Pakistan’s Apartheid Regime

Feb 2016

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[Work in progress] Error i, Graphite on paper, 22 x 30 inches. | Artist: Imran Chnna, 2015, Lahore.

In 2009, the then ISPR Director General, Major General Athar Abbas, came to a premier Pakistani university in Lahore to speak on the war on terror and, more specifically, drone attacks. It was a time when the army had, only recently, started to officially confirm rumors of drone attacks in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan, and acknowledge that questions about drone attacks and Blackwater in Pakistan were not just a conspiracy theory.1 Perhaps in light of this situation, Abbas was faced with a barrage of questions from the audience. They asked why the Pakistani army was taking on a war that was not its own. In response to such questions, Abbas suggested that this was very much Pakistan’s war. There was, he claimed, a very clear “red line” that the American presence in Pakistan would not be allowed to cross.

As the event progressed, Abbas was pushed on his notion of limits. The audience asked: Where is this “red line” precisely? Is it physical or psychological? Who gets to set it?

This essay explores Athar Abbas’ red line, by asking: Does this red line include the Tribal Areas? It is an attempt to continue some of the questioning that Abbas was subjected to, but unable, or perhaps unwilling, to answer. Today, the questions remain unacknowledged not just by Abbas and the army that he serves, but by segments of Pakistanis who have come out in support of ongoing army operations and drone attacks.

It would not be a stretch to claim that supporting the American war in Afghanistan came cheap for urban decision-makers. In fact, the real cost of the war continues to be borne by those citizens of the Tribal Areas we do not quite consider as our own.

As it stands, the Tribal Areas are subject to a deep-seated racism, and exist in a state of apartheid. A close look at the narratives that circulate on this area and its people provide the starkest evidence. We witness that the assertions are assumptions, and the assumptions are claims: ‘The tribals have always been different. Ask them, they will confirm it.’ ‘They never wanted to integrate into the rest of Pakistan.’ ‘They will sell their mothers to the highest bidder–their norms are different from ours.’ ‘They sell a sack of heroine and then proceed to their namaaz–theirs is a strange morality.’ ‘They are Taliban/they were unduly hospitable to the Taliban/they sold their services to the Taliban.’ ‘There is no other way to negotiate with them. They only understand the language of violence.’ ‘Zarb-e-Azb, drone attacks, forced migration–these are all necessary measures. Otherwise, well, who knows what might happen otherwise?’ The narratives about the Tribal Areas give a sense of complete chaos and anarchy, fears of a takeover of the world’s fifth largest army, an expectation of a coup d’etat, and a diagnosis that we are facing an epidemic of Talibanization across society. Large segments of the liberal intelligentsia and urban middle classes – that form the loudest voices – have been peddling such views on a regular basis.

The little activist resistance that exists within Pakistan to the army’s ongoing operations and its tacit support of drone attacks, does not seriously question these narratives, focusing instead on important, but ultimately narrow, critiques of drone attacks.

These critiques make the necessary point that drones represent a gross disregard for legal, political and ethical norms; and that the asymmetrical nature of drones’ ability to hurt, their messy dependence on unreliable human intelligence to carry out so-called ‘surgical’ strikes and the ease with which they can be misused, render them suspect. Nationalist and religious groups, and even a segment of Pakistani liberals and the urban middle classes, take this critique in another direction. They have primarily taken issue with the breach of state sovereignty, similar to the one we witnessed after the assassination of Osama bin Laden. Only a very small segment of leftists and liberals have been consistent in its questioning of the death penalties without trial in FATA. However, most of these left-liberal critics continue to stay silent on, or have come out in direct support of, the violence perpetrated on the Tribal Areas. 

Thus, the dominant critique of on-going state violence perpetrated on the Tribal Areas makes an important but, in some ways, easy criticism about drones. A much harder problem to grapple with is that which lies beyond drone attacks, namely the Pakistani military’s open and much advertised Zarb-e-Azb campaign, which builds on a more deeply layered and dangerous set of ideas and beliefs. Perversely, some exhibiting outrage at American disregard for Pakistan’s political sovereignty have only wanted the right to use our own army – and recently, our own drones – to kill Pakistani citizens. There can be little doubt that the wide state-level support for ongoing army operations in FATA is not entirely out of step with the broad societal acquiescence amongst the urban upper classes. In particular, Pakistan’s left-liberal intelligentsia and urban upper classes have provided tacit as well as explicit support for army operations in the Tribal Areas despite claiming a role for themselves as the conscience of the country on questions of human rights and freedom. It is because the army can count upon this support that it can openly advertise and glorify its ongoing Operation Zarb-e-Azab through a gigantic wall mural at the junction of Lahore’s most expensive residential areas: Cantt and Defence Housing Society.

