Pakistan's North-West Frontier: Under a New Name

Smruti S. Pattanaik,Researcher,IDSA


The ruling elites in Pakistan in their quest for nationalism and national unity have always tried to suppress any spirit of genuine federalism perceiving it as a prelude to separatism. This is borne out of the fact that the threat to the unity of Pakistan received the initial convulsion when former British provinces like the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Balochistan wanted to exercise their option for independence just after the new state came into being. The NWFP was later incorporated as a part of Pakistan through a referendum. After its incorporation, the aspiration of provincial autonomy still loomed large on the minds of the elites in this region who had almost reconciled to the fact that an independent Pushtunistan1 consisting of the Pushtun dominated area is virtually impossible.

The demand for provincial autonomy thus played a vital role in the domestic politics of Pakistan. This can be attributed to the fact that the elites in Pakistan have not been able to strike a balance between federal control and quantum of provincial autonomy. Pakistan in the initial years after independence, lacked a representative decision making body. The leadership was concentrated in the hands of the bureaucracy and later passed on to the military leadership managed by officers belonging mostly to the Punjabi and Mohajir community. Moreover, the Interim Report of the Basic Principles Committee (1950) suggested a unitary framework which sealed any aspiration of provincial autonomy altogether. The underlying intention behind this report was meant to consolidate the power of the western province elites, establish and perpetuate their hegemony in the administration which would have been rendered impossible had they adopted a federal structure. This is because a majority of the population lived in the eastern province and any scheme of governance based on federalism and democratic representation would have ensured the dominance of the Bengalis.

The Islamic foundation of Pakistan moreover eroded considerably after the birth of this Muslim nation. This is because solidifying and mobilising diverse ethno-linguistic groups by potraying preponderantly Hindu India as an enemy was much easier for the Muslim elites during the freedom struggle. It was the Islam identity versus Hindu identity which provided the much needed impetus to the creation of Pakistan on the basis of religion. Hardly were the birth pangs over that Pakistan faced the challenge to its nation building efforts. After independence, Islam no longer remained an issue. The problem of power sharing within various ethno-linguistic groups arose inside Pakistan. The leadership of this newly independent country consisted mostly of people from the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and other urban centres of India. They were not only rootless in Pakistan but lacked any support base except for the fact that they were the real creators of Pakistan. The territory which constitutes present Pakistan largely comprised Muslim dominated areas before the creation of Pakistan, thus, equalising the political inequality on the basis of Islam was not acceptable to other ethno-national groups. Real transfer of power to the people could not take place. In the ethno-ideological context, the exercise of state power determined the inter-ethnic relations as well as the contour of nation building. Impediments to the nation building effort came from various sources. Absence of adequate political representation on the basis of demography alienated the masses. Moreover, the limited role of local bodies which is largely confined to issues like location of industry, building of infrastructure and creation of employment opportunities did not give enough power to the locals in the real sense of decentralisation..

The main challenge to Pakistan's effort to have a unitary structure can be attributed to the extreme ethnic consciousness and a sense of strong socio-cultural identity of most of the ethnic groups residing inside Pakistan. These have been perceived with considerable apprehension by the ruling elites of Pakistan who had spearheaded the movement for Pakistan and had used religious dichotomy to mobilise Muslims for a separate homeland. They well understood what such cleavages would imply in the long-term, thus, they abhorred providing encouragement to sub-national identities, whether symbolically by recognising their socio-cultural and linguistic identity or politically, by accomodating them in the state structure on the basis of ethnicity. Instead, they fervently tried to agglomerate these cleavages in a broader framework of Islamic identity and Islamic nation. Within this framework of nation and state building, Punjabis and Mohajirs controlled the decision making process through their predominant representation in the civil-military-bureaucractic structure. Provincial autonomy became an anathema because decentralisation of power could undermine their pre-eminence. Quite expectedly, the 1956 Constitution provided very little provincial autonomy. This Constitution was abrogated after Ayub Khan assumed power. The new Constitution introduced by him, instead of granting provincial autonomy, provided institutional support to the unitary framework. The Basic Democracy plan was introduced by Ayub Khan to contain regional political aspirations of the regional elites. The Basic Democracy system envisaged a five-tier political institution whose members were largely nominated, leaving little scope for active political participation by the masses. The method of political recruitment curtailed any opportunity for the growth of democracy as the members were dependent on their political master for nomination. This provided a breeding ground for ethnic based political movements which saw the state structure as a representation of a particular ethnic group, namely the Punjabis.

Most of the ethnic movements in Pakistan can be directly attributed to apathy of the central government and growing regional disparity. This has become increasingly evident in the case of Pakistan which in its fifty years of existence is yet to build itself as a strong nation due to its overt Indo-centric security concerns. Its objective to attain parity with India has been effectively used to divert public opinion from domestic issues and at the same time has provided legitimacy to autocratic and military rule. In this context, it also provided enough leverage to the armed forces to obtain a substantial amount of the budget for defence expenditure, undermining socio-economic development.

In the broader framework of over-centralism, the problem of the NWFP depicts the following analogy. It not only provides a classic case of political alienation but also shows how ethnic aspirations have been portrayed as separatism to undermine the legitimacy of their demand. The NWFP consists of fiercely independence-loving Pakhtuns who had been provided with maximum autonomy to manage their tribal affairs. Historically though some groups of Pushtuns had demanded an independent Pushtunistan, but after its merger with Pakistan the issue was used as a leverage to bargain with the federal government. The support rendered by Afghanistan to the movement for Pushtunistan had posed a serious problem to the newly independent state of Pakistan that was trying to overcome the trauma of partition and simultaneously striving to tackle the problems confronting the newly independent state i.e. managing immense socio-political aspirations of the masses, settlement of refugees and economic development. In this context, the demand for Pushtunistan threatened to undermine the Islamic identity and unity of Pakistan. Moreover, the Pushtuns hardly harbour any such design but want to have maximum autonomy within the framework of the Pakistani Constitution.

