By: Tayyaba Jiwani & Ayyaz Mallick
An interview with Ismat Shahjahan on the origins, aims, and trajectories of PTM
The Pashtun Tahaffuz [Protection] Movement (PTM) has come to represent a focal point for the accumulated grievances of Pakistani Pashtuns over the last four and a half decades of imperial and civil warfare in the region. The movement germinated in the camps of “internally displaced persons” (IDPs) where Pashtuns from the tribal belt of northwest Pakistan were forcibly relocated in squalid conditions while their villages were razed to the ground, ostensibly to clear away Taliban militants. The devastation of the war, fed by thousands of Pashtun bodies, culminated in the humiliation of rendering them homeless, destitute, and worthy of suspicion as potential ‘Taliban-sympathisers’. Moreover, they returned to find their homes looted and bombed while many militant networks remained intact, even protected.
It was the police murder of a popular Pashtun youth, Naqeebullah Mehsud, in Karachi that brought home the disposability of lives from the border hinterlands. It propelled what was until then a fledgling campaign against unmarked landmines (from the anti-Soviet jihad and War on Terror) to a movement challenging the brutalization of Pashtuns and demanding an end to the entrenched war economy.
The PTM’s main demands include the recovery of thousands of “missing persons” disappeared by the intelligence agencies, and an end to the profiling of Pashtuns by security forces, especially through their vast network of “checkpoints” for molecular surveillance in the tribal areas. The selling of military services to imperialism and a heady mix of Islam and regional bravado have provided lucrative opportunities and ideological justification to the Pakistani ruling classes since the Cold War-era. In clearly identifying and challenging the linked logics of war and securitisation, the PTM has attacked the very gravitational point, the center of sustenance, of the state and ruling classes. The PTM’s popularity then, and the brutal crackdown and propaganda on the part of the state, come as no surprise.
Another reason for the brutal reaction of the ruling classes is PTM’s engagement with other oppressed ethnicities and leftist parties in Pakistan. An alliance of downtrodden ethnic groups and oppressed classes remains their worst nightmare: a transcendence of the old colonial policy of “divide and rule” by the genuine and insurgent unity of the people.
In light of renewed repression on the PTM, including the arrest on sedition charges of its leader Manzoor Pashteen, here we publish an interview on the origins, aims, and trajectories of the movement conducted some time ago with Ismat Shahjahan. Ismat is deputy general-secretary of the socialist Awami Workers’ Party (AWP) and president of the Women’s Democratic Front (WDF), both organizations in solidarity with the PTM. At the time of the interview, Ismat was also in the PTM’s core committee.
Ismat, along with 29 AWP and PTM organisers, was arrested this week when police attacked a peaceful protest demanding Manzoor’s release. While some, including Ismat, were let go, 23 young activists still remain in custody, tragically being charged under sedition and anti-terror laws.
How do you understand the social and historical bases of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM)?
Ismat Shahjahan (IS): When the PTM began, around the time of the Islamabad dharna [sit-in] in February 2018, MNAs from the establishment parties (PML-N and PML-Q) and the Maliks from North and South Waziristan, who were paid crores of rupees, stationed themselves in Islamabad. Maliks, tribal chiefs from (former) FATA regions who mediate relations between the state and FATA’s tribes and function as federal agents, initially tried to lead the movement. But there was an internal class war, in which all these establishment touts — Maliks, MNAs and MPAs — were driven away. Now, the movement generally comprises people from the middle class and below. There are no Maliks or large landowners. Women and girls from the victims’ families and feminists are also part of PTM. So the PTM contains elements of both class struggle and patriarchal war.
Secondly, whenever the establishment asks to negotiate with the PTM, it brings forth the usual establishment touts — big smugglers, Maliks, retired armed services personnel, etc. — to constitute the jirga [negotiating council]. The jirga has maybe one or two people from the PTM, while the rest are the establishment’s own people. So, basically, they want to talk to themselves. However, the PTM has been rejecting such empty offers. So this is another face of the class war in the movement. And finally, a large part of the class war in the struggle is the fact that it is challenging the largest corporate actor in Pakistan — one which has very large investments in the private sector, controls the military-industrial complex, and which also has imperialist roots. That is, of course, the Pakistani military.