Separating FATA

Army operations in FATA have been going on sporadically since the American-led NATO invasion of Afghanistan in 2002. However, the intensity and scale of these operations has increased significantly in the last two years. What drives this easy support of army incursions into border territories? 

I contend that this decade and a half long military incursion is possible because citizens of Pakistan who happened to live in the Tribal Areas are already enmeshed in a complex web of colonial and post-colonial legal and political regimes that separates them definitively from the rest of Pakistan. This separation is not just legal and political, but also – and perhaps most importantly – at the level of political imagination.

This separation has played a critical role in allowing the elite and intelligentsia of the urban centers of Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad, including paradoxically the Pashtun elite,2 to disregard FATA residents claims of equal citizenship with the rest of Pakistan. As I shall argue below, this political isolation did not result in a complete sociological and economic separation. It has nevertheless had a profound impact on the treatment of FATA residents as equal citizens of Pakistan.

And, so one might ask first, what precisely is ‘tribal’ and thus distinct about the people of FATA?

When the British colonial administration decided upon the label ‘tribal’ there was little inherent, etymological rationale for this. In Pakistan, the Tribal Areas are often compared with ‘settled’ areas. However, the tribes of Waziristan were not particularly different from the tribes of Peshawar Valley, which was considered a ‘settled’ area. Many of the tribes in western Punjab, again a ‘settled’ area, were nomadic and not settled. Rather than any specific features in social organization, cultural norms or political values, it was the difference in topography and direct competition with the Iranian Qajjar, Afghan and Russian empires that led to differential arrangements of control by the colonial regime. Given this international context, it was more expedient for the British to deal with selected maliks or leaders to ensure safe passage for British troops in return for cash payments and political titles, than to attempt to control the region directly. These differential arrangements were linked directly to the construction of the ‘tribals’ as requiring modification in governance strategies.


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One key similarity with governance in the settled regions was that just as the colonial administration had produced a more hierarchical feudal system in ‘settled’ Punjab than had existed prior to colonialism, through the consolidation of political, spiritual and economic power of loyal landowners, so did British arrangements in FATA consolidate political power among a few within a relatively egalitarian social structure. Or, to put it simply, feudal power in Punjab was not as absolute before colonialism as after it, nor were tribals as dependent upon the maliks as after their encounter with the colonial administration.

This is not to to deny the role of local figures within the Tribal Areas. They too were complicit in the reification of the notion of a collective and singular tribe through alliances and relations of patronage. From mullas and Sufi pirimurdi fraternities to maliks that regularly received allowances from the British or Afghan emirate in the colonial period and the Pakistani state in the post-colonial period, such figures set themselves up as representatives of one tribal collective or another to secure their position within local power relations. However, it was and remains the exigencies of power that continues to reproduce the idea of the singular tribe.

This artificial creation of the ‘tribals’ as singular, archaic and separate in the late 19th and early 20th century was adopted by Indian nationalist forces (both the Muslim League and the Khudai Khidmatgars in their relationship to the Congress Party) as well as by pan-Islamist forces with roots in Deoband and the Khilafat Movement. Within their political discourses, tribes of what became FATA were either demonized as backwards, or romanticized as free rebels easily mobilizable for the political ends of the political entity in question.

The early mobilization of militias from FATA to fight on behalf of the Pakistani state in Kashmir already in 1948 is the clearest example of how exclusivist nationalist and romantic pan-Islamist discourses combined with the institutional nexus inherited from the British colonial administration to produce the current Pakistani state’s approach to FATA.

Successive governments in Pakistan found it expedient to keep the citizens of FATA out of elected assemblies and without any relationship with the wider Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province within which the region is situated. Unelected tribal leaders sat in the National Assembly or the Senate but not in the Provincial Assembly where the most pertinent decisions about education, healthcare and infrastructure development decisions were made. In the National Assembly, members from FATA were not officially aligned with the major political parties and were present in insufficient numbers to affect any real change in their legal and political status. In the Provincial Assembly, they could have tilted the balance of powers significantly and therefore would have had greater leeway in negotiating decisions that impacted life in FATA more directly. 

