25 Jan

By Asad Jan

"This feature article was originally published in TNS (The News On Sunday) on January 27, 2008"

 Prior to announcing the election schedule, the government was desperately looking for moderate parliamentarians especially in the tribal areas. The government had already enlisted expected moderate parliamentarians in tribal areas and many of them were confident that the results would tip in their favor. But after the issuance of the election schedule, the situation has undergone a sea change. Radical leaders are now calling the shots. They have taken the control of the election process in these tribal areas, and no one can contest the elections in FATA unless permitted by these leaders Case in point: Haji Mangal Bagh, a religious-cum-militant leader of Lashkari-Islami (LI), held a public meeting in Khyber Agency on the Pakistan Afghanistan border. Mangal Bagh -- a former student of fundamentalist cleric, Mufti Munir Shakir (the owner of an FM radio channel) -- enjoys immense clout and power in the area. In front of a mammoth public gathering on Jan 3, 2008 -- more than 65,000 people were in in attendance at Mandi Kas Ground, in Khyber Agency -- Haji Mangal Bagh administered oath on the holy Quran to nominated candidates for NA-46 belonging to Khyber agency -- hardly 10 kilometers from the provincial capital Peshawar -- which said that after election, the successful candidates would not sign any un-Islamic bill in the National Assembly and would not support anti-country strategies. Besides, the winners of the February polls would also pay for the development of their constituency from the MNA's funds. He warned that the respective tribes of any of the candidates would stand responsible for violating this oath. In the presence of several 'maliks' (tribal elders), street people and journalists saw the huge public gathering with keen interest wherein 13 out of the 23 candidates contesting the National Assembly seat delivered speeches in the well-guarded venue. Those candidates who participated in the gathering included, Amir Shah, Muhammad Saeed, Dr Niaz Badshah, Haji Faizullah, Maulana Nasrat Amin, Dr Muhammad Hanif, Barrister Hasham Khan, Senator Hamidullah Jan, Malikzada Zafar Khan, Yar Asghar, Suliman Shah Afridi, Haji Sohail Ahmed and Dr Haji Habib Shakir. In their separate speeches, they launched their manifesto and pledged that would strive hard to develop the area if voted to power. Each of the candidates had deposited Rs50, 000 for the arrangements of the public gathering and lunch for all the participants with Lashkar-e-Islami. There are 12 seats in the National Assembly for seven tribal units while those tribal areas attached with the NWFP have not been given any representation despite their longstanding demand. The Britishers -- the erstwhile rulers -- had introduced direct electoral system in tribal areas in an effort to maintain their dominance. The century-old system carved by the Britishers had been designed to benefit the local influential lot. After the partition, the Pakistani rulers carried this practice on till Feb 1997 when through a historic decision the tribal people were given the right to vote by the former President Farooq Ahmed Khan Leghari. In the wake of non-existence of democratic culture and practices, the people are yet to get familiar with the ABC of adult franchise. The February 2008 elections will be the third since the attainment of the right of universal franchise by the tribesmen. Mangal Bagh, who shot to prominence owing to his resolve to promote virtue and forbidding vices last year, in his address claimed that his organization was established in the area to eliminate criminals, anti-social elements, kidnappers and smugglers. "Alhamdulillah (By the Grace of Al Mighty Allah) we have been successful in our mission," he said. "The doors of Afridi tribes are opened for all, but they would be only meant to establish peace and maintain the law and order in the area, violators would be dealt sternly," he vowed. Bara is on the main trade route between Pakistan and Afghanistan and is thought to be a hub of smuggled goods on the border. The powerful Lashkar-e-Islami activists headed by Mangal Bagh executed a man allegedly involved in cases of murder, robberies and kidnapping for ransom in the Bara tehsil of Khyber Agency two months back. For this purpose, a specially convened tribal jirga handed out a verdict against Riaz known as Riazai. In gross violation of the prevalent law and the existence administration in the Khyber Agency, Riazai was put before a firing squad of veiled LI men that executed him in the Nala Khwar area of Bara, tehsil of Khyber Agency. The jirga -- appointed by Mangal Bagh -- alleged that Riazai had kidnapped seven women from a house in Bara Qadeem locality before forcing them to dance in front of people in a Hujra (guest house) while undressed. According to Bagh's election code there will be no public processions, no use of vehicles or display of party flags. Candidates can only hoist party flags atop their houses. However, party flags can only be used alongside Mangal's group flag. Frightened by his influence, the candidates are not obeying election code issued by the Election Commission of Pakistan but the one dictated by Mangal Bagh. In his code of conduct for the election, Mangal Bagh elaborated that previously the political agendas of the contestants was according to the priorities of the rich and tribal chieftains. "I administered oath to the candidates after their election in order to provide platform to the poor people as well," he argued. Furthermore, holding of a collectively public meeting for the candidates' campaign was aimed to put brakes on the colossal expenses that could herald unrest in the area. According to Bagh, if candidates desire to hold more of these gatherings, they would be welcome but under the same agenda of his organization. However, after several weeks, electioneering in the Bara area of Khyber agency has gained steam after Mangal Bagh agreed to amend his strict code of conduct for candidates, by allowing more freedom in their canvassing. Candidates would now be able to go out on campaign and display their posters but under such conditions, a candidate would not be entitled to gather more than 10 people. The mind boggling question is that how can a candidate win or even contest elections without the consent of Mangal Bagh? This is the situation in Bara and same situation persists in other areas where some other 'Mangal Baghs' enjoy unseen power.

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