Of course, PTM doesn’t explicitly state that it will push a class struggle, but there are tendencies within the movement that do this. Then, there is the (conscious or unconscious) symbolism: for example, Manzoor Pashteen’s rustic way of life, the images of him sitting in a kaccha [earthen unplastered] home, on hand-woven mats etc. All this resonates with the Pashtun working poor, who form the mass base of the movement. This is one of the positive aspects of this movement — the fact that the majority of its support is among the working poor. Actually, it is with much difficulty that they pay for their own transport tickets to attend the PTM’s sit-ins and protests.
You describe yourself as a socialist. How do you see the relationship between PTM and the struggle for socialism?
The stated objectives of the movement are not socialist in the literal or defined sense. But they fall along the broad lines of peace, end to imperialist war, global emancipation, and equality: objectives that fall under the socialist umbrella. And all the movement’s leaders are inspired by socialism. They’re inspired by the likes of Che Guevara, especially his method of political action, but perhaps not by socialist revolution in itself. At the same time, there is an explicitly socialist segment within the movement, including members like myself who are also part of the Awami Workers Party (AWP). The PTM also has members that belong to what I call the “floating left”: people who do not fall under a specific party discipline but have an affinity with the Left, including intellectuals, writers and artists, social media activists etc.
Further, a huge thrust of the movement is the struggle against war. Terrorism and war are themselves highly profitable businesses. And we repeatedly stress that the military have made these their profession — their bread and butter. It is their business to kill, to terrorise. Also, we are challenging a state whose basic character is imperialist. It is a client state of Saudi Arabia and the United States. In effect, we are confronting the entire imperialist war in the region. In my view, this confrontation is central to any socialist struggle in Pakistan.
Could you elaborate briefly on the political and historical background of the movement. Also, how did you personally get involved?
I see the PTM as a continuation of various previous resistance movements. People involved in the PTM have previously been active in the resistance to war, terror, and state oppression, especially in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province which has directly suffered from the fallout of the War on Terror in neighbouring Afghanistan. Over 1,100 people in the leadership of the secular Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party (ANP) have been killed in KP due to rising militancy. The ANP have adopted the slogan of Dr. Najibullah, the former Afghan President slain by the Taliban: “Watan Ya Kafan” [Freedom or Death]. The Taliban warned auto-rickshaw drivers and residents that displaying the ANP red flag would result in murdered, headless bodies. ANP’s election campaigns were regularly attacked and party stalwarts like Basheer Biloor were brutally killed.
The PTM also contains people from Bacha Khan’s “Redshirt Movement”, the communist movement, and the students’ movement — all of which were engaged in similar struggles. The AWP itself acknowledges the struggle against national oppression in the opening lines of its constitution. Similarly, members of the Pakhtunkhwa Ulassi Tehreek and Pakhtunkhwa Awami Milli Party are in PTM . And before becoming a leading member of PTM, Ali Wazir had also formed “Ali Wazir ka Kaarwaan” [Ali Wazir’s Caravan] to struggle on these very issues. When this organization rose up, many of its members, including many of Ali Wazir’s family members, were killed.
All this is to say that it is quite difficult to determine when precisely the PTM was created. The PTM is a culmination of all these historic resistance movements.
Now, there were a specific set of more recent incidents that led to the formation of PTM. After Operation Zarb-e Azab — a military-led operation ostensibly to clear out militants from Pakistan’s FATA region — huge swathes of people became so-called “internally displaced persons” (IDPs) forced to live in temporary camps across the country. Manzoor Pashteen himself was an IDP. Others visited the camps and were affected by the misery of these people. At this point, some people got together to form the Mehsud Tahaffuz Movement (MTM) (Mehsud being a prominent Pashtun tribe living on the Pak-Afghan border).
Between September and December 2017, there was a turning point. There was news that over 60, and by some estimates up to 80, children were killed by landmine explosions in FATA. The MTM then decided to set up a protest camp in Islamabad. 22 young people set off from the district of Dera Ismail Khan in KP to Islamabad with the intention to camp there. Around this time, news broke of the brutal killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud, a Pashtun who was an aspiring fashion model and social media celebrity. Mehsud was killed in an extrajudicial “encounter” by police in Karachi (southern Pakistan). This killing sparked such a reaction that thousands of people began joining the march. National Youth Organization (NYO), the youth wing of the ANP, joined the march in Bannu, while members of the AWP and other parties waited in Peshawar and Islamabad for the march’s arrival.
