Only India has greater number of ethnically motivated freedom movements than we do. From our very inception, the accession of Balochistan was considered questionable by some. Later, in the 1970s, Balochistan hosted an insurgency, and more recently, an insurgent movement that has still not ended completely. In this regard, recent efforts towards the development of Balochistan more equitably deserve appreciation, but far more needs to be done to address their genuine grievances.

Sindh has hosted a Sindhudesh movement, which although virtually buried today, still implies that Sindhis are unhappy within the federation of Pakistan. The Mohajirs of Sindh have vacillated between independence and seeking a separate province.

Meanwhile, Punjab has been accused of exploitation by all others; hence there is little question of an ethnic separatist movement there. However, citizens from the region known as ‘Southern Punjab’ have begun seeking an independent province. This is something that should actually have occurred decades ago, in the course of creating more governable units in the country; a process that should have included all other provinces as well.

Gilgit-Baltistan, which was a part of Kashmir and revolted against the rule of the Dogra prince to join Pakistan after partition, has recently been awarded a politically impotent legislative assembly. Its people remain dissatisfied with their political status.

The province with the most eventful history is Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Before, during, and after partition, two brothers, Khan Abdul Jabbar Khan, better known as Dr Khan Sahib and his brother Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, were hugely influential among the Pakhtuns. Ghaffar Khan founded the Khudai Khidmatgar party, also known as the ‘Red Shirts’. Yet, despite their enormous influence, the Pakhtuns (of then NWFP) voted in favour of a union with Pakistan.

As such, demands for a separate Pakhtun homeland were not unexpected. However, despite occasional mutterings for Pakhtunistan, the Pakhtun have remained loyal, patriotic citizens who have made great contributions to the country. There have even been a few who even make it to the national assemblies to voice their dissident views, but they are disliked by many of their own people.

Despite occasional mutterings for Pashtunistan, the Pashtuns have remained loyal, patriotic citizens who have made great contributions to the country

I am a soldier from the Frontier Force Regiment, better known as ‘Piffers’. Half of our regiment is made up of Pakhtuns. I have fought alongside them, lived among them, and enjoyed their hospitality, their camaraderie and affection. They are not just good soldiers and friends, they are Pakistani to their core.

All army units can usually muster troupes to perform the Luddi, a Punjabi dance, most can also muster people for a Khattak (Pakhtun) dance, but few can gather enough for a Mahsud (also Pakhtun) dance, which, if done correctly, symbolises the ‘grace of the wild’. Historically, piffer units that could not raise a troupe of Mahsuds, were considered incomplete. Today, I grieve to the core when I see an increasing numbers of piffer units that cannot muster a Mahsud troupe. Regrettably, since we joined the War on Terror, Mahsuds and Wazirs have been steadily decreasing from among our soldiery.

I repeat myself hereafter. In 2004, Nek Muhammed, an obscure Wazir, rose to fame when he became a casualty of the first US drone strike on Pakistani soil. This was a strike we had supposedly, ‘requested’ ourselves. Following the US invasion of Afghanistan, some Pakistani Pakhtuns wanted to join their Afghan brethren, as they had often done, to oust the invader. Pakistan did not want them to.

Nek had the temerity to publicly ask, why not this time? He deserved an answer. That it was not in Pakistan’s interest and, loyal Pakistanis should not support Afghan interests if these are not also ours. Instead, he was executed. Nek became a symbol of the Pakhtun killed by Americans on a Pakistani ‘request’. Consequently, we were branded ‘American touts’ and face an ongoing insurgency.

Recently, another symbol has arisen; Naqibullah Mahsud. Rao Anwar, the infamous SSP who is suspected of numerous custodial murders, and the prime suspect, disappeared but recently swaggered back to ‘surrender’ to the court. Naqib’s murder has given rise to the emergence of the ‘Pakhtun Tahafuz Movement’; which is gaining momentum every day.

It was heartening to note that the Daily Times was prompt in chiding the entire media for ignoring the huge PTM gathering in Peshawar this past Sunday. What needs to be understood is that this is not a separatist movement, but a peaceful protest Pakhtuns are using to communicate with their own government. They merely wish to be heard.

While they have a list of complaints; their main grievance is that Pakhtuns have been stereotyped as terrorists. It was bad enough when the rest of the world viewed them as such, but now the Pakistani governments, both central and provincial, as well as the media, all portray terrorists as exclusively Pakhtun.

It is bad enough that terrorists in Punjab have not been tackled for political convenience. But the State’s refusal to acknowledge the high number of terrorist attacks executed by Punjabis, while Pakhtuns continue to be portrayed as barbarians,is unforgivable and unacceptable.

Kudos to the army chief for visiting Naqib’s family and assuring them of justice; though his last reference to this movement is disquieting. But, if justice is denied, it will not be by the army but the prosecution and judiciary. Prime Minister Abbasi, I have praised you for your gesture of visiting the Chief Justice. It is time you make a far more significant gesture; talk to the leadership of the PTM and address their complaints expeditiously. If more mundane considerations will move you; who knows how many Pakhtun votes it might win you in the forthcoming elections.

The writer is a retired brigadier. He is also former vice president and founder of the Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI)

Published in Daily Times, April 15th 2018.