July 20, 2019, will be written in golden words in the politically chequered history books of Pakistan and the day will go do down in the annals of history as historical and epoch-making. It was on this day that the tribal people of the formerly Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) had achieved what they had been anxiously and very keenly waiting for decades after the creation of Pakistan.

Process of the merged districts of formerly FATA was completed on July 20, 2019, when the tribal people of all ages and genders went to the polling stations in large numbers to exercise their right of franchise for the first time ever and elect their representatives for 16 allocated seats for the merged FATA districts in the Provincial Assembly of Khyber Pukhtoonkhwah.

Irrespective of who won how many seats, the fact to be appreciated and duly acknowledge remains that many political parties had put up their candidates while a large number of independents were also in the run and tribal people including a good number of women, their faces covered with chadars, had turned out to cast their votes in favour of their candidates.

This great day, which marked the triumph of Pakistan, democracy and the tribal people, was only made possible to come by the brave and courageous armed forces of Pakistan, defenders of ideological and geographical frontiers of Pakistan, and law-enforcing agencies personnel who restored law and order and peace in the troubled tribal areas offering great sacrifices while chasing out terrorists, extremists and militants from the sacred soil of the motherland.

Seven agencies namely Bajaur, Mohmand, Khyber, Orakzai, Kurram, North Waziristan and South Waziristan with a total area of 27220 kilometres comprising FATA were till now being administered by the Federal Government through Governor of Khyber Pukhtoonkhwah through a special set of laws notoriously known as the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR).

Due credit must be given to the tribal people who had been defending territorial and geographical frontiers of Pakistan till the advent of the new century when the Pakistan Army had entered the tribal areas for the first time in the wake of threats to the national security, sovereignty and solidarity posed by foreign-funded elements.

Historically speaking, cutting long story short, over the years, attempts have been made by the federal governments, incidentally all civilian regimes, every now and then for mainstreaming of the tribal areas and giving them democratic and other rights like their brethren and sisters in the whole of Pakistan.

First serious attempt in terms of FATA reforms was made when Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto formed a ministerial committee which was headed by General (retired) Naseerullah Khan Babar with Abdul Hafeez Pirzada, Rafi Raza and Dr Mubashir Hasan as its members. The task given to the committee was to create a framework so that FATA can become a part of NWFP for the general election scheduled to be held in March 1977. But somehow it was decided that the issue should be taken up after the general elections. But most unfortunately, that did not happen as envisaged because then Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Muhammad Ziaul Haq had staged a military coup on July 5, 1977, overthrowing the democratically elected civilian government of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

Efforts to introduce the local bodies system in the FATA also failed unfortunately enough. In 2002, the Local Government Regulation was prepared to be extended to the FATA and in 2004 some Agency Councillors were nominated by the Political Agents. However, the system did not take off because the general public had no confidence in the nominated office-bearers who had no powers either.

Another serious attempt for introducing FATA reforms was made in 2006 through a Special Committee which was headed by Imtiaz Ahmad Sahibzada. But in the absence of major legal reforms and concentration of all powers in the hands of political agents, there was no viable improvement in governance or development indicators.

Earlier on in 2005, a Committee on Legal Reforms, headed by former Chief Justice of Pakistan Justice (retd) Mian Muhammad Ajmal was also constituted to recommend modifications in FCR after public consultations across FATA. The Committee after visiting all the seven FATA agencies and holding meetings with the jirgas of tribal elders and maliks, representatives of political parties, civil society, traders and businessmen and journalists as well had suggested many important amendments in the FCR. Following the introduction of the Adult Franchise Act of 1996, the Political Parties Order 2002 was also extended to the FATA in 2011 allowing the political parties to campaign freely in the FATA. But in the absence of provincial elections, its impact was limited.

The Committee had concluded fairly early in its deliberations that the FATA could no longer be retained as a “buffer against foreign aggression: it must be fully integrated into Pakistan and basic legal reforms introduced to restore fundamental rights, at the same time some extraordinary efforts would be required to accelerate development of the tribal areas to bring these on par with the rest of Pakistan at the earliest possible. This had led to the key recommendation that at least 3 per cent of the divisible pool of taxes under the National Finance Commission (NFC) Award should be allocated every year to the FATA for the next 10 years to finance a comprehensive socio-economic uplift plan for the tribal areas.

Taking into consideration various other factors, the Committee had accordingly also recommended that the merger of the FATA with Khyber Pukhtoonkhwah (formerly NWFP) will require a transition period of about 5 years. Meanwhile, the local bodies elections can be held in the FATA and the possibility of enabling the tribal areas people to elect their own representatives to the KP Provincial Assembly in 2018 could also be examined.

The demand for abolishing the FCR, a legacy of the colonial era, was widespread and virtually unanimously. But many tribal maliks wanted their tradition riwaj system of justice through jirgas to continue because the courts system in Pakistan, they had opined, was “time-consuming, expensive and corrupt”. The Committee tried to balance these viewpoints and proposed a blended judicial system, the FCR will be abolished and the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of Pakistan and Peshawar High Court will be extended to the tribal areas but still the traditional Riwaj system will be retained as local dispute resolution mechanism.

The then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had in November 2015 constituted a six members committee which was headed by Advisor on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz. The Reforms Committee had presented its report in the early part of 2017 on the basis of which the federal cabinet had decided to merge FATA with Khyber Pukhtoonkhwah. The Committee in December 2017 had duly endorsed FATA merger with Khyber Pukhtoonkhwah.

In mid-January 2018, the National Assembly passed the landmark Supreme Court and High Court (Extension of Jurisdiction to FATA) Act 2017 abolishing draconian FCR. The tribal areas have since been merged with Khyber Pukhtoonkhwah and the tribal people including women have accordingly elected their representatives to the Provincial Assembly to complete the merger province. The tribal people now enjoy the same rights as the people of the rest of Pakistan. Long live Pakistan, democracy and tribal people.