The historicity of the problem needs to be analysed here to understand the basis of this movement and the ethno-political aspirations: any assertion of ethnicity and it posing a threat to state security cannot be understood and deciphered adequately to arrive at a logical conclusion without understanding the historical basis of the demands.

Historical Genesis of Pakhtunistan Movement

The area which comes under the present NWFP was under the suzerainty of various Kingdoms at different point of history. However, the present area referred to as Pakhtunistan had never existed as an independent political entity. Its significance derives from its location on the fringes of the great Empires founded by the Iranians, Indians and Central Asians. Historically, Afghanistan under the ruling dynasty of Kabul had suzerainty over the region which comprises the provinces of NWFP, Baluchistan and Punjab in present Pakistan. The western part of Afghanistan was under Persian influence, traces of which can be found in the language and culture; in the east, they had close contacts with the Mughal Empire of India. In 1750, Abdul Shah Abdali annexed the territory from the Oxus to the Indus and Delhi. It coincided with the expansion of the Sikh Kingdom and both Kingdoms contested with each other for supremacy in the region. This development interestingly clashed with British interest to expand and secure their newly acquired territory. Afghanistan initially sought the help of the British to recover the territory of north Punjab and Peshawar from the Sikhs. However, later the British conquered these areas from the Sikhs. Being unable to convince the British, the Afghan rulers turned the the Russian Empire for support which inevitably brought a clash of interest of the two expanding powers and was perceived as antithetical to the interests of the British who would not allow Russian influence to be supreme in the valleys of the "Tigris and Euphrates."2 The British were quick enough to fix the Anglo-Afghan border along the Amu-darya and Afghanistan was declared as "completely outside the sphere of likely Russian influence", under an agreement which also placed Afghanistan's foreign policy under the British.

Even then Russian expansion made the British very insecure in the Indian subcontinent. Since Afghanistan was internally weak due to political instability, the need to stabilise the British India border with Afghanistan arose. Afghanistan did not have any fixed or demarcated international frontiers until almost the end of the 19th century. At the time of Dost Muhammad Khan's rule, there was no defined tribal belt between the Kingdom of Kabul and the administered territory of the British. During the Sepoy Mutiny, Dost Mohammad Khan pledged his neutrality and Sir John Lawrence reciprocated by recognising the suzerainty of Dost Mohammad over Peshawar and the frontier zones to the Indus to encourage Afghan neutrality.3 It is interesting to note here that Afghanistan's boundary was settled not through negotiations between Afghanistan and its neighbours but between the neighbours themselves through arbitration or agreement. Since the rulers in Afghanistan were extremely weak and vulnerable compared to its giant neighbours they gave de facto recognition, sometimes willingly, mostly unwillingly. The frontier of south-west Afghanistan was fixed by British arbitration in 1872 and 1875. The limits of Afghanistan sovereignty in the east and south-east were imposed by the British upon Afghanistan when in 1877 the ruler of Afghanistan, Amir Sher Ali, was simply informed by the Government of British India that they no longer recognise his claim to Dir, Swat, Chitral, and Bajour.4 Following the Second Anglo-Afghan War, Afghanistan became a British protectorate under the Treaty of Gandamark, which was signed on May 26, 1879. The 1893 Durand Line was drawn under external and internal compulsions.5 The Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 confirmed the status of Afghanistan as a buffer state. Afghanistan became sovereign only in 1921. This explains Afghanistan's political status at the time of signing of the Durand Line Treaty which hardly gave Afghanistan any decisive say in the matter of the Pushtun area lying beyond the British side of the international boundary. According to Olaf Caroe, who also helped Sir Mortimer Durand to draw the Durand Line, "... the agreement of 1893 did not describe the line as the boundary of India but as the frontier of the Amir's dominions and the line beyond which neither side will exercise interference. This was because the British government did not intend to absorb the tribes into its administrative system, only to extend their own and exclude the Amir's authority from territory east and south of the line."6

Initially, the tendency of the British government had been to treat the Pathans as though they were just an appendage of India.7 This was evident from the fact that they were a part of Punjab till 1901. However, the tribal territory beyond the British border was regarded as enjoying a kind of factual independence which was referred to as Ghairilaqa (unadministered territory) or Yaghistan (lands of rebels). In this no-man's-land, the tribals acknowledged neither Kabul nor Calcutta as suzerain. However, the rulers of Kabul maintained at least a semblance of authority on the main passages through the tribal territory.8 Thus, the British were compelled to establish some kind of administrative machinery to deal with the trans-border tribes. Since no part of this territory was occupied, a system was envisaged whereby Deputy Commissioners of particular tribal areas would be assigned the additional responsibility of dealing with the tribes beyond their administrative border. This was accomplished through trans-border intermediaries, mostly Khans or notables of border villages whose ancestors had for generations maintained contacts with the tribes. Thus, the tribes were brought under British control through written agreements and allowances declaring friendship and goodwill and, at the same time, securing a statement of services required by the tribes which included security of the border, control of raiders, denying sanctuary to outlaws. This was followed by an annual allowance subject to good behaviour. Such an agreement would be reached in an open jirga to which the maliks and the tribe's elder would affix their seal or thumb impression.9

Durand Line Controversy

The boundary agreement of 1893 between Durand and Amir Abdurahman which is known as the Durand Line, demarcated the frontier which till the agreement had been no-man's-land. However, the first mention of the Durand Line as a boundary line between Afghanistan and Pakistan was made in the 1919 Treaty of Rawalpindi. The tribes were functioning as largely autonomous groups, and as far as law and order was concerned, they had their own tribal laws to govern them. They have never recognised authority of any kind, be it the Afghan rulers or the British and it proved to be very difficult to bring them under direct rule. Though the British were not able to subjugate the tribes, according to Article 1, Paragraph 2 of the 1893 Treaty, they denied the Amir of Afghanistan, the nominal head of all Afghan people, any power or right to exercise influence over them or to interfere with the tribal people.10