The establishment first tried to block the march’s progress at Tarnol, a small town just outside Islamabad. Simultaneously, a camp set up by some supporters including AWP to welcome the marchers in Islamabad was co-opted by establishment functionaries (Maliks, MNAs, etc). At Tarnol, there was a fight, after which some MTM people were “picked up” [detained by law enforcement with or without charge]. However, the marchers did not back down. They said, “We have said goodbye to our mothers. You can do whatever you want, but we will go forward.”
The marchers eventually reached the camp in Islamabad on foot, and began chanting slogans, specifically “ye jo dehshatgardi hai, iss kay peechay wardi hai” [Behind this terrorism is the uniform]. They were calling out the military for its duplicitous activities.
However, as I said, the camp had already been taken over by establishment functionaries. A shipping container was brought (interestingly by Military Intelligence, the same container used for Imran Khan’s sit-in) to set up the stage, but no one except the Maliks were allowed to mount it. At that point, there was a fight for 5-6 hours after which we made our own stage below. When the Prime Minister at the time, Nawaz Sharif, came to meet us and made some promises, the Maliks announced that the sit-in was over. But the marchers and supporters completely rejected this deal. We gathered at my house at 1 AM that night and went to the camp to meet Manzoor who was of the same views as us. Together we decided to drive the Maliks away. They ran away with our money and the container. That is when the real sit-in started, and the rest is before you.
How did the Left and other feminist organisations get involved?
During its gradual shift towards representing all Pashtuns, the movement became more focussed on anti-war, anti-terrorism, and anti-state oppression. Before that, it was centred on local Waziristan issues. Even at the Islamabad sit-in and some time after, there was some confusion over what exactly the movement was. We drew hundreds of thousands of people, but had not formalised our demands. Some were calling it “Pashtun Jirga”, others “Long March to Islamabad” or “Pashtun Spring”. So it was very much in the making. It was only after the Islamabad sit-in that it was formulated as PTM — in continuation of the MTM and in light of its human aspect. At this time, the Left was also involved, through AWP and others. And I personally made an effort to get the PTM to articulate a progressive, secular, and humanist message.
This movement has also struggled over the “woman question”. A nation is not just composed of men. And no doubt, national liberations and an end to imperialist occupation and wars is also a feminist gain. However, we also wanted to push the woman question in PTM and get women to join. The more they join, the more families of missing persons will come forward. So we created the group “Feminists for PTM”. Scores of women, mostly from the socialist-feminist Women’s Democratic Front (WDF), but also from other political parties such as the ANP came forward. This is the first time in Pakistan’s history that feminists — not just women but feminists — have been involved in a national movement at such a large scale. Other historical movements have raised the consciousness and critical thinking of women, but have not directly confronted the distinct oppressions faced by women.
However, this has been a challenge. Pashtun nationalism is different from say Sindhi nationalism, where the Sindhiani Tehreek (Sindhi Women’s Movement) has existed for a long time. Pashtun nationalism and society has not been as secular as that in Sindh, and is relatively more socially conservative. But we have tried to change that, to get not just women but feminists and socialist-feminists to participate in this movement. A large part of this is through my own involvement, as an affectee and as part of the WDF. WDF members, like Balochistan President Jalila Haider, were invited to address the PTM rally in Quetta, while in PTM protests in Islamabad and Sindh, WDF members have had a strong presence. In addition, Women Action Forum, Feminist Collective, and Aurat March also joined the Karachi and Lahore rallies. This shows that we have created some space in the movement for women and the woman question.
[Note: Since this interview, a strong and well-respected cadre of female Pashtun leadership has gained prominence in the movement, including Wranga Luni, Sana Ejaz, and others.
Besides yourself, how deeply does the leadership engage with the women’s question? And though feminists have engaged with the movement both at individual and organizational levels, has the message resonated among the masses? We saw in the Karachi protest in 2018, for example, that many female participants were either relatives of missing persons or members of civil society or political groups like WDF and AWP. The Pashtun presence appeared to be overwhelmingly male.
