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“What sort of freedom is this?”


Pakistan attempts to stifle a protest movement among its Pashtun population

A still from a reenactment by NTVNewsHD

The Karachi jalsa was going to be difficult to pull off, if recent jalsas were anything to go by. In Lahore a few weeks earlier, the organizers were briefly detained in the middle of the night and rally grounds were flooded with sewage water at the last minute; in Swat, a competing rally with a similar sounding name materialized, accusing them of being insufficiently patriotic. In the days leading up to the Karachi gathering, meetings on street corners were constantly disrupted; more than 150 activists were charged with sedition, terrorism, and other crimes, and others illegally detained. “Anyone who so much as shakes hands with us gets arrested,” said a member of the Pashtun Tahuffuz (Protection) Movement, as it has come to be called, which organizes these rallies. Since the beginning of the year, the group—many of its members young Pashtuns, weary of military conflict in their towns and villages, struck by a sense of being dispensable amid larger geopolitical calculations—have made concrete demands of the Pakistani army: the removal of unexploded mines, a reduction in curfews and check-posts in the tribal areas, where the writ of the constitution does not apply, and information on the whereabouts of thousands of missing Pashtuns. For more than a decade, the war on terror existed mostly at the country’s peripheries, but the resulting displacement in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s northwest—the Pashtun heartland—has made Karachi, a city of at least 16 million, home to what is often considered the largest Pashto-speaking population in the world. This jalsa, the culmination of earlier rallies, would demonstrate that the war’s excesses could no longer be kept out of sight. 

The Pashtun Tahuffuz Movement has at its helm a veterinary sciences graduate in his mid-twenties: Manzoor Pashteen, whose red-and-black embroidered cap and flair for storytelling have helped build a cult following. A day before the latest rally, when Pashteen arrived at the airport to fly to Karachi, he found that his ticket had been cancelled. No airline in Islamabad would issue him another one. He drove to Lahore, five hours away, but was detained there by authorities until after his replacement flight had departed. A quick calculation ensued: the drive to Karachi would take at least eighteen hours, but it was perhaps his only option. Local officials had begrudgingly granted permission to hold the rally, at the edge of the city, but it had to end by six-thirty. Would he reach in time? Would he be detained along the way? No matter, his supporters said, resolute, we will wait until he comes.


The afternoon of May 13, the day of the jalsa, was hot and a little blustery; in the rally ground in Sohrab Goth, an informal, largely Pashtun settlement, faded carpets flapped dustily in the occasional wind. Security personnel lined the street leading to the venue, and policemen ambled on the rooftops of surrounding buildings. The stage, two large shipping containers, doubled as a gigantic noticeboard; people plastered information about their missing relatives onto its side, professionally printed posters several feet long jostling passport-size photographs. Name. Father’s Name. Missing since. Picked up from. The organizers of the movement estimate that as many as 32,000 people are unaccounted for; they have so far collected details of thousands of individuals, using the rallies for information gathering. Young volunteers with notebooks moved through the gathering crowd, collecting these details. One of them, eighteen-year-old Barkatullah from the tribal agencies, migrated to Karachi eight years ago when the increasing sway of the Taliban made it difficult for him to continue studying back home in Waziristan. “The security forces would be stationed, say, right there,” he told me, pointing to one end of the grounds. “The Taliban—everyone knew who they were—would be in the bazar here. And the forces would do nothing about it.”

In Karachi, Barkatullah found security forces to be overzealous—he says he is stopped frequently and accused of being Afghan or a terrorist or both. This is the source of much Pashtun anger and alienation: that the people who’ve sacrificed the most in the war—lives, homes, homeland—are then racially profiled as terrorists; they allege, as Barkatullah appeared to imply, that actual terrorist groups are given safe harbor as long-term strategic assets. (A common and now controversial rallying cry at the jalsa is yeh jo dehshatgardi hai, iss ke peechay wardi hai, which translates to the notion that terrorism is backed by uniformed men.) This sentiment found its most potent expression in twenty-seven-year-old Naqeebullah Mehsud, the bleak poster boy of the movement: an aspiring model, he was abducted by police from a Karachi tea-stall in early January—no formal arrest, no charges—and murdered in a staged ‘terrorist encounter’ a few days later. The movement’s first success was the arrest of the police chief in question.

Of course, extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances aren’t limited to Pashtuns in Karachi: they include nationalists belonging to minority ethnicities of all stripes, leftist students, peace activists. Some of the first participants to arrive at the rally were relatives of the disappeared, holding aloft pictures and posters of their loved ones. When a camera was trained on them, they held them up a little higher. The media remained the last great hope; they had registered police reports, petitioned courts, approached rights groups to little avail—perhaps half a minute on the nightly news, the ensuing glare of scrutiny, might spur a powerful person into action.

