An ongoing crackdown by the Pakistani military establishment on the Pashtun Tahaffuz [Protection] Movement has taken a violent turn. Last week, according to eyewitnesses, military personnel deployed at a check post near North Waziristan’s Khar Qamar area opened fire on PTM protesters.

The PTM’s latest protest near the Khar Qamar area had been staged to complain about state authorities’ taking Pashtun youth into custody and about incidents of violence against the youths’ family members.

After a five-day-long sit-in, the protesters called in a pair of members of the National Assembly,  PTM leaders Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir, to lead a May 26 rally.

Two eyewitnesses, a tribal leader and a local shopkeeper, told Asia Times that the military opened fire as Mohsin Dawar entered the rally, with bodies falling around him. Dawar also fell down initially, owing to someone else’s falling on him, and was feared to be injured. Security officials wanted to arrest Dawar, those eyewitnesses said, but he escaped.

At least 14 people were killed and 45 injured. The PTM leadership says that no shot was fired from the rally.

A third eyewitness, an army officer posted in the region, said it was unclear who shot the first bullet but he contradicted his superiors by acknowledging that the check post had not been fired upon. The three eyewitnesses requested anonymity for reasons of personal safety.

The official army position is that the protesters fired on the check post. The military spokesperson, Major General Asif Ghafoor, maintains that the protesters “assaulted” the check post and initiated the gunfire, as a result of which the security officials were ordered to open fire.

While there had been a blanket ban on any media coverage of the PTM, and Pakistan’s civil-military leadership had accused the group of working against state interests, this is the first instance of state authorities using violence to target a PTM rally. Those injured were taken to the local hospital, where many of them remain.

Ali Wazir was taken into custody immediately after the clash. He and Mohsin Dawar have been at the forefront of the PTM’s demands as the two elected representatives of the group in the National Assembly. Khar Qamar comes under Dawar’s constituency.

After managing to escape the rally, Mohsin Dawar hid in Miranshah before handing himself over to the authorities on May 30. Before giving himself into custody, Dawar released a video message on social media calling the state “bloodthirsty” and urging his followers to “keep the nonviolent struggle alive.”

The PTM is a nationalist group representing the Pashtun people – an Iranian ethnic group historically known as ethnic Afghans or Pathans – from the tribal areas in the northwest of the country. It has been struggling against what it calls military-led oppression against the community.

The PTM has its roots in a group started in 2014 as an initiative for removing landmines from Waziristan and other areas affected by the war in North-West Pakistan. That initiative turned into a human rights movement  in 2018  after 27-year-old Naqeebullah Mehsud was killed, allegedly in a staged police shooting.

Mehsud, originally hailing from South Waziristan, was a laborer who had been aspiring to become a model in Karachi. An inquiry team that looked into the case called it “extrajudicial killing,” concluding that he was killed in a “fake encounter” that had been “staged.” Subsequently, an anti-terrorism court in Karachi on March 25 indicted former Malir District senior superintendent of police Rao Anwar and 17 others for murder.

Anwar, who accused Mehsud of being a Taliban operative, and the other 17 pleaded not guilty.

Mehsud’s killing was seen by tribal activists as the latest example of a Pashtun tribesperson suffering fatal ramifications of the community’s having been stereotyped as Taliban sympathizers.

Last month defendant Rao was in court requesting permission to visit his family abroad.

Today’s PTM is a product of the uproar over Mehsud’s killing, with the group’s initial demands ranging from clearing of landmines to punishment for Mehsud’s killer and revamping check posts in the former Federal Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

The Pashtun nationalist movement has since been rallying against extrajudicial killings, abductions and torture faced by the tribespeople most notably in the FATA – which was being ruled under a frontier crimes regulation (FCR), dating back to the British colonial period, until its merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on May 28, 2018.

For decades FATA’s volatility and isolation had, by many accounts, provided the conditions for the Pakistani state to use it as a safe haven for jihadist assets. The US has accused Pakistan of harboring groups like the Haqqani Network, as well as leaders of the Afghan Taliban, in FATA, from whence many of the attacks in Afghanistan have originated.

The  lawlessness – alleged by the PTM to be deliberately maintained by the government –  has also resulted in the region being used for smuggling, drug trafficking and illegal businesses.

The military establishment has accused the PTM of working at the behest of Indian and Afghan intelligence agencies. Prime Minister Imran Khan, a Pashtun himself, has maintained that the PTM is misusing valid grievances of the tribespeople to target state institutions.

While the government and military maintain that the mainstreaming process of the tribal areas will take time, the PTM leadership has expressed skepticism that the state really intends reforms in a region that it has long used for its strategic gains.