First, PTM’s women members have consciously decided that we will lead the woman question. The remaining leadership definitely agrees with us. However, I feel that ultimately only those things move forward which have approval of 80-90% of people. Second, nationalism and feminism are not fully compatible, unlike socialism and feminism which share secular and progressive ideals. Nationalism often accepts the formulation of patriarchy. Unless the overall framework of a movement is progressive, feminism doesn’t fit in easily. So for us, this is an internal struggle. To create the space for a feminist agenda, we have to first push for an overall progressive agenda.
We can speculate over how much of the general PTM membership agrees with our pamphlets on the woman question. However, generally, the leadership and the educated urban base is in agreement. From rural areas, I admit that men are reluctant to bring their wives to the protests and dharnas.
The dynamics are also a bit complicated. If a woman victim comes to the protests and cries from the stage, saying she has nothing to feed her kids because her husband was picked up, these 50-year old, well-built, heavily mustached “tough” men weep with her. This woman is easily acceptable to most of them, as a victim. But if a feminist woman stands up and announces a fight against patriarchy in Pashtun society, announces her rebellion, she will not be appreciated.
We are trying to shift the narrative away from this victimhood. I have discussed with my friends and comrades in PTM that these women who come forward as victims, whose kids are hungry, wouldn’t they have been better off if they were educated, able to earn, then maybe they would not be standing there weeping for their case in front of thousands of people. Even though their husbands were taken away, they would still be managing their lives. I certainly don’t mean to discredit the courage of these women who come and speak. But these are nuances that I think we have to address at a later stage when the movement has matured. Right now, it is important to connect and organise as many feminists as possible, as well as female victims, even though their participation is not driven by feminist politics per se. They are coming for their survival. They may be aware that they are suffering because they are women. But they are not ready to take political action in feminist terms.
However, things are also changing. Ali Wazir, a leading PTM member from conservative Waziristan, was joined by his mother and wife on the stage at the rally in Wana (Waziristan). Another man said, “my mother is very ill but I will bring her on a stretcher”. Many people brought their mothers and daughters to jalsas across KPK. Around 2000 women came out to rallies in Swat, with their daughters dressed up in traditional clothes. We saw the same thing in Balochistan. So a conscious effort is underway to get more women involved.
The PTM’s immediate aim, as the organization’s name itself conveys, is to protect Pashtuns. How does the movement relate to older conversations on the Pashtun “national question”?
Before the Saur Revolution in Afghanistan, there was a clear slogan amongst Pashtun nationalists for a “Greater Pakhtunistan” that would include parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, after the Talibanisation of Afghanistan and the destruction of the country, Pashtun nationalists in Pakistan, who are by and large secular, no longer hold on to this demand. In fact, one motivation for the Pakistani establishment supporting the Afghan Taliban was to stifle trans-border Pashtun solidarity. The Pasthun nationalist movement in Pakistan has now changed considerably. Instead of a “Greater Pashtunistan”, it now demands greater provincial autonomy for KP.
But the Pakistani establishment has also tried to delegitimize the Pashtun nationalist movement by conflating it with “terrorism”. In Balochistan, too, the establishment tried, through militant religious outfits like the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and others, to undermine the Baloch national question by labelling it as “terrorist”. When a bill reinstating military courts was being debated in the lower house (triggered by the massacre of 132 school children by the Taliban in 2014) senators from KP, including Afrasiab Khattak, fought tirelessly to ensure the inclusion of the words “mazhabi dehshatgardi” (religious terrorism), as a condition for supporting the bill. What they wanted to ensure was these courts would be used only to try terrorists, and not those affiliated with national movements who often get labelled as terrorists by this state.
In general, I think the national question has become very fraught, as national oppression has become so severe. The number of deaths caused by organised state oppression in this country is overwhelmingly along the lines of the national question.
All this stems from a structural problem of the Pakistani state, in particular the establishment. It has refused to accept that Pakistan is a multi-national country. Under the project of “Pakistanisation”, the establishment has tried to construct a new identity, a new nation, which has bred strong resentment. The commemoration of the National Language Day across the world every year unfortunately marks the brutality of the Pakistani state against Bengalis in former East Pakistan. This is the day in February that we opened fire on Bengalis asking for their language to be accepted as one of Pakistan’s national languages. And even today, the state refers to various languages in Pakistan as “regional languages”. On top of that, the severe uneven development, the blatant preference of one province (Punjab) over others in the distribution of resources, and the deprivation of rights to oppressed nations in Pakistan. All this breeds resentment amongst the Baloch, the Sindhis, the Pashtuns and so on.
