The newly-introduced reforms in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) will ensure the provision of education, health and other civic facilities to locals, for the first time in Pakistan’s history. It will also consolidate the country’s gains against terrorists and improve its image in the world after better management of the border with Afghanistan.
Envisaged by military and civilian officials under the National Action Plan (NAP) to counter terrorism in the country, the move aims to merge FATA with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) in phases. It is a landmark decision of the government but the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) cannot take its credit because it delayed the issue as long as possible as it feared it would politically benefit its archrival Pakistan Teheek-i-Insaf (PTI) of Imran Khan in the next election. Its allies, JUI-F Ameer Maulana Fazlur Rehman and Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP) Chief Mehmood Khan Achakzai, opposed the bill till the end and when the government refused to budge from its stance over overwhelming public sentiment, they demanded a new province for the tribal people, in a bid to garner their support ahead of the general election. They also frightened the tribal people with “brutalities” of the police and incited them not to provide land for police stations. However, their opposition to the reforms has exposed them to the public. The government of Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi still plans to mobilise public support in favour of the PML-N in a bid to take credit for the abolition of the draconian Frontier Crimes Regulation ahead of the general elections.
Earlier, the National Assembly passed a bill to extend the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court (SC) and the Peshawar High Court (PHC) to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), paving the way for its merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in a few months. The bill was passed comfortably as it faced opposition only from the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) lawmakers. JUI-F MNA Naeema Kishwar presented amendments to the bill which were rejected by the House. FATA MNAs embraced and congratulated each other after the bill was passed. They said a longstanding demand of the people of the area had been accepted. Leader of the Opposition Khursheed Shah said the House had first successfully brought about election reforms and now extended the courts’ jurisdiction to the tribal areas. “The FATA people have made huge sacrifices and they should now be rewarded with merger,” he said.
Before the reforms, the affairs in the areas were regulated by the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR), according to which jirgas accorded punishment in civil and criminal cases on the basis of their own traditions and beliefs while the state had a limited role. With a political agent as the judicial authority, criminal and civil cases were decided by him. The move to extend the jurisdiction of the courts was previously rejected by the opposition as it was perceived to be a delaying tactic by the government to avoid the merger in a bid to appease its coalition partners. Earlier, the federal cabinet had approved the extension of the Supreme Court and the Islamabad High Court (IHC) to FATA in September last year but the NA Standing Committee on Law and Justice changed it to the Peshawar High Court from the Islamabad High Court (IHC) as MNAs from the areas said it would be extremely difficult for people to travel to the federal capital for justice. A bill to merge FATA with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa still hangs in the balance because of opposition by the JUI-F and PkMAP. The JUI-F chief says the area must be allowed to maintain its independent identity and any decision about its future must be taken in accordance with the wishes of its residents. However, he has been left alone. He has realised that tribal people do not support him on his demand for a separate province and he has no support in the parliament on the issue either.
According to experts, the PMLN-N government delayed the reforms till the next election to attract votes but the move has proved to be counterproductive for it and its allies. It deliberately proposed the extension of the jurisdiction of the Islamabad High Court (IHC) to FATA instead of the Peshawar High Court (PHC). It included the Peshawar High Court (PHC) after protests from the opposition. However, the reforms will still be incomplete if local governments are not set up in the region. As the writ of higher courts is now applicable to it, it will also become imperative to set up an efficient policing system in the region. It will create new jobs for the locals and stem migration to other parts of the country.
The merger will also add 20 seats to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly and the number of seats of the house would increase to 144. The seats of the province in the National Assembly will also increase to almost 70, which would enhance its role in national politics. The number will be the highest after the Punjab which has 148 general seats in the National Assembly and plays a major role in the formation of the government at the Centre. Sindh has 61 general seats while Balochistan has only 14. The situation is ideal for the ruling party of the province to win the maximum number of seats. The PTI has already forged an electoral alliance with the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-S of Samiul Haq, an archrival of the JUI-F. It has also announced a Rs10,000 monthly honorarium for prayer leaders in the province to woo religious votes in the wake of the revival of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA). If the PTI manages to win 40 National Assembly seats in the next election, its chances of forming the government at the Centre and the province will brighten.