With countless rallies led by PTM Chief Manzoor Pashteen, and the election of the two members of the group in the National Assembly following last year’s general elections, the PTM has grown as a movement that claims to speak on behalf of the entire Pashtun community in the country.

While there are many prominent Pashtun, including legislators and Army officials, who have been critical of the PTM, the growing numbers at the group’s rallies suggest that they’ve struck a chord among the Pashtun community across Pakistan.

“Not just the Pashtun, our struggle is for all those that have been marginalized,”said PTM leader Sanna Ejaz. “Our fight is to uphold human rights, rule of law and civilian supremacy. For the Pashtun in the tribal areas, the movement aims to undo decades of injustices orchestrated by the state.”

The military leadership does concede that the tribals had to suffer owing to the War on Terror. Since 9/11, jihadist groups like al-Qaeda and the Taliban have not only found hideouts in the tribal areas of Pakistan, they have violently targeted the locals as well. Multiple military operations have been orchestrated by the Pakistan Army in the region, resulting in over a million internally displaced persons from the tribal areas.

However, both the military spokesperson Ghafoor and Prime Minister Khan echo the claim that the group’s sloganeering against the Pakistan Army makes its members anti-state actors. The popular slogan “yeh jo dehshat gardi hai iss ke peechay vardi hai” (the uniform is behind terrorism) is often echoed at PTM rallies.

“Let’s not forget that the slogan wasn’t created by the PTM,” said Sanna Ejaz. “And in no democratic country is the state’s response to slogans with bullets. In fact, multiple retired army generals have revealed the military establishment’s duplicitous security policies. Just read the books written by former military ruler Pervez Musharraf or former spy chief Asad Durrani,” Ejaz added.

Given the group’s alignment against the Pakistan Army, there has been a complete blackout of the PTM on the mainstream TV channels. While the English newspapers provide some space to the PTM, the local Urdu publications echo the official army narrative. This is reflected in the media’s coverage of last week’s clash in North Waziristan.

“The media took only the military’s account. Even the coverage by the English newspapers, the little bit there is, is more on the ISPR [Inter-Services Public Relations] line,” said Umar Aziz Khan, the executive editor of the English daily Pakistan Today. “They wouldn’t have even done that, but this particular event had to be addressed since both of the movement’s MNAs were involved.”

Umar Khan said that the blanket ban on PTM was partially imposed by the military establishment and partially a result of self-censorship. “They might not get calls on a day-to-day basis, but all [media houses] would have been instructed to avoid covering the PTM at least once,” he added.

A factor prompting mainstream media coverage of the PTM has been Pakistani opposition parties’ condemnation of the violent crackdown against the movement. Pakistan People’s Party Chairperson Bilawal Bhutto Zardari on Saturday said that the arrested PTM leaders Ali Wazir and Mohsin Dawar “are MNAs, not terrorists.” Dawar was a part of an Iftar dinner hosted by the PPP leaders on May 18, which also included leaders of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).

Many see the military action against the PTM as a result of the movement’s having garnered nationwide sympathy. This has prompted the civil and military leadership to accuse the PTM of being funded by Indian and Afghan intelligence agencies to “destabilize Pakistan.”

Mohsin Dawar in his National Assembly addresses said that he and the PTM leaders are open to accountability. Sanna Ejaz, who has organized multiple PTM rallies, also said that the group has maintained all financial records, and is open to audit.

Even so, the Pakistani leadership remains adamant that the PTM is an “anti-state” group justifying an iron-fisted response. On April 29, less than a month before the North Waziristan clash, Ghafoor said in a press conference that “time is up” for PTM.

Given that the PTM is not a group registered with the Election Commission of Pakistan, it is up to conjecture what Ghafoor meant. However, in interviews with Asia Times, multiple officials of the Pakistan Army have been critical of the military spokesperson’s openly implying violent action against the group.

“The military establishment is clearly trying to maintain its monopoly over the state narrative by initiating a crackdown [against the PTM] and keeping a stranglehold over the media,” said Lieutenant-General Talat Masood, former secretary of Pakistan’s Ministry of Defense Production, who is not a part of the ISPR approved list of defense analysts for the local media.

“But the use of violence would be counterproductive and would destabilize the state,” he further added.

Given that the PTM is an organic movement, the military leadership is wary of a full-on clampdown against the Pashtun community which is spread across the country. The army is currently dealing with a separatist movement in Balochistan, and is often reminded of the army role in the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, when a nationalist, separatist movement resulted in former East Pakistan becoming a separate state.

While the PTM remains a human rights movement, the accusations of treason against the group are a throwback to the Pakistani state’s dealing with ethno-nationalist movements in the past.