So the Pakistani state’s major crisis is around the national question. The class question or the woman question are not existential issues for the Pakistani state. But the national question is. It calls into question the legitimacy of the Pakistan project.
Post 9/11, the Pakistani Left has had conflicting positions on US drone strikes and Pakistani military’s own operations and war in FATA. Often in these debates, a binary was conjured up: if you’re anti-Taliban, you must be in support of military operations in the region, and if you’re anti-operation then by implication you must be pro-Taliban. How has the PTM engaged with this wider Left debate?
This is a complex answer. The PTM of course rejects the binary, opposing both the Taliban on the one hand, and the Pakistani state’s military operations and US-led drone strikes on the other.
However while the PTM is adamantly against drones, this has nevertheless been a divisive issue even within the Left. Drones have killed around 300 terrorists in FATA. These terrorists unleashed barbaric atrocities, slit people’s throats, and looted ordinary people’s possessions and livestock. People used to be very pleased when whoever or whatever, including drones, came and rid them of these terrorists and death squads. So when the PTM speaks against drones, these people reject that. They ask who is going to rid of us of these people. Of course, ideologically I do not believe in accepting imperialist help for any purpose. We will use the power of our own movements to solve the problem of religious violence. But at the level of the masses, they did not see any other way, and whatever happened, people were beneficiaries by default when these terrorists were killed. Yes, there was “collateral damage”, and even children were killed, but drones are generally precision weapons.
But a very important point is missing in this entire debate, within PTM and in Pakistan. This is the fact that what we are ultimately confronting is imperialism. Right now, a lot of the focus is on the military. I don’t believe that by highlighting the destruction wreaked by imperialist wars, we let the military off the hook. I see these forces as deeply complicit and we must place things in this larger imperialist context.
The PTM is anti-imperialist by its very nature, because we are against the imperialist war in the region. However, we have to frame this carefully, because the public often doesn’t differentiate between anti-Americanism and anti-imperialism. This distinction is important, because the right-wing is anti-American, not anti-imperialist. The Left is anti-imperialist. The Right is constantly railing against America. If we do the same, it looks like we share the same goals. So we have to avoid rhetoric that risks confusing the people and places us alongside the Right. The military hegemony is our direct target, but we should also criticize them as agents of imperialist powers.
The demands of the PTM are essentially very simple and straightforward. They only demand their rights, as guaranteed in Pakistan’s constitution. At face value, this doesn’t appear to be a radical demand. So why do you think the reaction and censorship by the Pakistani state has been so severe?
The demands are simple in form, but radical in content. For example, I used to wonder why the demand to remove checkpoints across FATA is such a thorny issue. I realized that their entire house of cards — their system of terror and control — is built on checkposts. This is how they mobilize and regulate their ‘strategic assets’, monitor their movements, control the flow of weapons.
The PTM’s insistence on the constitution is primarily to counter the allegation that we are committing “ghaddari” [treason]. The constitution of Pakistan holds the state responsible for providing shelter, education and so on. In fact, it is very interesting that Article 3 of the constitution contains guarantees that are socialist in nature: “from each according to his ability, to each according to his work”.
But in upholding the constitution, in demanding that the Pakistani state should principally be concerned with the welfare of its people, the PTM has directly challenged the national security state. We point out that our constitution has no room for a national security state, for contracts to paramilitary forces, death squads, and military enterprises. Because we have challenged the constitutional legitimacy of the national security state in this way, we have faced this level of repression.
Yet we are the ones who continue to be labelled as anti-Pakistan. In fact, it is the military who is anti-Pakistan. They have done military coups. They have violated the constitution. The establishment has treated the constitution like the dirt on their shoes. It is to obscure this truth that they are so desperate to silence the PTM and are willing to commit such heinous repression against it.
Tayyaba Jiwani is an editor of Jamhoor. Ayyaz Mallick is a doctoral candidate and a political worker of the Left.