It is significant to mention here that the Commission which was conferred with the responsibility to demarcate the boundary of influence would usually go to these border villages on a pleasant hunting trip and on their way, ask the villagers to decide on which side of the line they wished to fall. Due to this informal method, in certain cases it so happened that while the villages were inside Afghanistan, their fields lay on the British side.11 It was thus evident that the British took hardly any notice of the ethnic factor while demarcating the border. However, so far as the Afghans were concerned, this agreement did not set up a final frontier, nor did it mean a renunciation of interest in the Pushtuns living east of the Durand Line. In the Anglo-Afghan Treaty of 1921, Paragraph 2 guaranteed reciprocal information on both sides of the Durand Line of any military operations which may appear necessary to maintain order in their respective sphere of influence. This clause suggested that at least some of the British themselves saw the agreement as establishing spheres of influence rather than a fixed border.12 As is evident from this clause of the boundary agreement, informing the contracting party about any military operation on either side of the border put a serious question mark on the legitimacy of the concerned power over this tribal region. Because the concept of sovereignty itself nullifies the idea of informing an external power about decisions which are essentially taken inside the national boundary. A supplementary letter sent to Mahmud Tarzi to dispel any kind of confusion that prevailed over the Pushtun tribes in British India, stated clearly that the British India government entertains only a feeling of goodwill towards the frontier tribes provided they refrain from outrages against its subject.

Creation of the Province of NWFP

In 1901, the NWFP came into being. The four trans-Indus districts of Peshawar, Kohat, Bannu and Dera Ismail Khan, and Hazara were separated from Punjab to form this province. Adjacent to these, all the five Political Agencies together with other tribal territory were managed by District Officers as far as the Durand Line which came to form the province of the NWFP.13 Before the reorganisation of the NWFP into a separate province it was realised by the British government that certain anomalies exist in the organisation of the NWFP as a part of Punjab. However, Lord Lytton, in 1877, propounded a scheme to give the central government direct control over Frontier administration and policy, and favoured improving relations with their trans-border neighbour.14 Due to the Second Afghan War, this idea was shelved. The birth of the province can be largely attributed to the effort of Lord Curzon. According to Caroe, the last Governor General of the NWFP, "The creation of the new province provided....greatest justification, greater even than the outward seeming needs of defence and foreign policy, for only a people whose aspirations are reasonably free of frustration can provide the conditions in which confident defence structure may be erected....NWFP provided first an administrative, and later a political soil in which this idea could take root, and, carefully nurtured, grow into active life. It laid out this idea at a time when the allegience of the Frontier people was uncertain and groping"15 Thus the creation of this administrative unit created a sort of legitimacy for the British to rule through their Agent and further consolidate their position. Moreover, simultaneously, it also consolidated the pride of the Pathans, who abhorred the idea of being under foreign rule, since it did not interfere directly in the tribal affairs. This played an important role because it is their pride which transcended all sectarian and tribal loyalty and furnished the British with a relatively strong frontier by marginalising the dual loyalty of the tribes.

The NWFP is divided into Settled Districts and Tribal Agencies. The settled areas were ruled by the Governor; the Tribal Agencies (Malakand, Khyber, Kurram, North Wazirstan, South Wazirstan) were administered by a Political Officer who would directly report to New Delhi. The local administration was the responsibility of local Khans and they remained autonomous to a certain extent while being responsible for day to day administration. The local Khans and Malliks were primarily assigned the duty of collection of tribute and revenue and thus were representatives of the government on behalf of the tribes and in return they were given tax exemptions. The political officers consolidated their rule with the help of jirgas and backed by battalions of scouts, militia and khassadars with the additional support of a large garrison of troops. The Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms of 1919 which introduced provincial democracy in India, excluded the NWFP from such experimentation. Instead the Pushtun jirga, was preferred as a model of direct democracy. Later, the Frontier Inquiry Committee recommended a provincial legislature and the Simon Commission, after consulting the Frontier Pushtuns, reported that "British India stops at the boundary of the administered area."16 While consulting with the frontier tribes, the Commission reported that the contiguity of the NWFP as an independent territory along with Afghanistan and free intercourse between people on both the sides of the border, including common ethnicity, strongly distinguishes the people of this province from the rest of India.17

Politics in Frontier Province: Pre-Independence Period

Unlike other provinces, the NWFP was excluded from the process of political development but the Pathans were not lagging in terms of political socialisation. The Frontier Congress (Khudai Khidmatgar) under the leadership of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a main ally of the Indian National Congress, was performing its duty by mobilising people against British rule. Thus, there were two rival political blocs emerging in this part of the region and the British took advantage of this cleavage. The Khudai Khidmatgar was supported by the small Khans (petty leaders) who were important in rural society and the big Khans were patronised by the British thereby making it imperative for the latter to become nationalists. In the 1937 elections, the Frontier Congress gained a dominant position but its pre-eminence was countered by the presence of independent Muslim candidates opposed to it but closely associated with the British. The Muslim League had not yet marked its presence. In the 1946 elections, the Frontier Congress improved its position in the Assembly by winning 30 out of 50 seats and the Muslim League managed to win only 17 seats. When independence became imminent, the problem of political alignment arose. Their allegience was more to Islam and the Pathan pride prevented them from being subservient to any Hindu domination which, it was apprehended, would be the case after independence. Though the Congress was supported for its anti-British policies, on the question of joining India or Pakistan, there was realignment of political forces. Several Congress leaders defected to the Muslim League. The urge to align with their co-religionists appeared to be stronger at this crucial juncture when the subcontinent was witnessing communal frenzy and the Congress was largely perceived as a Hindu party by the Muslims, in spite of it broad support base. Many favoured joining Pakistan because of opportunist reasons which were related to the exodus of Hindus from Pakistan. Since the bureaucracy of the Frontier was dominated by the Hindus, the Muslim bureaucrats were in an advantageous position and they were all set to fill the vacuum that would be created after the Hindus left for India.

