Eventually sanity has started prevailing in the power corridors and the much-hyped and demanded merger of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) with the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province has been deferred by the federal government. The latter introduced the Constitution (Thirtieth) Amendment Bill in the National Assembly, but later deferred voting on the bill in the lower house of parliament. The introduction and postponement seems to be part of the strategy of the government of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). However, this is a correct strategy and the government must be given credit of devising it. Under the Constitution (Thirtieth) Amendment Bill more seats in the provincial assembly of KP province would be created so as to give representation to FATA in the legislature. Thus, the process of merging of FATA with KP could be initiated. The bill was put on hold after stringent opposition from two coalition partners of the PML-N, that is the Jamiat-e-Ulemae- Islam (JUI-F) and the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP). But it seems that government of the PML-N is also not in favour of the merger of FATA with KP.
Albeit pressured so by parliamentarians from FATA, main opposition parties, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and others it has been hard pressed to announce the merger in the light of the recommendation of the FATA Reforms Commission, constituted by Prime Minster Nawaz Sharif. The main argument behind the demand for the merger of FATA with KP has been that it would result in the mainstreaming of FATA. Even the introduction of the Thirtieth Amendment Bill, of which many political groups have been supportive, cannot make any difference. Because mainstreaming of such a big region like FATA with KP would not be possible just by giving 23 seats in the KP provincial assembly to FATA. 23 would-be members could not mainstream FATA, a region of nearly 8-10 million people. This would result in more conflicts and unrest among the inhabitants of FATA instead of creating conditions and a framework for addressing their needs and fulfilling their aspirations. Simultaneously, the PML-N government also introduced the Rewaj Act 2017 which provides for the extension of the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of Pakistan and also that of the Peshawar High Court to FATA.
Hitherto there has been no extension of FATA into the mainstream political and judicial system of Pakistan. Fazlur Rahman’s (head of the JUI-F,) opposition to the merger of FATA with KP is politically motivated and is well known. However, now Fazl, like PkMAP Chairman Mahmud Khan Achakzai has also started citing wrong historical reasons for opposing the FATA merger with KP. According to the new stance of the JUI-F head, expressed soon after the introduction of the Thirtieth Amendment Bill in the NA, the unification of KP and FATA would be opposed by the neighbouring state of Afghanistan. Because, according to Fazl’s statement, as per the treaty between British India, and Afghanistan, the 1893 Durand Agreement, the Durand Line was recognized as the border between the two countries and FATA, which straddles the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, was made the “no man’s land”. But this is factually wrong, because under the Durand Agreement, Afghanistan legally recognized the Durand Line as the border between the two states. Therefore, there can be no objection, as warned by Fazl, from Afghanistan over the merger of FATA with KP. Going by that argument, FATA could not be mainstreamed, as whenever there would be an effort to merge it with KP, pro-Afghanistan parties, like the JUI-F and the PkMAP would raise a hue and cry.
In order to proceed in the best possible interest of FATA, which is incontrovertibly a part of Pakistan, FATA should constitute a new province. Although the government of the PML-N has deferred the process of merging FATA with KP, hopefully sanity would prevail and the debate would end for good. The decision to merge FATA with KP taken by the federal government was vague and was not comprehensive, as it provided only for the merger over the next five years. In fact, the merger over five years was originally recommended by the Advisor to PM Nawaz Sharif,the Sartaj Aziz-led FATA Reforms Committee. However, the PTI, ANP, PPP, Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and certain other political groups were demanding immediate merger. The JUI-F and PkMAP, two key coalition partners of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), have been vehemently against the merger. Previously, the JUI-F very rationally had been suggesting that the merger of FATA with the province should be subject to a referendum in FATA. We would go a step further and would suggest that the merger must be linked to referendums in both FATA and KP. The above-mentioned stance of JUI-F that the merger of FATA with KP would result in objections from Afghanistan is incomprehensible. Clearly, the aim is to prevent the merger. The vague decision by the PML-N government to merge FATA with the KP province was merely aimed at shifting responsibility from the present government’s shoulders regarding the status of FATA, and let the next political dispensation implement it. As the decision was vague and taken under pressure, predictably, it could not be implemented. Keeping this in view we had forecast in these lines, last March. We wrote: However, the present decision to merge FATA is seemingly not going to be implemented. In other words execution of the policy decision regarding the merger would be very difficult to implement. There are different reasons for that.
For instance, implementing the proposed reforms amendments in various articles and clauses of the 1973 state constitution would be required. This would require political consensus between the major political groups having representation in the parliament. As the PML-N and the PTI, two of the main parties having representation in the parliament, although having an isolated agreement on the merger, would be very difficult to be brought together. In case most of the parties are able to arrive at the draft constitutional amendments to make FATA part of the province, it would require considerable time. If things would be rushed this would be akin to sowing the seeds of future conflict. Thus, it is good that the government has taken a timely decision to stall the process of merging FATA with KP. Even in future, if a decision would be taken to merge, this would have the same result—conflict and confusion. So the only way to mainstream FATA is to declare it a separate province with its own self-governing institutions and apparatus.