Customs and traditions

Malakand reacts to imposition of tax law

Customs and traditions
Traders, union leaders and civil rights activists in Malakand are up in arms against the implementation of a federal customs law in the area, saying it is unfair and unjust.

The Malakand Division includes Chitral, Upper Dir, Lower Dir, Malakand Agency, Swat, Shangla and Buner. Some of these are restive areas still reeling from the law and order breakdown caused by militancy years ago, and others have recently been dealing with unexpected natural disasters.

On March 28, the Home and Tribal Affairs department issued a notification extending the Customs Act of 1969 to the region.

“Terrorism, floods, and earthquakes have plagued the region and no development work is visible on the ground. The locals cannot bear a further burden of taxes,” said Musarrat Ahmadzeb, a member of the former royal family of Swat, who is now a parliamentarian.

The decision is a violation of an agreement made between the ruler of Swat and the Government of Pakistan at the time of the merger of the princely states of Swat, Dir, and Chitral with Pakistan in 1969, she alleged. The people of the states had been assured they will not be subjected to taxes and customs laws, according to her.

On April 11, hundreds of protesters gathered in Batkhela, the headquarters of the Malakand Agency, to participate in a rally against the move. Led by leaders from political parties in government and in opposition, the protesters chanted slogans against the provincial and federal government. They marched to the recently established Customs Office in the town, where some of them destroyed the ransacked the building, destroying furniture and equipment.

“Today, the shopkeepers went on strike. Next, we will carry out wheel-jam strikes in the entire division. And if the government does not listen to us, we will then march towards the Governor’s House in Peshawar,” said Shahraz Khan who heads the Tehrik-e-Tahaffuz-e-Malakand.
There are no ownership records for around 250,000 vehicles

In 2007, militants led by Maulana Fazlullah virtually took over the Swat valley, and ruled it until their final defeat in the military operation Rah-e-Rast (from May 16 to July 15, 2009). The battle forced around 2.2 million people to leave the valley for safer places in other parts of the country. The displaced people had hardly returned to their homes when a devastating flood hit the Malakand division in July 2010. In October 2015, more than 100 people were killed and thousands of houses were destroyed in an earthquake.

According to Musarrat Ahmadzeb, non-locals were making investments in Malakand despite these problems because of its tax-free status.

“With the ghosts of Taliban still chasing the inhabitants of Swat valley, who will invest in the area if taxes were also imposed?” she asked.

Law and order conditions in the division are not ideal. Assassinations of security personnel, political leaders and peace activists have increased, especially in Swat district. On April 10, unidentified men killed Jamshed Ali Khan, a leader of the Awami National Party (ANP) and a peace activist in Manglor area of Swat.

“If the government does not revisit the decision, it may give militants an opportunity to reemerge,” said Zahid Khan, the information secretary of ANP.

According to Zahid Khan, Fazlullah’s father-in-law Sufi Muhammad made the area his stronghold in the early 1990s using the slogan of speedy justice. “The people who were fed up of cases pending in courts began to support him.” Slowly, the movement became popular, and the activists of his party joined the Fazlullah-led Taliban, he said.

“Instead of providing relief to the people hit by militancy and natural calamities, the government is imposing taxes on them. The repercussions will be disastrous.”

The people of Dir may also see the measure as a violation of the assurances they were given at the time of their merger with Pakistan, he said. The Nawab of Dir, Shahjahan Khan, did not agree with the merger and was put behind bars. “Who will responsible, if the people of Dir revolt, saying they had not agreed to a merger with Islamabad?”

Malakand division is known to be a hub of trade in vehicles on which customs duty has not been paid. There are hundreds of car dealers trading in such vehicles, which are registered only at local police stations and Levies posts.

According to police data, there are around 117,000 vehicles registered with various police stations in the six districts of Malakand division. Many unregistered vehicles are also being used or sold. The total number of vehicles on which customs duties have not been paid, according to police estimates, is around 250,000.

A senior police officer said many such vehicles are used in terrorist activities. “There is no system to ascertain the ownership of such vehicles, and they are therefore used by terrorists and criminals,” said Azad Khan, the deputy inspector general of police in Malakand division. “If the Customs Act would not have been enforced, the police would have devised another plan to properly register such vehicles,” he told a group of journalists in his office.

But these vehicles are a legitimate source of livelihood for many traders in the area, according to Naeem Khan, president of the Bargain Association of Malakand. “Even small showrooms provide jobs to around 10 people,” he said. “If the Customs Act is imposed, many of them will lose their jobs. Mechanics, painters and people of other related professions will also lose their livelihoods.”

Qismat Gul, a resident of Lower Dir, owns a non-customs-paid Suzuki pickup, in which he provides pick-and-drop services to students of a girls’ school.

“If I have to pay customs duty, which would be as high as the current price of my vehicle, I will have no choice but to increase my charges,” he said. Increased charges for transport services will lead to increased prices of all kinds of goods, he asserts. “Many owners will sell their vehicles because they cannot afford to pay customs duties.”

Some opposition parties blame the provincial government for the decision. Dr Ibadullah, a member of National Assembly from Shangla, belongs to the PML-N. He alleges that Chief Minister Pervez Khattak had initiated the move. He said he would fight for the cause in the center if the chief minister agrees to take back the measure. Dr Ibadullah is the younger brother of Amir Muqam, an advisor to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Fazal Hakim, a parliamentarian from Swat who belongs to the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf, denies the allegation. “All the parliamentarians from the area are on the same page over this issue,” said Fazal, who is also the chairman of the District Development Advisory Committee. “We are not ready to accept the Customs Act. We don’t deserve to represent the masses of the area in parliament if we fail to protect their rights.”