COMMENTARY
 
Extending Democracy to Pakistan's Tribal Areas
A major reason why Pakistan’s Federally-Administered Tribal Area (FATA) has been a major source of extremism and terrorism in recent years is the existence of an oppressive system of governance in the region. On the eve of the country’s 64th independence anniversary, the government of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has acted decisively against this oppression, thereby paving the way for a meaningful political response to militancy in tribal areas.

On August 12, President Zardari signed two orders for the purpose: Extension of the Political Parties Order 2002, and Amendments in the Frontier Crimes Regulation (2011). The former will allow political parties to operate legally in FATA for the first time, and the latter will bring considerable relief to the tribal population from FCR, a notorious legacy of British colonialism in the subcontinent.

It was on August 14, 2009 that the Zardari regime had pledged to extend the country’s political and legal system to FATA, as part of the promises the ruling party had made in its February 2008 election manifesto. In 1997, the Pakistan Peoples’ Party government of late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto had extended adult franchise to FATA. In subsequent elections, the region elected 12 members for the National Assembly and 8 members for the Senate, but only on non-party basis.

However, in the absence of party politics in the region, these elections produced only independent parliamentarians. In coalition politics, the independents consisting of tribal elders called Maliks often acted as an opportunistic bloc, ready for sellout to the highest bidder. Now with the introduction of the political parties system to FATA, the contestants will campaign on party platforms. And, while legislating in parliament, they and the political parties they belong to will keep the interests of the tribal constituents in mind.

It will be possible for people beyond the traditional power welding sections of tribal society to participate in politics, and make a difference in power corridors—something that tribal elders elected on non-party basis have utterly failed to in the last 14 years. Eventually, the same factor will defeat radical Mullahs and sheer criminals, who have filled the political vacuum created by the non-extension of the country’s political and legal system to the tribal areas. Until the next elections scheduled for January 2013, we will also see considerable political mobilization and political party activism in the region, which will eventually pave the way for its assimilation into mainstream Pakistani politics.

Likewise, Amendments in the Frontier Crimes Regulation (2011) order may also go a long way in relieving FATA's more than four million residents from the oppressive effects of a colonial-time legal framework codified in the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) of 1901 which denies them fundamental constitutional rights, especially with provisions such as collective punishment.

Now, the FCR in its amended form will require that a prisoner be produced before the authorities within 24 hours of arrest, and given the right to bail. The FCR provisions that allow collective punishment of an entire tribe for crimes committed by a member or on their territory will reportedly be relaxed. Women, children and elderly will be exempt from the collective punishment clause.

Obviously, the story of extending democracy and law to FATA does not end with the promulgation of the two presidential orders—as there is a lot else that needs to be done, essentially building upon the two significant steps already undertaken. After all, the PPP 2008 election manifesto and the reforms pledged by President Zardari in August 2009 were more ambitious.

Accordingly, subsequent reforms for the region have to curtail the administrative powers of the Political Agent, the federally-appointed top bureaucrat who heads each of the seven tribal agencies and six Frontier regions constituting FATA. Extending political representation of FATA in the provincial assembly may also be an essential next step in this regard. So may be the adoption of a host of promised economic development measures in the region, including the establishment of tax-free zones.

The amendments to the FCR promised in the 2008 election manifesto were specifically meant to enable the tribal people to lodge a right of Appeal to the Peshawar High Court and further to the Supreme Court of Pakistan against all convictions. Thus, jurisdiction of the country’s federal and provincial courts needs to be fully extended to the tribal areas. In the end, however, the FCR as a whole needs to be scrapped so that FATA should be subject to the same laws as operative in the rest of Pakistan. Without any exception, the tribal region has to be fully incorporated into the constitutional system of the country.

Pakistan is often accused of lacking internal sovereignty in the region, which is why the US drone problem has occurred and undue pressure is also exerted by the United States on the country’s security establishment for extending its counter-insurgency operation to North Waziristan. It is also all too clear from the fight against terrorism in the region that politics, not militancy, is the most effective means to overcoming the negative fallout from the grand transformation that has occurred in the region from Malik, the traditional power wielders, to the Mullah, the new power elites.

Moreover, once the whole tribal belt bordering Afghanistan becomes part of mainstream Pakistan, then it will be easier for us to argue for an international recognition of the Durand Line as official border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. As long as FATA remains under an administrative system and legal structure that is distinct from the rest of Pakistan—or a region similar to lawless southern and eastern border Afghan regions with Pakistan—then Afghanistan’s recalcitrant leadership will continue to evade settlement of the border conflict with justifications that do not have sound legal, moral and historical grounds.

Pakistan’s present government is best suited to improve upon the steps it has already undertaken to assimilate FATA into the country’s mainstream legal and political system, because of its credible democratic record exemplified by its recent decentralization drive. The 18th amendment and its implementation is the foremost proof of its visionary approach towards harnessing inter-provincial harmony, and extending the parameters of a parliamentary system.

It was due to the same decentralization drive that the Frontier province got a new ethno-regional identity, the country’s Northern Areas got enfranchised, a number of Federal Ministries were abolished and provinces empowered to perform the tasks that remained a monopoly of the Federation for decades, and inter-provincial consensus evolved on the National Finance Commission Award.

The debate on creating new provinces is also an outcome of the process of devolving central authority that has emerged as a pivotal norm under current democratic political dispensation. All of this has become possible only in times of democratic governance in the country. We can, therefore, hope for moving beyond the current reformation initiatives in FATA—but only if the democratic process continues uninterrupted in Pakistan.

The commentary was published in weekly Pulse Magazine, August 19-25, 2011. It can be accessed at weeklypulse.org