I wandered over to the small wooden platform reserved for broadcast media. Normally, television channels would be scrambling to report a story as dramatic as this: if not for the scores searching disappeared relatives then certainly for the young man travelling the length of the country, racing against time and authorities, a growing crowd waiting patiently for his arrival. But as Pashteen and his followers gained momentum, staging rallies across Pakistan, coverage ebbed: published articles disappeared from websites, columnists instructed to write on other topics. There were, consequently, only a few tripods and half a dozen cameramen on the platform; I recognized at most two (minor) channels. I asked one cameraman whether they would live-broadcast the rally. “No, he won’t,” said a young man in a Pashteen cap perched at the edge, waggling his hand in derision.

But the jalsa is being recorded and reported live—by everyone who has a smartphone. A woman in giant sunglasses and a black abaya held a tablet high above her head and turned slowly for a panoramic shot. Student journalists and activists recorded testimonies of the families of the disappeared: a young woman with a faux-hawk interviewed a woman in a shuttlecock burqa clutching a headshot of a young man. Both were weeping. When I go to talk to a young boy holding up a poster of his missing father, a dozen cellphones recorded the interaction. Almost everyone I spoke to said they came to know of the movement through Facebook, but thwarted relatives still gravitated towards people who looked as if they belonged to official media.

“Interview me next,” a grizzled old man holding a plastic envelope with his missing son’s details said to a man whose badge indicated that he worked for a channel called NTV News. I’d never heard of the channel, and when I checked their Facebook page and YouTube channel later I was unsettled to find that the only content related to the Karachi jalsa was an elaborate propaganda video wherein an actor playing Pashteen is confronted by a cocktail of contradictory conspiracy theories: Your brother is a bomb-maker for the Taliban. Your mobile phone is registered in Afghanistan. Your Facebook pages are operated from India. You are supported by Israeli social media. In the video, the pretend-Pashteen looks cornered, lost for words; he stumbles backwards into a shiny Hilux and scurries away as “commonfolk” shout pro-military slogans in his wake. Meanwhile, the real Pashteen and his friends were speeding down the highways of the country towards Karachi, tweeting the occasional cheery selfie as an update.

* * *

The issue of enforced disappearances, the legal status of the tribal regions, majoritarian politics, overweening military power—these are old flashpoints in Pakistan, resistance to which has taken on many forms. Mama Qadeer, for instance, whose son was abducted and killed in the crackdown on the separatist movement in the province of Balochistan, famously led a 2000 kilometer march to the capital, pleading for the disappeared to be produced. But while Mama Qadeer’s defiance was quiet and self-effacing, ennobled by personal loss, this rally was loud and gleefully. As darkness fell, people switched the torchlights on their phones; the mood turned euphoric. They sang the movement’s rallying cry—da sanga azadi da: what sort of freedom is this—with energetic, if incongruous, cheer. Hundreds of cellphones live-streamed the speeches in Pashto and in Urdu, reaction icons flitting across countless tiny screens. “You ask what this is,” thundered one speaker, addressing the military, “this is the blood that you’ve spilled, this is the blood that splashes back.” A child in a pale yellow dress was ushered onto the stage; racked with sobs, she pleaded for her baba’s return. Her raw grief stunned the sitting crowd for a few seething seconds. Two grown men before me burst into tears. Then, leaping to their feet, the crowd let out a collective angry roar.

If this feels like a political spring, people have largely refrained from calling it so—after all, so many such springs have soured the world over. In some ways, it is textbook: digital technology allowing for group to come together easily and to undermine traditional media’s gatekeeping role. But it has also meant that the contours of the movement are still fuzzy and in flux. Is it an anti-war movement? Is it a civil rights movement? Is it an ethnic nationalist movement? How will this energy be channeled? In the weeks to come, two PTM activists would be killed in a Taliban attack on a rally in the tribal areas; at the same time, the military would also become more overtly critical, alleging that the movement was being orchestrated from neighboring Afghanistan and warning that “we have the capability to monitor social media and see who’s doing what.”

Pashteen arrived at 11.30 p.m., seven-and-a-half hours after the jalsa started, five hours after it had been ordered to end. He had been travelling for nearly 40 hours; he had been detained at least twice and his ID card checked more than 200 times along the way. Ghar se door, ghar jaisa mahol, he said wryly: the treatment he had received reminded him of home. When he appeared atop the container, it was to a hero’s welcome. He sounded a little angrier now—a long car ride can do that to you, perhaps—but he reiterated the need to remain peaceful and called, once more, for the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission. Pashteen was once banned from his alma mater for discussing in study circles the demands he now broadcast to a rapt audience that appears to number in the tens of thousands. A protest is both a spectacle and a signal—of the ability to disrupt and challenge power—but in this case, it also signaled something simultaneously more mundane and more revolutionary: the capacity for patience. “This journey took longer than it should have,” proclaimed Pashteen, his face gleaming in the glare of the energy savers dangling above the stage. “The journey towards justice might take long, too. But it will be served.”

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