How Pashtoons became refugees in their own land

Back in the 1980s, a meeting was held among local people in Akora Khattak. Basically, the theme of the meeting was that with the influx of Afghan refugees we – the local community – have become a minority in our own town. As a minority, we are also eligible for some of the aid which comes in for the refugee community.

To a certain extent the meeting – and the resolution that resulted from it – were tongue-in-cheek, but there was an element of truth in the theme of the meeting. Over the decades that have passed since the meeting took place, the impression of tables turning – of the host community being estranged from their own land – has become even more true-to-life.

The impression was eloquently put on Twitter recently: “Strange we’ve become refugees in our own ancestral land, those who migrated from elsewhere are our new owners”, one Khadim Durrani tweeted. The estrangement of Pashtoons from their own land does not so much come from their accommodation of Afghan refugees: these were for the most part people who shared the traditions, language and culture of those who accommodated them. However, in so far as these refugees – and those who accommodated them – were pawns in a bigger game, the process of giving asylum to millions of refugees did impinge on the independence of Pashtoons. As Bacha Khan remarked in what was probably the last speech he ever gave in Peshawar, to the World Pashto Conference in 1987: “This is a war between America and the Soviet Union, but on this side also it is Pashtoons who are dying, and on that side also it is Pashtoons who are dying.”

It was another factor, one that also emerged in the 1980s, that directly led to Pashtoons losing control of their own land. This was the asylum given, not to Afghan refugees, but Arab militants who came to Pashtoon lands, ostensibly to take part in the jihad against the Soviet Union. In fact, most of them were also unwanted – or wanted by the law-enforcing authorities – in their own country. As a result, very few, if any, of these militants returned to their own country. When the Soviet forces left Afghanistan, the vast majority remained in the independent tribal territories in between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The result was a kind of internationalization of the tribal tradition of panah – giving refuge. The tradition was never envisaged as an international resource for those fleeing from the law in their own countries. It was originally meant as a recourse for those fleeing from injustice, but very soon it became an option for outlaws, mostly from the Pashto-speaking settled areas. Instead of going to jail or being hanged for their misdemeanors, these outlaws often fled to the independent tribal territories. There, they would take refuge with a strong, well-known local person. He would be guarantor of their good behavior. Whatever crimes they might have committed in their own localities, in the tribal area they would live in peace. If they did not, their guarantor would be the one to be taken to task by the authorities in the settled areas.

This system was also open to abuse. Instead of outlaws seeking refuge with upstanding tribal figures, they sought refuge with like-minded outlaws like themselves, albeit ones originally hailing from the tribal territories. The asylum given to Arab militants represented another step in the deterioration of the tradition of panah. Now, foreigners who were more powerful, more organized, well-armed and better off than their hosts took refuge in the tribal areas. Far from the system being a mechanism for keeping the peace, the tribal areas in the process became a safe haven from which foreign militants – in collaboration with their local collaborators – continued to conduct proxy wars in Kashmir, Afghanistan and even in Pakistan itself.

So we can detect three stages in the deterioration of the system of panah: firstly, instead of those fleeing from injustice taking refuge in the tribal areas, those fleeing from justice became outlaws; secondly, instead of these outlaws taking refuge with upstanding, well-known persons of good repute, the outlaws took refuge with disreputable elements who collaborated with the outlaws in pursuing criminal activities; thirdly, the tradition was internationalized to accommodate Arab militants who instead of respecting the host population, undermined them by conducting operations from the tribal territories which imperiled the safety and independence of the Pashtoon tribes.

It should have been religious-minded and pious elements in society who halted this process: the gradual degradation of the tradition of panah. It should have been them who weighed in with verses of the Quran that point out that refuge should be for keeping the peace, not for increasing conflict (Al-Quran, 3:97); that help and refuge given to others should not be for nefarious means, but should be in the cause of “goodness and piety” (Al-Quran, 5:2). They should have cited the telling advice of the Holy Prophet, that the help extended to wrong-doers should not be to egg them on and encourage them in their wrong-doing, but to “hold their hand and prevent them from doing wrong” (Bukhari and Muslim).

If this is the process whereby Pashtoon traditions and independence have been compromised – how they have become strangers in their own land – how can the process be reversed? How can Pashtoons once again take control of their own lands? The only way is for pious and patriotic elements of society – religious scholars and tribal elders – to come together and reassert their authority – on the basis of their own tribal and religious traditions – over elements that have taken refuge in their midst. They should re-establish panah in its true form, compliant with Pashtoon traditions and as a safeguard of the peace. Failing this, the estrangement of the Pashtoons from their own lands is likely to get worse.

It is not enough to complain about Pashtoons being refugees in their own land, it is time to come up with a solution on how the Pashtoons can reassert their authority over their own territory.


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