There is another interesting facet to the Frontier politics before the emergence of Pakistan. The Pir of Manki Sharif, who had a large following in the province, played an important role and acted as a counter-balance against Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan in formulating the NWFP's political future with Pakistan. Being a man of influence, his help was sought to mobilise support for the League's demand. He was able to articulate the cause of the Muslims in garnering the support of the people who are essentially tribal, through his organisation Anjuman-us-Asifia on the condition that the Shariat would be enforced in Pakistan. The tribes gave the much needed support to the Muslim League and broadened its support base. However, the Congress still had a comfortable majority in the Provincial Assembly and this explains why the Assembly supported a resolution in favour of the NWFP joining India.

A plebiscite was held in the settled areas and the tribal territories were not given a chance to express their opinion through casting their ballot. Instead a British official, Sir George Cunningham, went on a tour to these tribal areas and interviewed the jirgas of all major tribes in the entire frontier tribal areas and got their confirmation in a written statement that they wish to be a part of Pakistan and maintain the same kind of relations as they had with British India. It is likely that many of the tribes could not have understood the implications of political allegience to any power. Considering the remoteness and lack of awareness of the Frontier tribes, it is more likely that plebiscite was just a political endorsement from a few influential tribes rather than genuine expression of opinion by the masses.

The Frontier Congress through its meeting held at Bannu decided to boycott the referendum and committed itself to a free Pakhtunistan. Bogus polling was widespread and the votes of the dead as well as of persons who either boycotted the election or were out of station were all polled in favour of Pakistan.18 Only 9.52 per cent of the total population of the NWFP determined, in the ultimate analysis, the fate of all the Frontier people, though 99 per cent of the votes cast opted for a merger with Pakistan as against 1 per cent in favour of India. The irony is that the votes cast for Pakistan represented only 50.5 per cent of the total electorate. Since the referendum was held under the supervision of the Army and the insufficient British staff could not manage the supervision of the poll, it it led to large scale rigging. The ordinary election staff, by and large, supported the Muslim League. The absence of any election agents representing the Congress resulted in manipulation.19

The demand for Pushtunistan as an independent state on the lines of other princely states of British India was espoused explicity by Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan through his party Khudai Khidmatgar after the British withdrew from the subcontinent. The demand of the Frontier Congress for a separate Pushtunistan was not only unacceptable to the Muslim League and the British but to the Congress also. However, as it appeared later, the demand for Pushtunistan was used only as a bargaining tool to arouse popular passions among the highly ethno-centric Pushtuns and to legitimise the existence of the Khudai Khidmatgar as a party primarily striving to protect the larger interests of the Pushtuns. After the NWFP's merger with Pakistan was finalised through a plebiscite, Ghaffar Khan took an oath of allegience to Pakistan and was included in the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan for framing a new Constitution. He said in the Constituent Assembly in February 1948, that Pakistan was a settled fact and Pushtunistan meant only an autonomous unit on par with other provinces of Pakistan.20

Afghanistan and the Issue of Pushtunistan

When the withdrawal of the British from the subcontinent became imminent, Afghanistan in 1944 emphasised its interest in the Pushtun area across the Durand Line in a letter to the Government of British India. However, the British vaguely stated that agreements with the tribes have to be negotiated with the appropriate successor. Though the demand was later dissmissed as an exhibition of irredentism, the move for an independent Pushtunistan was supported more vociferously and persistently by Afghanistan. Afghanistan, however, has been inconsistent in its pursuit of the cause of Pushtunistan.21 Earlier it had tried to secure independence of Pushtuns in British India in the Third Anglo-Afghan War.

Afghanistan could not garner adequate support in favour of its irredentism. Only the Soviet Union had lent support at the height of the Cold War period to this irredentist demand, not out of any conviction for the cause but as a part of Cold War strategy. Afghanistan has also maintained a policy of calculated ambivalence.22 This is clear from the fact that while espousing the cause of separatism in the NWFP, Afghanistan was not prepared to shed its territory for an independent Pakhtunistan. Afghanistan's scheme for Pakhtunistan includes Balochistan also, though the Baluchs and the Pathans do not see eye to eye on this issue. While campaigning for Pakhtunistan, Afghanistan "was confident that before long it would be able to incorporate a state of this kind in its own territory"23 so that at some stage this area will join Afghanistan, thus, giving it access to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean.

Afghanistan for the first time made its displeasure international by casting a negative vote against Pakistan when it applied for UN membership on the ground that it has occupied Afghan territory illegally. In 1949, Afghanistan through a loya jirga, supported Pushtunistan and officially declared the 1893 Durand Line Agreement, the Anglo-Afghan Pact of 1905, the Treaty of Rawalpindi of 1919 and the Anglo-Afghan Treaty which referred to the status of the Pushtuns, as illegal and dead. Over this issue, relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan soured in the subsequent years. Both countries constantly incited the masses through a propaganda war. Many Pushtuns slipped across the Afghan border to collect arms and ammunition which resulted in widespread militarisation of the civil society in the NWFP. However, the tribes accepted arms and money from both the adversaries and in the process gained materially.24 All these factors attest to the fact that the tribals who fiercely safeguarded their autonomy even during the British rule, will not give up their freedom to either side in this great game. This is evident from the Bajaur incident of 1960 when the locals fiercely resented intrusion of Afghan troops in the guise of tribesmen and drove them away. They also objected violently to the presence of the regular Pakistani Army.