Despite this forced political isolation from the rest of the country over the previous 67 years, there has been increased social and economic integration leading to major transformations in the region. One of the key factors facilitating the changes has been migration to the Gulf and to major urban centers of Pakistan that has helped finance education for a generation, altered social positions within communities and introduced new patterns of consumption. Kurram, Bajaur and Waziristan agencies have a very wide network of migrants in the Gulf. Migrants from Mohmand and Waziristan agencies dominate timber and transport businesses in most Pakistani urban centers. Major cities in Kurram, Khyber and Waziristan agencies have a similar or higher literacy rate than cities of similar size in Sindh and southern Punjab. A massive sociological transformation has been going on in the Tribal Areas that has been convenient to ignore to allow compliance with the demands of the war in Afghanistan. 

Miramshah, a city decimated by the Pakistani military on 15 June 2014, had a population of close to 50,000, and hosted one college for girls, four colleges for boys, several government schools and close to 20 private ones. The city was a thriving center of trade in smuggled cars brought across the border from Afghanistan facilitated by the Pakistani state and bought primarily by customers from the major urban centers of Lahore, Karachi, and Islamabad. Its representation as an inaccessible, inhospitable place outside the trappings of contemporary trade and migration circles is quite plainly a misrepresentation.


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The ‘primitiveness’ of the tribals is a very modern creation. From Rohillas in the Mughal court to Rampur during colonial period; from late 19th century migrants to Australia to contemporary circular migration to the Gulf region; and from important members of the Pakistani military elite to families dominating certain aspects of bureaucracy, FATA ‘tribals’ are much more integrated in regional and transnational history than this construction allows for. FATA has been much more entrenched in global markets than the compulsions of the war on terror can tolerate.

[Final Work] Error i, Eraser on paper, 22 x 30 inches. | Artist: Imran Channa, 2015, Lahore.

[Final Work] Error i, Eraser on paper, 22 x 30 inches. | Artist: Imran Channa, 2015, Lahore.

Race or Ethnicity? 

The officially mandated separate legal regime and political order of FATA is structured around the notion of a difference in their cultural and social norms. Within Pakistan, these debates have been subsumed under the rubric of ethnicity. For various historical reasons the terms ethnic, ethnicity or even ethnic nationalism do not induce the same indignant and horrified political reactions as the terms race, racial and racism. The Oxford English Dictionary does not have an entry for ethnic nationalism but defines ethnicity as:

“The fact or state of belonging to a social group that has a common national or cultural tradition.”

Racism is defined as:

“Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.”

A related meaning is

“The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.”

But what precisely is race then? Some definitions include:

“[Each] of the major divisions of humankind, having distinct physical characteristics: people of all races, colours, and creeds.

“[The] fact or condition of belonging to a racial division or group; the qualities or characteristics associated with this.”

“A group of people sharing the same culture, history, language, etc.; an ethnic group.”

Attitudes towards denizens of the Tribal Areas in urban Pakistan could be classified as racism had it been operating only on a social level. But what we have had is a systematic and legal regime of keeping people from the Tribal Areas separated from the rest of the country–quite effectively an apartheid regime.

Apartheid is not just racism but legalized, institutionalized racial discrimination. The list in the case of FATA is long and dispiriting. In 1947, the newly formed Pakistani state adopted the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) instituted by the British in 1901. The notorious FCR allows, among other, for anachronistic laws, and collective family or tribal level punishment for the crimes of the individual. In 2011 some modifications were made to the FCR but the legal regime has still not been repealed.

Similarly, for decades, the Pakistani state dealt only with maliks in the region, and when adult franchise was introduced in FATA in 1996, the ban on political parties – another remnant of colonial administration – was not lifted. Moreover, adult franchise is limited to electing representatives to the National Assembly (12 members) and to the Senate (8 members) but none in the Provincial Assembly, which is, as I argue above, far more important to FATA. Setting up schools, hospitals, clinics and colleges was left very much to the discretion of the local elite. Finally, the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and high courts does not extend to FATA.3 All this takes place in the name of the different cultural norms of the ‘tribals.’

Most commentators – and there has been no dearth of them in the last ten years since everybody has felt entitled to have an opinion about the Tribal Areas – have taken this institutionalized separation to entail a complete social and economic separation as well. But in fact, this is where, like any apartheid regime, Pakistani state mechanisms of separation begin to fail. It is, in fact, important to realize that FATA is not a homogenous lump of illiterate, primitive cave men as the mainstream media insists on depicting–there is significant variation within FATA.


