The future of tribalism-By Nasser Yousaf


HISTORY has not really been kind to the tribesmen of the NWFP: it dubbed them as clever robbers and as deft and brutal assassins. The chroniclers did not discriminate but generalised.

They simply wrote off, say, the Afridis as evil and the Shinwari, Wazir and Mehsud as capable of inflicting doom on those within their reach. On the other end, the present appears even more ominous: it labels the Frontier tribesmen as terrorists of the worst order. Today tribal homes, once the pride of hosts and guests alike, are targets for drones. So what does the future hold for these tribesmen? Are they writing their own elegy by challenging the writ of the rest of the world or are they facing collective blame for the misdeeds of a few?

No doubt, the onus falls squarely on the tribesmen. They are held accountable for the misdemeanor of a few, and not quite by default either. By refusing to question and challenge the collective responsibility clause (in the Frontier Crimes Regulation), the tribesmen have, over a long period of time, allowed themselves to become subservient to it. Despite their overt dislike of the clause, a majority of tribesmen including the highly educated among them refuse to shed their tribal cloak. They would like the clause to be speedily dispensed with, but would nevertheless be willing to cling on to the remnants of tribalism.

Tribalism is an archaic term denoting primitiveness and the absence of civilisation. It has now not only become the nemesis of the people of the Frontier’s tribal areas but of the entire country. Interestingly, in their detailed references to tribalism, the most popular dictionaries refer only partially to the now nearly defunct Indian American tribal structure. Instead, they amplify, in fact demonise, the prevalent tribal system in Pakistan’s northwest. It is equally interesting to note that the strongest advocates of tribalism are to be found among the educated, urbanised bigwigs.

A more anomalous situation than the one prevalent in the tribal enclave comprising seven tribal agencies and five semi tribal agencies in the Frontier would be difficult to find anywhere else on the globe. The tribesmen of these areas are enjoying a double status: they are tribesmen in the tribal belt and non-tribals in the settled districts. They have representation in parliament, its select committees and the cabinet where they hold important portfolios.

Portfolios such as environment, sports, culture, Kashmir and Northern Areas, tourism etc have usually been assigned to ministers from the tribal belt. But the funny part of the bargain is that most of the laws that are passed with the consent of the tribal members of parliament, and the policies formulated by such members of the cabinet, fail to extend into the tribal region.Equally incomprehensible is the composition of the civil and military establishment. The civil-military bureaucratic map is replete with names fresh in public memory. At least two former chief secretaries of the NWFP, an IGP and scores of DIGs, ambassadors, federal and provincial secretaries and generals with tribal domiciles have served in different areas from time to time. The last governor of the NWFP, a retired general, was a tribesman from the Orakzai Agency. The list of names of tribesmen serving as mayors and deputy mayors in various districts including Peshawar is too long for this space. However, one wonders how these gentlemen from caves and hideouts have been trying to govern and put things right in the settled areas when their own backyards are in such dire need of being straightened out.

There was a time when a tribal domicile was considered a golden ticket to admission to professional colleges and induction in the civil services. With the passage of time and the proliferation of educational services, the tribal domicile has ceased to carry weight as there are simply too many candidates with outstanding scores to be accommodated against the quota for the tribal areas. Similarly, more often than not, a candidate or two from the tribal areas could always be spotted among the top 10 scorers in competitive examinations. The question then is: why force an able population into the grip of tribalism and expose it to universal taunts and ridicule?

The time is more than ripe for action. Force is something that tribesmen know how to counter and gimmickry is the other thing they have perfected with the help of political officers and their failed system of administration. But let’s not overlook the silver lining — with South Waziristan (said to be a militant haven) having the highest literacy rate in the area, it is clear that the tribesmen are now educated enough to take part in productive dialogue.

The NWFP governor Mr Owais Ghani recently told a team of US senators how the government was moving ahead with a policy of dialogue, development and deterrence in the tribal belt. (The governor could have been advised to inform his guests that the government was renaming the Federally Administered Tribal Areas as Federally Administered ‘Natural’ Areas!)

A better message could not have been sent to the world at large. No sane person could have any objection to dismantling the yoke of tribalism. This would also provide lexicographers with enough evidence to redefine the term in the updated editions of dictionaries.

Source: Daily Dawn, 19th January, 2009

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