Despite anti-terror commitment, Sipah tribesmen being asked to ‘do more’Archive
The sprawling lawns of Khyber House, office of the Khyber Agency political agent in Peshawar, were enveloped in thick fog on December 9 as nearly 300 elders of Sipah tribe anxiously heard the nearly nine minutes speech of Political Agent Shahab Ali Shah in pin-drop silence in anticipation of an announcement of a final date for the repatriation of over 8,000 registered temporarily displaced Sipah families.
Instead the political agent demanded of the Sipah jirga ‘to do more’ rather than announcing a date for their return, which they had been awaiting for since repatriation of the temporarily displaced persons of Bara was started in March this year. Officials say that 86,000 out of the total 97,000 families of Bara had already been repatriated since March this year.
The government had set five conditions for the return of Sipah tribe: public denouncement of any support to militant organisations, cleansing the Sipah territory of all militants, forming of Qaumi Sareshtha (a peace committee), handing over all wanted men to the administration and payment of a fine of Rs120 million.
“We were terribly disappointed and to an extant annoyed when there was no mention of the repatriation plan despite putting our signatures on a document regarding the formation of a Qaumi Sareshtha which was assigned with the perilous task of tracking down nearly 200 wanted militants, securing the Sipah territory from all unlawful militant organisations and assisting security forces in conducting search operations,” Haji Zahir told this scribe.
The list of wanted men also included the name of Mangal Bagh, renegade leader of proscribed Lashkar-i-Islam, and some of his close associates, all belonging to Sipah tribe. Mangal Bagh along with his lieutenants fled to Afghanistan soon after the start of Khyber One military operation in October 2014.
“The Sipah Qaumi Sareshtha must show to the administration that it is cooperating with the security forces and administrative officials in establishing lasting peace in their area, refraining from harboring and patronising militants and handing over wanted militants to the political administration as a prelude to the announcement of a final date for their return,” Political Agent Shahab Ali Shah reminded the Sipah elders despite an earlier assurance of abiding by all the official conditions for an immediate return of TDPs except payment of a fine of Rs120 million.
The administration had a few months back conveyed to the Sipah elders a message of the security officials that they were required to pay the fine as a penalty for an attack on security forces in Sipah territory in October 2014 in which eight soldiers including an army major were killed.
“This monetary fine is totally unjust and not acceptable to us as we had not committed any crime against the security forces,” insisted Shah Faisal Afridi, a Sipah elder who is member of the jirga negotiating terms and conditions for their repatriation with the political administration.
He said there existed no such precedent of imposing such a huge monetary penalty on a tribe in any part of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) and that too when the entire population of a particular locality was forced to leave their houses in anticipation of a military operation. “Those who had carried out attacks against security forces had long fled to Afghanistan while the innocent Sipah tribesmen were made responsible for a crime they were not capable of,” Shah Faisal insisted
Officials, however, earlier insisted that ‘some elders’ whose names were never disclosed, had given them a firm assurance that they would be collectively responsible for any attack carried out against security forces on Sipah territory during the military operation.
“We had been constantly demanding of the officials to either disclose the names of those who had made a commitment with the security forces for ensuring their security or withdraw the cash penalty as the tribe as a whole had never committed itself for providing security to the forces and instead we were on the run to find shelters for our displaced families,” Turab Ali, another member of the jirga, told this scribe.
However there was a change in the stance of political administration on payment of fine when Political Agent Shahab Ali Shah spoke to the Sipah jirga on December 9 at his office. “The fine has been imposed as the Sipah tribe had failed to fulfill their Collective Territorial Responsibility,” he told the jirga members most of whom were tightly clad in warm shawls to ward off the chilling cold while sitting in the open lawn of Khyber House.
The political agent made reference to the most abused Collective Territorial Responsibility clause of Frontier Crimes Regulation to which the entire Fata population had objections for being misused by the political administrations and was thus reformed under the FCR reforms package announced by the former president Asif Ali Zardari. The actual clause of FCR called for punishing the entire tribe for a crime or offence committed by just one person belonging to the same tribe.
Turab Ali said that most Sipah families had incurred financial losses while being displaced and were not in a position to pay such a huge fine.
Maqbali Khan, president of Bara Tajir Ettehad and Sipah tribesmen termed the penalty as a ‘clear-cut case of official intimidation and extortion’. “The TDPs themselves were looking for official assistance as their houses are destroyed, their businesses dismantled and most of them had lost their meager sources of income,” he argued.
Many Sipah elders also had doubts about the actual functioning of their Qaumi Sareshtha as they were yet to lay their feet on their land. “As per the Afridi customs and tradition, Qaumi Sareshtha could not operate in absentia,” Shah Faisal Afridi contended.
Disputing official figure about the number of registered Sipah TDPs (around 8,500), Mr Afridi insisted that the actual number was around 15,000 families as most of them could not register themselves while leaving their homes in haste and fear.
“Qaumi Sareshtha could deliver only when all the displaced families are relocated to their homes”, he said, adding that at present all the eighty members of the newly formed Sareshtha were living in 80 different and far-off localities of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab and Sindh and it was not an easy job to gather them on one spot at a particular time in order to resolve a dispute or to counter any ‘foreign’ threat.
The dejected Sipah elders however found some solace in the political agent’s pledge that he would ‘forcefully’ plead their case regarding waiving off the fine and announcing their return plan before the governor Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the coming few days. Till then they were made ‘to do more’ under an official agreement regarding the formation of a Qaumi Sareshtha in absentia.
Published in Dawn, December 13th, 2015