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While the term ‘tribal’ may conjure up images of a small, inbred community, the population of FATA today is equal to that of a decent sized country like Austria, or two or three of the smaller European countries together for instance Slovenia, Croatia, Estonia and Cyprus. Waziristan, close to southern Punjab and Balochistan, is significantly more urban with extensive trade ties across Sindh, Balochistan and Punjab. Similarly, Khyber is very close to urban centers with most of the youth over the last 30 years immigrating to schools, colleges and universities including cities like Peshawar, Taxila and Islamabad. Kurram agency, with a significant Shia population and a high literacy rate in towns like Parachinar has an active professional class. Bajaur and Mohmand, on the other hand, are primarily rural and much more agriculture-based.

Yet, it is from the harsh conditions of these two agencies that many of the circular migrants have moved to bigger cities in search of a livelihood. These students, traders, workers, truck drivers, chai wallas, businessmen, professionals, army officers, policemen, security guards, timber sellers, etc. have been going back and forth between the place many still call home much as the migrant from western Punjab into the big city of Karachi might go back and forth. They have loved, laughed and fought with Punjabis, Sindhis, Mohajirs and the Baloch. To assume that they could have been contained in the legal and administrative cage that the state set up for them is naïve at best.


In 2013, I started collecting, with a team of two other researchers, oral histories from refugees and migrants from the Tribal Areas of Pakistan into the urban centers of Lahore and Islamabad.  The aim was simple: to understand how their lives had been changed in the last decade and how they had established new lives for themselves in these major urban centers–very different from what we imagined their homes to be like. This research is ongoing, but one thing is clear: the deep sense of disenfranchisement that has emerged as a result of the Pakistani elites’ decision to support the war on terror. 

Collecting oral histories is a messy business. It is full of divergences, interesting asides and confusing connections. Unlike the neat but perhaps limited narratives that texts tell us, human beings carry many surprises and multiple, at times contradictory, stories. Why, when and if they will share their life’s experiences, and which narrative they will pick from the multiple ones available to them remains complicated. However, a key benefit of this immensely personal way of understanding history is that it inevitably allows in fragments of lives and experiences that a more structured data gathering approach might miss. The deep and yet subtle ways in which state institutions and social norms continue to mark the ‘tribal’ as the other is becoming apparent from the daily encounters that many endure. There is the rickshaw drivers who must keep an extra aside for policemen just because he is Pashtun, and the students in university hostels who are always the first ones to be searched if there is any concern about terrorist activity. Or, there are the precarious tenants who pay a premium because their ID card marks them as residents of the Tribal Areas and the young voters who were not allowed to vote in the previous election because being born in Lahore is not enough when ones parents are registered in the Tribal Areas. These experiences are structured by the imaginary boundary drawn between the Tribal Areas and ‘the rest of Pakistan.’ It is this imaginary boundary that constitutes Abbas’ red line.

The legal and political separation of FATA has resulted in a deep internalization of the differences between ‘tribals’ and everyone else on both sides of this divide. Condemning drone attacks just because they fall within the physical territory of Pakistan without critically examining claims about the need for military attacks in FATA is to walk very fast in the wrong direction, and towards the wrong solution. The fact that Pakistan’s own army is now carrying out operations in the region is satisfactory for those whose only pursuit is an abstracted notion of legal national sovereignty. It might even be an acceptable solution for those who are worried only about the high collateral damage that drones entail despite their marketing as precision weapons. However, military operations in FATA should be unacceptable to all those who have claimed that Pakistan’s army is implicated in the support of militant groups in the region. If the army is implicated, then what precisely are we hoping to achieve from this now year and a half long operation (and several linked operations such as the one in Khyber agency)? Those who claim to defend human and liberal rights in Pakistan must come up with a coherent response that does not include demonizing the tribals for being primitive cavemen unable to understand anything other than what comes out of the barrels of a gun. 

Humeira Iqtidar is the author of Secularizing Islamists? Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamaat-ud-Dawa in Urban Pakistan and teaches politics and political theory at King’s College London. Since 2012 she has led an ERC funded project which included the collection of oral histories from FATA migrants and refugees in Lahore and Islamabad. 

