Some have called it a historic step, while others have described it as the dawn of a new day for the tribal region. There are also many who are opposed to the move. In any case, it is an epochal decision – bringing the Federally Administered Tribal Areas into the national mainstream. Last week the federal cabinet approved the recommendations made by a reforms committee to end the isolation of the long neglected tribal region and give it the same constitutional, political and economic rights as the rest of the country to end its sense of deprivation. The decision taken in consultation with different stakeholders of the area will be given effect through a constitutional amendment to enable the people of FATA to elect their representatives to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly in the 2018 elections. The Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) will also be repealed and replaced by the new Riwaj Regulation for Tribal Areas, in which provisions related to collective responsibility will be omitted, thereby making an individual responsible for his own acts.
A number of other steps are also planned. To end the sense of economic deprivation among the inhabitants of FATA, the National Finance Commission would be requested to consider allocating 3% of the gross federal divisible pool on an annual basis for the implementation of the FATA Development Plan. This would be in addition to the existing allotment of Rs21 billion from the annual Public Sector Development Programme. The recommendations also include the target date for repatriation of all IDPs, which is April 30 this year, while reconstruction activities in areas affected by military operations would also be completed by 2018.
The committee’s report had earlier been removed at the eleventh hour from the agenda for the cabinet’s February 7 meeting which drew a farrago of criticism from supporters of the merger plan. Major political parties and FATA parliamentarians announced protest meetings outside Parliament against the delay in approval of the committee’s report. The Jamaat-i-Islami also staged a sit-in outside the Governor’s House in Peshawar on February 26. Besides the JI, other parties — including the Awami National Party, Qaumi Watan Party, Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf and the PPP – also demanded the immediate merger of FATA with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, abolition of the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) and the representation of tribes in the KP Assembly. But there are also some dissenting voices: JUI-F and the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party have opposed significant parts of the committee report, including the merger of FATA with KP. In this context, JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman also claimed that he had reached an understanding with Prime Minister Sharif on FATA reforms minus the merger part. JUI-F’s fear is that its vote bank in the province will be diluted.
Without doubt, the latest reforms end a historical anachronism. FATA comprises seven tribal agencies and six frontier regions. The arrangement was an outcome of the British forward policy against Afghanistan and Russia. This arrangement served the imperial designs of the Cold War when USSR occupied Afghanistan. FATA became the base of operations for launching a Jihad against the Soviet Union. Since 1947, tribal regions were loosely federated with Pakistan, with the will of the people represented by their tribal maliks. The Rahadari System and pastures permitted cross-border movement which has now become extremely contentious. The non-compliance with federal laws created an environment making FATA a haven for illegal activities. The latest decision will bring the people of FATA one step closer to becoming full citizens of Pakistan. FATA will gradually be merged with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa after a five-year process and the notorious Frontier Crimes Regulation will be abolished. Local government elections will be held in FATA after the 2018 general elections and the Supreme Court will have jurisdiction over the area. The reforms package also promises to repatriate all IDPs by the end of April and to continue providing special development funds to FATA. The people of FATA have been deprived of their fundamental rights for too long and they would finally be able to feel like a part of the country.
In the end, much will depend upon how the reforms are implemented. FATA has so far acted as a sort of backwater for the Pakistani state, which has used it as a buffer zone in the ongoing Afghan conflict. The plans for the FATA merger look good on paper. But there are challenges lying ahead. The rudimentary state machinery present there will have to be reinforced with new judicial systems, educational reforms and enforcement agencies. The physical infrastructure destroyed by terrorism and the war against terrorism will need to be rebuilt. It will not be an exaggeration to say that it will take years to bring FATA at par with the rest of the country. Along the way, the FATA-KP merger will face many hurdles. But the trick will be to stick with the plan come what may.