Pakistan-Afghanistan relations over the Pushtun issue became very bitter in 1949-54 over the indiscriminate bombing of Pushtun villages and certain other villages in Afghanistan in 1954. This revealed the deep seated apprehension of Pakistan and precipitated avowed support from Afghanistan more as a retaliatory measure in 1954-56 over the one-unit plan which sacrificed regional autonomy to consolidate the position of the Urdu speaking elites. Prime Minister Daoud of Afghanistan protested against the one-unit formula adopted by Pakistan which was perceived to impede the movement for a separate Pushtunistan, and this resentment manifested in violence in Kabul where a mob tore down the Pakistani flag from the Pakistan Embassy, finally resulting in its closure. There were reported Army intrusions in the guise of tribesmen into the Pakistani territory in both 1960 and 1961. The relations between the two detoriated to the extent of severing diplomatic ties and suspension of transit and trade facilities in 1961. The relations reached a low level between 1960-63 against repression in Pakhtun areas when the movement for a separate Pushtun province was revived under the leadership of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. Daoud's removal from power by King Zahir Shah in March 1963 again normalised relations between the neighbours. But again, they detoriated after 1973, over the pursual of a hostile policy by Z.A.Bhutto who dismissed the legally formed popular government in the NWFP and Balochistan.

Pakistan tried its level best to close the Pushtunistan issue altogether. In this context Islamabad even financed and armed the tribal revolt in Panjsher Valley to pressurise Afghanistan and prevent it from meddling in the NWFP.25 In fact, Pakistan was successful in closing the issue through an agreement with Afghanistan and Iran in a triangular deal but Bhutto's exit from power again got the situation back to square one. Moreover, Afghanistan has a poor record of respecting any agreement.

Pakistan which has been apprehensive about this ethnic movement, tried to suppress it every time even when it included the legitimate demand of provincial autonomy. This has been exploited by Afghanistan to widen the gulf that exists between the Pushtuns and the ruling elites of Pakistan. It was evident when Sardar Mohammad Naim Khan said that the people of Pushtunistan should be given an opportunity to express "their status and way of living."26 Moreover, Afghan Prime Minister Mohammad Daoud who has been a passionate advocate of Pushtunistan, said in 1974 that "the best way for the leaders of Pakistan is to seek a solution of the problem through talks and agreements with the Pakhtuns and Baluchi leaders..." and the decision of the Awami National Party (ANP) which is acceptable to both these ethnic group is acceptable to Afghanistan also.27

NWFP in Pakistan's Federation

It is pertinent to mention here that the tribals of the NWFP are very proud of their socio-cultural identity. The problem for Pakistan is inherent in the fact that both sides of the Durand Line are inhabitated by Pushtuns, a homogenous and unruly tribe, who do not recognise any international boundary and keep on crossing the border with great ease. Because of their ethnic linkages and being mostly pasturalist, it is very difficult to confine them inside the national boundary. After partition, Pakistan opted for a strong centre but as a gesture of acknowledging the autonomy of the tribal areas, Pakistan withdrew all its regular Army units in December 1947 from North and South Wazirstan. This constituted an act of showing trust in the tribals. They were given virtual autonomy even though the move towards centralising and forming one unit was gaining momentum. The government declared amnesty for all those who participated in anti-government raids prior to 1948 as a conciliatory measure. To integrate the tribal zone into the Pakistani mainstream, various welfare activities were undertaken. Warsak Dam, which was built outside Peshawar, was undertaken to diversify the economic base of the NWFP. The developmental measures, especially road building ventures in certain tribal areas, which had been opposed earlier, were undertaken.

The Pushtun ethnic movement became resilient after a period of time because the Pathans have been accomodated in the military-bureaucratic structure. The maintenance of status quo of the tribal areas after British withdrawal had been a significant factor that nullified any significant threat in the form of a separatist movement. The Pathans, due to their commercial interest, become very outward looking which is evident from their presence in large numbers in Karachi. All this diluted the rigid Pathan identity, and they started looking beyond the boundary of the NWFP.

While integrating the NWFP through economic measures, Pakistan in its nation building effort emphasised its Islamic identity and there was pressure to underplay the ethnic identity. Through the facade of federation, regional autonomy became a cherished dream for all the federating units. Apart from Sind and Balochistan, the NWFP under the leadership of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan aligned with the East Pakistan leadership and supported their demand for a genuine federation. This was considered as parochialism by the ruling elites and was perceived as antithetical to the Pakistan ideology and a disservice to Islam. In 1955, Pakistan declared the one-unit plan which created only two provinces i.e. East and West Pakistan28 by abolishing the existing four provinces of East Bengal, Punjab, Sind and NWFP. Pakistan to a large extent followed the quantum of provincial autonomy as envisaged in the Government of India 1935 Act, contrary to the Muslim League's stand before independence that the autonomy enumerated in this Act is insufficient. The Pushtuns perceived this as a move towards integration at the cost of their tribal autonomy. Moreover, the tribes fulfilled many of the requirements of a nation. "They occupied and governed fairly well defined territory from which they successfully excluded other claims of authority... they displayed the homogeneity of social and political institutions as indices of nation building and in time developed a feeling of political cohesion which gave rise to Pushtun nationalism."29

In October 1958, General Mohammad Ayub Khan, himself a Pushtun from Hazara district, captured power but his ascendency to power did not help the cause of Pushtunistan. Neutralism became the core word of his professed foreign policy. However, his commitment to neutrality did not bring in the required foreign policy dividends. Being dogged by the Pushtunistan issue, the Ayub government decided to close the Consulate in Afghanistan and also requested Afghanistan to follow suit by closing its Consulate and trade agencies in Peshawar, Quetta and Parachinar so as to force Afghanistan to settle the Pushtunistan issue by coercive diplomacy, denying movement of goods across the border. This was done on the pretext of accusing Afghanistan for its involvement in the internal affairs of Pakistan, specifically instigating and supporting the Pushtunistan issue. But this could not rout the strong ethno-centric tendency of the Pushtuns who do not need any external help in orienting their demands on ethno-political lines.

