Silence is not an option

Xenia Rasul explains why it is important to hold the state accountable for every life that is lost and for every one who goes missing

Silence is not an option

Arif Wazir’s blood smeared identity card, found in his pocket after he was shot on May 1, is symbolic of the historical violence that has been inflicted on the people of Pakistan in so many ways, but especially in recent times of the Pashtuns who have been the foremost victims of the emergence of Talibanisation in the region and the state’s response to it in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan. Tragically, however, national discourse and state narrative have tended to portray the Pashtuns more as perpetrators of violence rather than as victims of it.

Arif Wazir was the cousin of Ali Wazir who is a Member of the National Assembly of Pakistan, and he is also the 18th member of Ali Wazir’s family to have been assassinated by ‘unknown persons’ in erstwhile FATA. It is also worth noting that Arif’s assassination is not the first of his family; his father, Saadullah Jan, and two of his brothers, Ibrahim and Ishaq, were also victims of Taliban militancy in the region. On the local level, his family is revered for fighting off the Taliban by initiating tribal lashkars (private troops) against them due to state inaction, and he’s personally venerated for laying the foundations for a private school by the name of Oxford Public School that helped many locals receive an education. Apart from his affiliation with the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), Arif Wazir contested the elections from South Waziristan that were held on July 20, 2019, but lost under very obscure conditions. The results of three polling stations were withheld until the evening of July 21, 2019, and an exaggerated turnout was shown in the case of female polling stations. Arif Wazir’s affiliation with the PTM is considered by many as a reason behind “irregularities” in his election results, probably with the collusion of local political opponents with elements of the state. The case for investigating these results is still pending at the Election Tribunal, however, with Arif’s assassination many other questions demand answers.

In many cases, silence is a political choice. For those in the corridors of power, silence often equates to a deliberate denial of reality in order to preserve the status quo. In Arif’s case, the state and the media both continue to be silent. This becomes significant following claims of ridding erstwhile FATA of terrorist elements. Thus, when PTM talks about the return of Taliban militancy in the region, the state’s response is to allege treason for being foreign funding.

But the state’s silence regarding the assassination points to many dangerous and unfortunate probabilities. First, that the state is adopting an ostrich approach to the resurgence of the Taliban in the region despite indigenous communication through the PTM regarding the issue. Second, that the assassination was an inside job considering Arif Wazir’s popularity and leadership in the movement. Third, if the state is generally apathetic towards subjects on the peripheries, its hostility shows in the case of Pashtun nationalists in particular.

The state’s refusal to address the grievances of these Pashtuns will only lead to further fissures in the state’s social contract with its people

Erich Voegelin sees the evolution of race thinking into full-blown racism owing to its use as a political weapon bent on creating differences and legitimising violence against the racialised “Other” through a rhetoric of national security and categories of “us” vs “them.” It is through this that the rights of the racial “Other” are suspended and violence is seen as an acceptable part of everyday warring and survival. In line with this is Foucault’s idea of the modern state requiring racism for its own survival propagated through the notion that the death of the “Other” will guarantee the safety of the “Self.”

This is further facilitated by a process of dehumanisation which casts the targeted group into a subhuman category that is considered immune to pain and requires forms of punishment distinct from those appropriate for “non-brutish” populations. Once the body of the “Other” is evicted from law and the political community, its status becomes markedly subhuman, and allows for the use of violence to be administered with impunity.

The shrinking space for dissent both in terms of physical and epistemic space also means that while the state continues to observe silence in response to target killings and human rights violations, as we see happening in peripheries like erstwhile FATA, it simultaneously spearheads a policy of silencing resistance to such differential treatment. In the case of the youth Pashtuns, PTM is the outcome of the collective memory of Pashtuns forged through experiences of decades of war, violence, militarisation and state neglect. It is also the product of the intergenerational transmission of trauma through storytelling and communication that now seeks to resist an erasure and misrepresentation of history.

The young people who comprise the base of the PTM were displaced in the war and spent their childhood in Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) camps in urban centres like Peshawar. While on one hand there was agony, suffering and deprivation, on the other there was exposure to the urban experience. Considering that there were parallel systems of governance like the Frontier Crimes Regulation prevalent in FATA at the time, these Pashtuns hadn’t interacted with the state as such until their displacement. Prior to this, the only face of the state they had seen was that of the military. The urban experience along with the pitfalls of the militarisation of FATA, and the widespread cases of ‘missing persons’ and target killings, PTM emerged as a collective expression of resistance to and rejection of the political order that existed in the region, and challenged the legality of it. Moreover, it held the present order accountable for the narratives it had spun by conflating Pashtun identity and nationalism with Talibanisation, and also sought to redefine historical stereotypes of Pashtuns as hyper masculine warmongers. By adopting non-violence as its bedrock, the movement offers a significant corrective to this discourse.

The state, however, has missed the opportunity to engage with the grassroots movement in a healthy manner. Instead, it has responded with violence, censorship and propaganda, intimidation through arrests, and also weaponising Section 144 to stifle dissent. On May 5, several peaceful dissidents participating in PTM’s countrywide protests in response to Arif Wazir’s assassination were arrested. These arrests come at a time when governments around the world are releasing prisoners due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The state’s refusal to address the grievances of these Pashtuns will only lead to further fissures in the state’s social contract with its people. The state’s insistence on national homogeneity, and its imposition of particular wills on a country that hosts diverse identities is a project that will continue to face resistance, and needs to be discussed, in particular the will of a ruling class that is predominantly Punjabi and encroaches on national resources, national decision making and the national imagination.

The centralised establishment’s fear of nationalist realisation is rooted in state insecurity over its own legitimacy, and the discernible failure of imposing a homogenous and rigid sense of Muslim ‘nationhood’ on a diverse population. Moreover, this self-assertion, as articulated by young war- affected dlPashtuns, is an added challenge in the presence of the 18th amendment that ensures provincial autonomy and decentralisation of power, resources and decision-making.

That is why it is important that we hold the state accountable for every life that is lost and for every one who goes missing.