Hope of Ending Structural Oppression in Pakistan


SEATTLE — One of colonialism’s most dangerous modalities is the perpetuity of exclusion it affects through policies that severely restrict political and economic liberty. One modern example of this legacy is the set of laws created by the British empire, known as the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR), that governed and placed severe restrictions upon the northwestern tribal regions of Pakistan, then part of British India. These are known today as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

Today, the FATA are some of the least developed and poorest areas in Pakistan, with 66 percent of the tribal population living below the poverty line. However, May 24 was a victory towards ameliorating this structural oppression in Pakistan, as the National Assembly passed a constitutional amendment that was signed by Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain on May 31 to end the enforcement of the FCR and merge these tribal areas with the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Province. This finally begins the process of bringing these regions the same political, social and legal rights as the rest of the country.

Historical Overview of the FCR

The colonial historical context that shaped the nature of the FCR and created structural oppression in Pakistan is crucial in understanding its present impact. Lorenzo Veracini, an associate professor in history at Swinburne University of Technology, wrote about the colonial mindset: “When the settlers occupy the land, indigenous peoples are transformed into ‘neighbours’ and, as a result, into ‘intruders.’ ”

The Pashtun tribes that historically lived along the newly created border in 1893 between British India and the Kingdom of Afghanistan intruded on the British East India Company’s control of the boundary through localized raids and revolts. The solution to curbing these tribes was to legally separate them from the rest of India’s polity under British governance by maintaining them indirectly under the legal framework of the FCR.

The provisions of the FCR created the illusion of increasing the autonomy of the local tribes. Indirect rule allowed for the preservation of local structure, and customs and provisions under the FCR created a council of local elders (Jirgas) that settled legal disputes. However, defendants were denied essential legal privileges such as the right to appeal, present evidence and the right to representation, and punishments could be levied collectively against family members.

Local autonomy under the FCR was further muted through the appointment of a political agent (PA) by colonial officials who had discretion in appointing individuals to the Jirga and could overturn decisions made by the council. To further ensure the cooperation of tribes, the PA could grant political and economic rewards to tribal elites and levy fines, detain individuals and confiscate property as punishments. Collectively, these measures turned these regions into a state of exception that completely disrupted the social and economic development of the tribes that lived there.

The Contemporary Impact of FCR on Structural Oppression in Pakistan

The British colonial mentality of the tribal regions as intruding on the greater interests of the state was perpetuated even after independence and the creation of Pakistan in 1947. The new Governor-General of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jimmah, convinced tribal leaders to sign treaties continuing the enforcement of the FCR, under the assurance that the state would not interfere with their autonomy and internal interests.

But in nearly mirroring their colonial predecessors, this assurance of autonomy functioned as a guise for control and continued developmental neglect over those regions — including through all of the changes of government. Even in the most contemporary 1973 constitution of Pakistan, the president controlled these regions through his appointed governor and PA, who carried the same autocratic powers as the colonial PAs and abused them in the same fashion.

Without provincial status, the FATA continued to suffer from a lack of national investment, which impacted access to clean drinking water, healthcare, education and communication capabilities. The arbitrary enforcement of law and order coupled with the lack of development ultimately continued the same policies of structural oppression in Pakistan and made these regions more dangerous, having become a haven for militants, gun runners and drug smugglers.

A New Path Forward or a Renaming of the Same Issues?

There is still a long way to go in terms of merging the FATA with KP Province and rectifying the tremendous damage caused by the FCR. The merger between the tribal areas and KP Province is a gradual process happening over the next two years. Meanwhile, the tribal areas are governed under a set of interim rules that the president signed into law on May 28 called the FATA Interim Governance Regulation, 2018. However, the regulations are troubling in that they keep much of the FCR administrative structure in place under new names — for example, the PA is kept intact with much of the same discretionary power under the new title of deputy commissioner. A senior leader of Pakistan’s secular leftist Pashtun Awami National Party, Afrasiyab Khattak, has gone as far as to call the interim regulations “FCR reincarnated,” according to the Daily Times.

Although this invokes the same oppressive colonial and post-independence specters, the passing of the amendment finally provides a long-term framework for inclusion and dispels the notion of the FATA residents as intruders within their own land. While the success of the merger remains to be seen, this measure opens the possibility of the country coming together in new ways that finally deconstruct the long-term structural oppression in Pakistan and bring long overdue lasting peace, stability and socioeconomic development to the areas that need it most.

– Emily Bender
Photo: Flickr


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