After Bhutto assumed power there was a significant change in the policies towards the NWFP. The Army camps, which were primarily concerned with the job of monitoring and policing the tribes, were withdrawn. However, the policy of isolation continued till 1973. But after Daoud assumed power in Afghanistan, Bhutto became apprehensive about the implications it could have for the Pushtunistan movement in Pakistan. Thus, since the Pushtuns themselves are fierce protectors of their socio-cultural identity, emphasis was laid more on the economic integration. According to Akbar S. Ahmed, who has recorded this graphic change in the NWFP, "Suddenly schools and dispensaries were being constructed in areas which could not boast of a single cement building. Suddenly tractors and bulldozers worked in areas that had never seen even a bycycle. Suddenly roads were pushing their way through hitherto inaccessible areas and tribes..."30 Bhutto's handling of political affairs in the province by appointing a non-representative person as the Governor without consulting the democratically elected party, brought him in confrontation with the ANP. He imposed central rule in 1973 in the NWFP on the pretext of a threat to the national security and in 1975 installed a puppet government and banned the ANP. This further strengthened the grievances of the Pushtuns and they felt that they would never get any legitimate and rational deal from the government. Initially when Zia assumed power in Pakistan, to strengthen his support base, he sympathised with the Pushtun leaders who were anti-Bhutto elements. But after Bhutto's execution, there was apparently no threat to his rule. Thus, he hardened his position towards the Pushtun issue. The restoration of democracy has not brought any significant change in the outlook of the present leaders towards provincial autonomy. In the present context, regional autonomy has been shaded with opportunist alliances whose main intention is to hold onto power, and are based on simple arithmetics of majority rule.

The Issue of Renaming

After the 1971 tragedy, any genuine demand for regional autonomy is perceived with apprehensions and moreover the dominating elites from Punjab and the Pakistani national Press are never tired of portraying it as separatism. The problem of renaming the NWFP as Pakhtukhwa lies in the apprehension of Pakistani elites that it might encourage sub-nationalism. Pakistan has not reconciled to the emergence of Bangladesh and it is yet to come to terms with the fact that the two nation theory based on religion was proved transitory. Till 1970, the martial law administrators abolished provincial autonomy under the one-unit scheme, thereby, leaving very little scope for any such movement. Moreover, through repressive measures, the government controlled the sub-national movements.

The present politics regarding renaming of the province revolves around the so-called agreement between the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) and the ANP as a prelude to the power sharing agreement between both the parties in the Provincial Assembly. But analysed in a wider perspective, the issue of renaming has much to do with provincial autonomy. Pakistan is more apprehensive about its larger implications in terms of irredentist movements elsewhere in the country. Those against the renaming argue that Punjab and Sind owe their nomenclature to rivers, like Punjab to the five rivers and Sind to the Indus, but what they refuse acknowledge is that the names of these provinces are closely identified with the language and ethnic identity of the people of the respective area. The issue of Pakhtunkhwa is associated more with the ethnic aspiration and identity of the Pushtuns. "Since most opinion makers in Lahore have supported the strong centre-loving rulers, people of smaller provinces see Punjab's opposition to the demand for more regional autonomy to be as self-serving as it might be ethnically motivated."31

Before rationalising the nomenclature suggested by the ANP, it is important to understand the history of the NWFP and why other names such as Gandhara or Khyber cannot be accepted by the majority Pushtuns. Historically, between the fourth and sixth centuries BC, the area which constitutes the present NWFP was known as Gandhara whose boundary extended from Jalalabad up to Taxila. Protagonists of this movement have advocated that the province be renamed as Gandhara as this is based on historical pride rather than on ethnic identity. But one should not forget to mention here that Kanishka during whose period Gandhara became famous as a centre for Buddhist and Gandhara form of art, was not of Pathan origin.32 Thus, the Pathans would not like to identify with the glory of an Emperor who did not belong to their ethnic stock. There exists historical evidence that the Pushtuns were residing in this particular geographic region during this period.

There has been lot of controversy and there is no unanimity among intellectuals, the media and politicians regarding the renaming. But if the current international politics is any indication, ethnic aspiration plays an important role and a group tends to identify with a country or a province which is a representative of their group identity, and national identity becomes secondary. Apart from the common national identity of being Pakistanis, smaller ethnic groups want to assert their identity vis-a-vis other ethnic groups competing for preservation of their socio-cultural uniqueness, and a platform to display their pride at the national level. Pakhtunkhwa will not only represent their ethnic identity but will fullfill their political aspirations. Moreover, the argument that all other provinces owe their names to historical factors rather than to the linguistic identity of the people residing there seems far-fetched as far as the ethnic characters of these provinces are concerned. To the common population, historical verification of facts appeals to them less than what they realise in practice. Whether the people owe their identity to the name of province or vice versa, when any reference is made to Sind, Punjab or Balochistan, it reminds one about the ethnic group which resides there.

It important to note here that any renaming on the basis of Pushtun identity does not necessarily imply automatic erosion of identity of the minorities. It is the policies of the government which sometimes encourage majoritarianism, suppressing minority culture. But there are many mechanisms through which minority rights and culture can be preserved. Pluralism should be the rule rather than the exception in such multi-cultural societies. Given the past record of the irredentist movement to carve out an independent Pushtunistan, what the government should remember is that alienating a group which in the past had demanded seccessionism and later greater autonomy is not going to help Pakistan's nation building effort. Moreover putting the matter to referendum will further politicise the issue and will be a severe law and order problem. The founder of the ANP, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, had demanded the basic rights of the Pathans. At critical moments he was committed to the integrity of Pakistan. Issues like his burial in Afghanistan have been raised and cited, questioning his patriotism. But hardly anybody has evaluated it in the context of his emotional bonding with the Pushtuns and his affiliation to the cause. Questioning his integrity will not only put a question mark on the allegience of the Pushtuns but will further alienate them which can be exploited by the protagonists of the Pushtunistan movement.