  1. Conspiracy Theory as Political Imaginary: Blackwater in Pakistan” Political Studies, Online First August 2014 []
  2. On the complicity of the urban Pashtun maliks and elites see Sanaa Alimias article: []
  3. Though lawyers like Shehzad Akbar are trying to try cases by Tribal Area victims of drone attacks in the Islamabad High Court. []

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4 Responses to Pakistan’s Apartheid Regime

  1. Malik Khalil on Feb 2016 at 5:27 AM

    I come from the ‘tribal’ area, and I can testify that the content and the argument is valid and true. When I was studying in Lahore, I have had a hard time to convince my friends that your protests against terrorism will lead to more deaths of innocent people. That’s what happens usually. An attack in the cities is responded with killings in FATA.
    Though there are militants in FATA yet that is no justification for indiscriminate military operations for in the area. Places in other parts of the country are home to lethal militant groups but no actions is taken there.It leads us to your point- political apartheid.
    I think of FATA as an internal colony of Pakistan. We are good as long as we serve the state’s interests; for instance, we make it to legislature,bureaucracy and military but we have to keep our mouths shut about FATA.

    Thank you for writing for the people of FATA. I hope someday we would be able to live a decent and dignified life, at least in the political sense.

  2. Arshad Durrani on Feb 2016 at 10:44 AM

    Pakistani establishment had decades after 1947 to main-stream the ‘outcastes’of our polity.But,only power was transferred to the brown lackeys of the empire-builders.There was no grass-root motivation among the masses to create a cohesive political unit.

  3. Adil Khan on Feb 2016 at 12:00 AM

    You contradict yourself at number of times…you say FATA is not as backward as it is made out to be and you also Pakistani state kept it backwards! if it is or was not backward then surely state must have had a role…also Pakistanis condemned the drones when they heard the stories of human suffering… it was the APS attack that hardened their hearts and that too after years upon years of goading through bombs across Pakistan…I agree that governments need to do more in FATA but the governments need to do more in all of Pakistan…FATA is not an exception when it comes to Governance or the lack of it in FATA but the rule in Pakistan. Lament FATA but lament the bigger tragedy more.

  4. Fazal Rahman, Ph.D. on Jun 2016 at 1:08 AM

    In spite of some good historical information and criticism of the Malak system and American drone attacks and Pakistani military devastations of FATA (which clearly constitute US-Pakistan state terrorism), this article has been written from the conventional political perspectives. Most tribals would not want to be integrated into the extremely corrupt, inefficient, and stultified-bureaucratic politico-economic and legal system and institutions of Pakistan. In advocating such integration, the writer of the article is taking the same position as the American and NATO governments, which have pressured Pakistan for such integration, in order to better control the resistance there to American and NATO hegemony. Also, a lot of tribals are financially benefiting from their unique status, as they can market products that are illegal or unavailable in rest of the country, like small arms, ammunition, hashish etc.

    The governmental regulation and control in FATA has always been minimal and the established legal system of Pakistan has not been applied there. FATA tribal societies have been perhaps closer to anarchism than any others. People grow up there in very different social and political environment than rest of the country and rest of the world, which has powerful effects on their individual and collective mass psychologies and behavior. Among other things, they do not put up with laws, regulations, and other controls of the state, which domesticated humans in other areas internalize, take for granted, and adhere to automatically. They are different in a positive way. People of FATA have extraordinary courage, energy, and toughness and are action-oriented. They have always fought and won against great odds.

    In 1842, during the First Anglo-Afghan War, the ancestors of tribals in Afghanistan had destroyed the whole British army, in the rugged mountain passes, which had invaded Afghanistan and was forced to retreat. Only one British survived, who returned to tell what had happened.

    The use of the word apartheid by the author, obviously borrowed from the South African racist apartheid regime, to describe the situation in FATA, is completely erroneous, misleading, and inapplicable to FATA and its tribes, and their relations to the domesticated parts of Pakistan, which themselves are divided along linguistic and cultural lines. It is nothing but sensationalism. If there is an effort to integrate FATA into the legal and political structure of Pakistan, the tribes are very likely to resist that violently.

    Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) is mostly on the paper. Government is hardly in a position to enforce it. It cannot even enforce the laws and decisions of courts in the domesticated parts. For example, illegal occupations of privately or state owned land are common in Pakistan. In most cases, even after the owners obtain judgments from courts, these are not enforced.

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