Pakistan's National Assembly passes bill to merge Federally Administered Tribal Areas with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa

Sunday, May 27, 2018

On Thursday, Pakistan's lower house of parliament, the National Assembly, voted in favour of merging the country's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) with the neighbouring province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). The bill, subject to approval by the Senate, the KP assembly, and the president, would ensure FATA is governed by the federal as well as the provincial government. The Senate passed the bill on Friday by a two-thirds majority, with 71 voting in favour and five opposing the merger.

The bill was passed by a 229 to 1 majority by the 342-member National Assembly in Islamabad. Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi thanked the opposition parties for their support. The Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party and Jamiat Ulema-e Islam (F) (JUI-F) were the only two parties to oppose the merger. Opposition leader Imran Khan of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) political party said, "The tribal people want immediate justice just like the system that we have in KP".

Since Pakistan's 1947 independence from British rule, FATA has been governed by "Political Agents" appointed by the Pakistani President. These agents exercise near-complete autonomous control over the area. About five million people live in the seven districts — Bajaur, Khyber, Kurram, Mohmand, Orakzai as well as North and South Waziristan — which constitute FATA. Political agents are responsible for providing governmental services and judiciary under Article 247 of the Pakistani Constitution.

Before January 12, when a bill extended to FATA the writ of the Pakistani Supreme Court and Peshawar High Court, the tribal area was out of the jurisdiction of the Pakistani courts. Collective punishment of a tribe can be declared under the Frontier Crimes Regulations, the code applicable to the seven districts. Per the rules dating back to the colonial era, FATA citizens do not enjoy all the rights under the Constitution of Pakistan that other Pakistanis are entitled to.

Prime Minister Abbasi said, "This is the start of a process, not the end of one. We need to gain the trust of the people of FATA, and that trust will not come just through words". He later added, "We have to give the people of FATA the same schools, the same colleges, the same universities, the same hospitals, the same roads and the system as is available to everyone else in Pakistan. There should be no difference there."

If the bill is passed, it is expected to change the first article of the Pakistani Constitution, which defines the territory of Pakistan, listing FATA separately from the other provinces. Article 246, which defines the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, would be modified and Article 247, which gives the guidelines to administer all the tribal areas including FATA, is expected to be removed once the merger bill is approved. The bill grants FATA citizens the right to elect their representatives in national and provincial assemblies.

The bill states the National Assembly seats are to be reduced from 342 to 336; the Senate is to be reduced from 104 to 96 seats. The change of the number of seats in both the houses of parliament occurs in Articles 51 and 59 of the Constitution which direct the number of seats available for those houses. The bill also says FATA is to hold 21 seats in the Pakhtunkhwa Provincial Assembly.

Militant groups Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda have operated in FATA for years, and military actions were carried out since 2008 to usurp militant groups' control over the area and restore Pakistani control.

Muttahida Qaumi Movement party leader Dr Farooq Sattar called for a referendum to make FATA a separate province and explained their support for the current bill as "for the sake of political unity". "We fear that if Fata is merged with KP, it will get difficult to create a new province in the future", Sattar commented. Calling it a "black day", JUI-F's representative Jamaluddin said the parties had voted to "usurp the rights of the people of Fata".

Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi said, "Today this house has approved a historic bill, which will have very positive effects for Pakistan." The merger bill needs to be approved by at least two thirds of the members of KP's assembly. Per Article 239 (4) of the constitution, any bill which may lead to constitutional amendment and alter provincial boundaries requires at least a two-thirds majority from the provincial assembly before it is presented to the President.