Most of the Pushtuns look towards eastward for their socio-economic and cultural fulfilment which should neutralise any threat to Pakistan. Though Afghanistan, from time to time, has demanded self-determination for the Pushtuns living inside Pakistan, it has mostly used the issue as a bargaining tool and in the context of geo-political imperatives. Afghanistan itself understands the implications. In the context of an independent Pushtunistan, a demand for the inclusion of Pushtuns living in Afghanistan may arise at some point of time. Moreover, it understands that it is virtually imposible to incorporate these areas in Afghanistan. In the present context, the continuing civil war in Afghanistan reminds one of what Caroe had said long years ago that "Peshawar would absorb Kabul, not Kabul Peshawar."33

Party politics and internal political cleavages compelled the PML to abandon the renaming issue. It appears that before the alliance broke up, the PML did not oppose the adoption of the resolution, but abstained. It definitely had some second thoughts regarding the resolution. Though denied by the PML, it appears that the alliance between the ANP and PML was forged on the basis of certain promises and being aware of the importance the ANP gives to the issue of renaming, it is more likely that the party would not have settled for less than Pakhtukhwa. The PML backed out expecting a strong reaction in the NWFP's Hazara district and amongst right wing conservative elements inside the party. Where politics is practised along ethnic lines, the PML did not want to lose support in Abbottabad, the Hindko speaking areas of the NWFP and in the traditional stronghold of the Hazaras. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was apprehensive that in a given situation, Hamid Nasir Chattha and the Saifullah brothers of the rival factions will be reaping the benefits. Reflecting the sentiments of a regional party, as an indicator to regional aspiration, Begum Nasim Wali Khan, ANP frontier chief, said in an interview, "It was a harmless resolution, representing our deepest emotions as living people. Dismissing an assembly resolution as a piece of trash amounts to trashing the very standing of the assembly. Why do we have provincial assemblies at all ? This shows that there is only one unit in the federation of Pakistan."34

The ANP has been consistent in its demand for Pakhtunkhwa. In 1990, it was defeated by 20 votes when the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) refused to vote for the resolution; in 1997, it could not push through the resolution because of lack of majority. This time the resolution was fully supported by the ANP, Pakistan People's Party (PPP), Jamiat-e-Ulema-e Islam (Fazlur)—JUI(F)—and two members of the Pakistan Muslim League-Junejo (PML(J)) voted against the resolution. The 1981 census data reveals that Pakhtuns constitute 94 per cent of the population in the twelve Pakhtun-dominated districts located in the Peshawar Valley, in the southern plains excluding Dera Ismail Khan, and in Malakand division excluding Chitral. There are only two districts where the Pakhtuns' presence is negligible. These are Abbottabad (4 per cent) in Menshera (Hazara 40 per cent) and Dera Ismail Khan (30 per cent). According to the Frontier Government Bureau of Statistics, out of the 17.387 million population, 70 per cent are Pushto-speaking while the rest speak a number of local languages such as Hindko (in parts of Peshawar, Nowshera and Kohat), Hazarawal and Kohistani (in Hazara division), Khwar (in Chittral) and Seraiki (in Dera Ismail Khan).35 Logically speaking, since Pushtuns are in majority, the demand has to be respected. The renaming issue has certainly damaged the reputation of the PML because it is the PML that has forged alliances with regional parties like Balochistan National Party and the Mojahir Quami Movement (MQM). Both these regional partners are apprehensive about the intentions of the PML and have accused it of backing out from its so-called promises. Nawaz Sharif's growing clout and strong centrist tendencies sooner or later will bring him at loggerheads with the regional partners.

The political task that lies ahead of the ANP is to mobilise people for its cause and, at the same time, spell out its policies towards the minority ethnic group in clear terms. If anything can be cited as an eye-opener, it is the example of other provinces, where smaller ethnic groups are coexisting in harmony, and the NWFP can be an additional example rather than an exception.

The issue of renaming the province should not be considered on the basis of whether such a name is historically correct and should not be linked to the issue of Pushtunistan. It has greater political implications for the state of Pakistan in terms of fulfilment of regional political aspirations. Renaming is not only symbolic for the Pushtuns in terms of recognising their culture but the feeling of pride that accompanies such recognition should be understood sympathetically. The issue of Pakhtunkhwa is an emotional one and it should be evaluated in terms of the symbolic connotation of the demand. The federal government has demoralised the genuine Pushtun aspiration by picturising it as a seperatist movement. This parochialism undermines credibility and the spirit of regionalism.

Unless the Press and civil society play a role in educating the masses and emphasising regional aspirations, to be acheived within the framework of a unitary Pakistan, nation building will remain a distant dream. Regionalism or the demand for regional autonomy is not synonymous with separatism as has been projected by the elites in Pakistan—rather it is a the cost effective method of containing regional aspiration and preventing it from turning into separatism. If the elites in Pakistan think that a strong centre means a strong nation, then the 1971 tragedy is a reminder. Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. For the PML, the choice is neither: the PML has not learnt from 1971 tragedy nor can it afford to repeat the mistake. In its effort to avoid recurrence of 1971, provincial autonomy should be the hallmark of Pakistan's politics.



