Pakistan’s ethnic Pashtuns say they are being rousted in midnight raids, detained and subjected to other harassment in the country’s crackdown on extremists following a series of terrorist attacks.
They see it as a case of guilt by association because the Taliban and other like-minded groups are predominantly Pashtun. Pashtuns have protested to the government and launched a scathing campaign on social media.
“If someone has done something wrong, authorities should act against them, but targeting someone only because he is Afghan, it isn’t fair,” said Toqueer Ahmed Kiyano, a Pashtun who owns a guesthouse in Pakistan.
The suicide bombing attacks, which killed more than 150 people in a matter of days last month, have been claimed by Islamic State and its allies. They have led to a major crackdown by security forces and worsened already strained relations with neighboring Afghanistan, where Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group.
The border was closed for more than two weeks — it reopened Tuesday, but just to allow pedestrians to cross for two days — in what was widely seen as a punitive action by Pakistan.
Alleged terrorism acts
Pakistan said its crackdown had killed more than 100 alleged terrorists and had resulted in hundreds of arrests. But Pashtuns said many people were being held without cause.
“The Pakistani constitution gives us basic rights,” Pashtun lawyer Abdul Wazier said. “We can go anywhere in Pakistan and do business. We are against all kinds of discrimination. Due respect should be given to us.”
Pakistan denies it is targeting Pashtuns. Rana Sana Uallah, the law minister of Punjab province, told Voice of America that the government was being very vigilant and was monitoring complaints about profiling. He said the latest operation wasn’t aimed against any particular ethnic group or nationality.
Pashtuns aren’t convinced. Over the years, senior Pakistani officials have been repeating a line that the country does not link any ethnicity or religion to acts of terrorism. But following the recent spate of attacks, Pashtuns living or working outside their ancestral land said they had been looked at with suspicion of being militants or militant sympathizers.
Police have denied issuing a public notice that circulated on social media saying citizens should report any vendors of apparent Afghan or “Pathan” origin selling tea, toys or dried fruits. Pathan is a common name given to ethnic Pashtuns in Punjab.
“Out of their impure intentions, they can carry out terrorist activities anywhere in the country,” the note said.
Noor Khan of Bajaur, a tribal region on the border with Afghanistan, is one of the owners of a factory that makes cement blocks in Rawalpindi, just outside Islamabad. He was on a visit home when the crackdown against ethnic Pashtuns began in Punjab province.
Khan told VOA’s Deewa service that his brother, with whom he owns the factory, called and advised him to stay in Bajaur until the situation eased.
“The police come every night. They carry out raids. They are extremely insulting,” he quoted his brother as saying. “They check [identification] cards, and if anyone is from Bajaur, they are booked.”
“I am now sitting here [in Bajaur] as a jobless man,” Khan said. “I have nothing else do to. I am under siege in my own country.”
Mohammad Naqib, also from Bajaur, told VOA he owns a cloth shop in Rawalpindi and that police had been harassing him and other ethnic Pashtuns living and working in the city.
“We are having a hard time because of the police,” Naqib said. “They come at night, at 1 a.m. We are asleep. They check our identity cards, they check our clothes and bags, and then make us stand outside in the cold.”
Ismail Khan, a cloth merchant in Inayat Kalay, a market town in Bajaur, said he had run out of merchandise but was hesitant to go to Faisalabad, an industrial city in Punjab and a hub of textile mills.
“They ask for our IDs and tell us, ‘You are Pashtuns.’ They insult us,” he told VOA’s Deewa service.
Traveled for talks
The issue has become so serious that the chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, a Pashtun-majority area bordering Afghanistan, traveled Tuesday to Punjab to talk with senior government officials and Pashtun representatives about reports of mistreatment.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Chief Minister Pervez Khattak, the province’s top elected official, said in an interview with VOA’s Deewa service last week that Pashtuns should not be singled out for profiling in the name of enhancing security.
There has even been a suggestion that Pashtuns should break away from Pakistan and form their own country, as Bangladesh did in 1971.
“We think ethnic and religious infighting leads to destruction of the country,” Senator Shahi Syed, a senior leader of the Awami National Party, told VOA’s Urdu television during a visit to Washington. “We condemned similar behavior back in 2013 in a joint session [of parliament] because Pashtuns were discriminated [against] and profiled. Punjab police need to behave professionally.
“Racial profiling of Pashtuns is reminding us of Pakistan’s separation from its eastern arm in 1971. They are pushing Pashtuns to the wall,” Syed said.