteen says, “I just want to understand something. The RAW and India are supposed to be our worst enemies, according to them. But Kulbushan Yadav who, they say, is an Indian spy, is not a missing person and has not been extrajudicially killed. If we are RAW agents, we should at least be granted the same treatment. But maybe we are enemies worse than them, because we are tortured and killed and we disappear without accusations, without proof and without a trial.”
Pashteen and his followers are not afraid of dying: “They won’t kill me now,” he told me smiling not long ago. “Not when there is so much noise around me. In any case, my life is not so important. They can kill me, but they can’t kill the movement. Our struggle will go on, until the last man,” he vowed.