1. Pushtunistan includes the Pushtun dominated areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. In the present context, only the areas that lie inside Pakistan are discussed. The Pushtuns are divided into a perplexing number of tribes but they have commonality of language, religion, customs and history. Pushtuns and Pakhtuns have the same connotations. Both terms have been used in this article.

2. T.S. Firoze "The Pakhtoonistan Prong" in Virendra Grover and Rajana Arora eds., Political System in Pakistan, vol. 3 (Delhi: Deep and Deep Publications, 1995), p. 647.

3. Louis Dupree, Afghanistan (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1973), p. 402.

4. Ibid., p. 425.

5. The factors which led to the signing of the treaty can be attributed to issues like the internal power struggle inside Afghanistan. Moreover, the British pressurised the King by threatening to suspend supply of ammunition against the Russian threat. Thus, maintaining peace in the international boundary became imperative. "In the light of subsequent events it is difficult to understand the reasons which prompted the Amir to sign this agreement. Perhaps his consent was purchased by the increase of his subsidy...and by the recognition of his right to import munitions of war." For details see C.C. Davis The Problem of North-West Frontier, 1890-1908 (Cambridge: The University Press, 1932), p. 162. For details regarding the reason behind the signing of the 1905, 1919, 1921 treaties, see Leon B. Paullada "Pushtunistan: Afghan Domestic Politics and Relations with Pakistan" in A.T. Embree ed., Pakistan's Western Borderland (Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1985), pp. 139-143.

6. Olaf Caroe, The Pathans 550 BC-AD 1957 (London: Macmillan, 1965), p. 382.

7. Ibid., p. 420.

8. Ibid., p. 347.

9. Ibid., p. 349.

10. S.M.M. Qureshi, "Pakhtunistan: The Frontier Dispute between Afghanistan and Pakistan," Pacific Affairs, vol. 39, no. 1&2, Spring-Summer, 1966, p. 104.

11. Dupree, n. 3, p. 428.

12. Arnold Fletcher, Afghanistan: Highway of Conquest (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1965), p. 247.

13. Ibid., p. 414.

14. Caroe, n. 6, p. 413.

15. Ibid., pp. 419-20.

16. Dupree, n. 3, p. 487.

17. Pazhwak, 1953, pp. 95-96 as cited in Dupree, n. 3, p. 487.

18. AICC Papers, File no. G-14/1946-47, NMM&L as cited in Amit Kumar Gupte, NWFP Legislature and Freedom Struggle (Delhi: Indian Council of Historical Research, 1976), p. 200.

19. Since the NWFP was dominated largely by tribals, it involved the issue of bringing the voters to the polls, feasting them, or influencing them to get their votes in return. Refer Erland Jansson "The Frontier Province: Khudai Khidmatgars and the Muslim League," in D.A. Low ed., The Political Inheritance of Pakistan (London: Macmillan, 1991).

20. D.G. Deshmukh, Abdul Gaffar Khan (Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1967), p. 451.

21. The proposed Pushtunistan includes the old NWFP and the Tribal Agencies all the way down through Kalat, Baluchistan, and the Makran Coast to the Arabian Sea.

22. The ambiguity inherent in this demand can be deciphered from a few facts Prime Minister Mainardwal of Afghanistan said that Pakhtunistan will not include any part of Afghanistan when interviewed by John Griffith in 1966. On September 1, 1972, Pakhtunistan Day was officially celebrated throughout Afghanistan. When asked about the geographical boundary of Pushtunistan, Sardar Daoud in 1974 said that the boundaries were well known without exactly pointing out the areas. Within a week after capturing power in 1973, Daoud referred to the Pushtunistan issue twice, terming it as a political dispute. In 1973, due to domestic compulsions and the changing geo-political scenario, Afghanistan made a concession by insisting that the issue is not a territorial one. The negotiation between 1976-78 could not bring the desired result. The issue was raised in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) conference at Belgrade in July 1978, and United Nations General Assembly in January 1975 and October 1978. After the 1978 coup, when Pushto speaker Nur Mohammad Tarakhi captured power in Afghanistan, he hardened its stand on Pushtunistan by referring to it as a border dispute. In the first Press conference after capturing power, he referred to it as a boundary dispute and later on the same day met Abdul Ghaffar Khan.

23. L.F. Rushbook William, The State of Pakistan (London: 1962), p. 66 as cited in Qureshi, n. 10, p. 104.

24. See Dupree, n. 3, pp. 540-541 for details.

25. Lawrence Lifschultz "Aghanistan, the Not so New Rebellion" Far Eastern Economic Review, January 30, 1981.

26. Keesing's Contemporary Record 1955-56, p. 14039.

27. Asian Recorder, 1974, p. 12021.

28. East Pakistan, since British rule, consisted of only one unit. This was maintained even after independence, whereas West Pakistan consisted of several provinces like Punjab, Sind, the NWFP and the princely states of Bahawalpur, Khairpur and the Baluchistan States Union although the Tribal Agencies were not included in this scheme. After partition, West Pakistan was converged into one unit. This was done to bring about parity between East and West Pakistan with disproportionate populations.

29. Paulleda, n. 5, p. 133.

30. Akbar S. Ahmed, "Social and Economic Change in the Tribal Areas" (Karachi, 1977), as cited in Tahir Ali, Can Pakistan Survive (England: Penguin Publishers, 1983), p. 167.

31. POT (Pakistan Series), vol. 26, no. 61, March 25, 1998.

32. The ethnic stock of the Kushans is in some dispute and a considerable body of opinion has maintained that, while their subjects were Iranians in the western part of their domain, and India in the east, they themselves were an early wave of Hun or Turk affinity; others hold them to be yet another horde of Scythians and, therefore, akin to both the Sakas and Parthians. Caroe, n. 6, p. 73.

33. Ibid., p. 437.

34. Herald, vol. 29, no. 3, March 1998, p. 59.

35. Ibid., p. 65.