He is young and handsome, with a Che Guevara-esque beard. And he wears a distinctive cap, a cap that has become the symbol of the Pashtun struggle against the Pakistan government. He is studying to be a doctor, like Che. But the similarities end here because, unlike the Argentine revolutionary, Manzoor Pashteen does not believe in guerrilla warfare or weapons. The protest of the ethnic group under the umbrella of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) founded by Manzoor and some of his closest friends, commenced more than a year ago, and it has been peaceful even though many of them have been arrested, harassed, beaten up or even killed by police. The last one to die, on February 2, was Armam Loni.
"The State killed our friend and member of PTM," says Pashteen. "And they are not even letting us lodge an FIR against his killer, a police officer retired from the Pakistani army. We were harassed while going to attend his funeral. They even shot at my car."
In the following days, police cracked down on protesters in several Pakistani cities. On February 5, five PTM members were arrested in Islamabad, outside the National Press Club, for no reason, says Manzoor.
"The same day in the same city there was a protest by mujahideen fighters in solidarity with Kashmir. The security forces didn't disturb them but tortured and arrested the peaceful non-violent PTM members asking for human and civil rights," he says.
The PTM took to the streets exactly a year ago after the killing in a fake encounter of Naqeebullah Mehsud, a peaceful PTM activist and aspiring model. Mehsud, according to his assassins, was a terrorist. "Pakistani agencies and Pakistani army," says Manzoor, "are doing this in a systematic way. They target someone, accuse him of being a terrorist, raise false allegations, and then they kill him with impunity. This is what they call war on terror. Taliban commanders are sharing the same camps with the Pakistani army, none of them is targeted. In my area, out of 88 so-called Taliban killed by the army, only one was real Taliban. All the others were civilian, common people."
The PTM was started by Manzoor and his friends in their college days, after their houses were first raided and then razed to rubble by the army during the "war on terror". They were staging demonstrations at the university. For years, the locals caught in the conflict feared speaking out about such acts, until the PTM burst onto the scene. Its tactics and objectives caught the imagination of the media, and drew support from across the spectrum. But then a crackdown began and the media too was forced to black out the group.
Manzoor has been arrested a couple of times and his family has been told that he is mentally unstable. He has been blatantly called up a number of times by members of the ISI and ordered to stop protesting, because, "'Otherwise the morale of our troops will go down. Stop, if you don't want to face consequences.' But I told them, 'I don't care for my life. You can kill me, torture me, beat me up but I will go on until the end, denouncing what you are doing to my people. Stop killing innocents, stop humiliating our women, stop making people disappear, stop cutting the throat of our elders. Stop hosting the Taliban in your fort'."
He was released, eventually, and the protest went on. The PTM is asking the government to stop enforced disappearances, to stop extrajudicial killings, to send the 'missing' people to court and, if they are found guilty of something, to punish them according to the law. They are asking the State to stop killing and torturing people during the 'search for terrorists', to remove landmines from their land, to be allowed to lodge an FIR against the culprits. They are asking the world to take notice of their situation. The result is they are called "foreign agents" by the same State that should give them justice. However, Manzoor is very clear on the matter: "RAW and India are supposed to be our worst enemies, according to them. But Kulbhushan Jadhav who, they say, is an Indian spy, is not a missing person and has not been extrajudicially killed. If we are RAW agents, we should at least be granted the same treatment."
The protest will continue, even though everyone's life is at risk. Manzoor says he is not afraid to die. "They will not kill me now, not when so many people are on the streets and the press and the rest of the world are aware of our fight. But I cannot rule out the possibility of being killed by somebody else, by non-state actors, Taliban or jihadis. But my life is not important. They can kill me, but they cannot kill the movement. Our struggle will go on till the last man, the last day."
The author is a journalist, writer and South Asia expert who has co-authored Apocalypse Pakistan: An Anatomy of 'the World's Most Dangerous Nation' with Beniamino Natale