In the aftermath of the Cold War and the tragic events of 9/11, Pashtuns, residing on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, have been thrust into the global spotlight. As the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and a significant minority in Pakistan, Pashtuns face enduring stereotypes and systemic discrimination perpetuated by various societal, cultural, and political institutions in Pakistan.
Throughout history, Pashtuns have been depicted through colonial literature and contemporary media as exotic and demonic “others,” characterized by traits such as tribalism, violence, and backwardness. The legacy of British colonialism has deeply influenced how Pashtuns are perceived both within and outside Pakistan.
During British colonial rule, Pashtuns fiercely resisted foreign incursions, leading to multiple Anglo-Afghan Wars and ongoing hostilities along the Pak-Afghan border. British colonial literature portrayed Pashtuns as turbulent, unruly, and resistant to authority, perpetuating stereotypes that continue to shape perceptions of Pashtun identity today. Even in modern Pakistani media, Pashtuns are often portrayed negatively, depicted as violent extremists, drug traffickers, and Taliban sympathizers.
Urdu soap operas and films frequently reinforce these stereotypes, presenting Pashtun characters as simplistic, violent, and misogynistic. Popular sitcoms like “Bulbulay” have normalized derogatory jokes at the expense of Pashtuns, contributing to a culture of discrimination and marginalization. Moreover, textbooks in Pakistani schools often present Pashtun culture negatively, reinforcing stereotypes of tribalism and violence.
Politicians have also exploited these stereotypes for their own agendas, perpetuating divisive narratives that further marginalize Pashtuns. Former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s inflammatory remarks about Pashtuns being sympathizers of the Taliban exemplify how political rhetoric can exacerbate ethnic tensions and perpetuate discrimination.
The consequences of these stereotypes extend beyond mere perceptions, affecting Pashtuns’ social, economic, and political rights. Pashtuns in Pakistan have faced racial profiling, arbitrary arrests, and extrajudicial killings at the hands of security forces. The government’s recent announcement of a new military offensive in the northwest has raised concerns among Pashtun communities, who fear further violence and displacement.
PTM’s Struggle: Advocacy, Repression, and Defiance
The Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), a nonviolent indigenous organization, has emerged as a vocal advocate for Pashtun rights, challenging the military’s impunity and demanding accountability for past abuses. Founded in 2014 by a group of university students from South Waziristan, including Manzoor Pashteen, the PTM seeks to highlight the struggles of Pashtuns affected by Pakistan’s military operations against the Taliban and its local affiliate, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
The PTM gained national prominence in 2018 following the extrajudicial killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud, a young Pashtun man falsely accused of terrorism by Pakistani police. The movement’s leaders, including Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir, led widespread protests demanding justice for Naqeebullah and an end to state-sponsored violence against Pashtuns.
However, the PTM’s advocacy for Pashtun rights has been met with hostility and repression from the Pakistani state. PTM leaders and activists have faced harassment, censorship, and arbitrary arrests, with several prominent members, including Manzoor Pashteen, Mohsin Dawar, and Ali Wazir, being targeted for their activism.
In December 2023, Manzoor Pashteen was arrested by Pakistani authorities on charges of sedition and criminal conspiracy. Following his arrest, Pashteen was allegedly abducted by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies, sparking international outrage and condemnation.
The crackdown on the PTM is part of a broader pattern of repression against dissent in Pakistan. Journalists, activists, and political opponents have faced intimidation, censorship, and violence for speaking out against human rights abuses and government policies. The Pakistani military, which wields significant power in the country, has been accused of orchestrating this repression to maintain its dominance and suppress opposition voices. The current situation facing Imran Khan, the former Prime Minister of Pakistan, serves as a stark illustration of the lengths to which the Pakistan Army will go in confronting dissenting voices.
International human rights organizations have condemned the crackdown on the PTM and called for the release of its leaders. However, the Pakistani government has shown little willingness to address the grievances of the Pashtun community or engage in meaningful dialogue with the PTM. Instead, it has sought to silence dissent through intimidation and violence.
Repression, Militancy, and Neglect
The ongoing repression of the PTM underscores the challenges faced by Pashtuns in Pakistan in their struggle for rights and recognition. Despite facing discrimination and marginalization, Pashtuns continue to resist oppression and demand justice for themselves and their communities. The international community must stand in solidarity with Pashtuns and support their efforts to achieve equality and dignity in Pakistan.
In addition to repression by the Pakistani state, Pashtuns in Pakistan also face threats from militant groups operating in the region. The rise of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other extremist organizations has further exacerbated the security situation in Pashtun-majority areas, leading to widespread violence and displacement. Pashtun communities have borne the brunt of this violence, with thousands killed and millions displaced from their homes.
The Pakistani military has launched several military operations in Pashtun regions in an attempt to root out militant groups. However, these operations have often resulted in civilian casualties and human rights abuses, further alienating Pashtun communities from the state. Pashtuns have accused the military of using heavy-handed tactics and indiscriminate force, leading to widespread resentment and distrust. Further, the increasingly strained relationship between Pakistan Army and Afghan Taliban has placed the Pashtuns in Pakistan on a precarious situation, with the community being always viewed in suspicion as working for the interests of the Afghan Taliban.
Moreover, the Pakistani state’s policies towards Pashtun-majority regions have been characterized by neglect and underdevelopment. Pashtun areas have long been marginalized and neglected by the central government, with little investment in infrastructure, education, or healthcare. This lack of development has exacerbated poverty and unemployment in Pashtun regions, fuelling discontent and resentment among the local population.
In conclusion, the plight of Pashtuns in Pakistan is a complex issue that requires urgent attention and action from both domestic and international stakeholders. Stereotypes and discrimination against Pashtuns must be challenged and dismantled, and Pashtun voices must be heard and respected in the pursuit of a more just and inclusive society in Pakistan.
Author chooses a single pseudonym. Shinwari is a freelance journalist based in Peshawar, Pakistan.
Note: The contents of the article are of sole responsibility of the author. Afghan Diaspora Network will not be responsible for any inaccurate or incorrect statement in the articles.