With the passage of a constitutional amendment merging Fata with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the National Assembly, the PML-N government has finally managed to do – albeit, perhaps reluctantly – what it had been promising for years. The strong opposition of its JUI-F and PkMAP allies had seemingly stayed the government’s hands but a flurry of activity in recent days, starting with the approval of the amendment bill in the federal cabinet and culminating with the National Assembly vote. Members of the JUI-F and PkMAP both walked out of parliament when the vote was called, ensuring that the amendment passed with an overwhelming majority. As important as the vote was, it is still too early to celebrate – both for procedural and implementation reasons. The Senate – where the bill has now been sent – will have to approve the amendment by a two-thirds majority before the National Assembly’s tenure expires on May 31, as does the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly before its term ends on May 28. The ball is now in the court of the PTI and the PPP and, while both parties are in favour of the merger, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that they may try to embarrass the government. By only taking action in the last week of its rule, the government has left very little room for manoeuvre.
Even if the constitutional amendment should pass, the work is only beginning. While the amendment abolishes the cruel Frontier Crimes Resolution, a makeshift replacement that is similar in nature will be in place for some time. Money will also be an issue. Fata will be given a special fund of Rs1000 billion and receive Rs124 billion from the National Finance Commission according to the details of the bill – but more money may be required to rebuild an area that has been devastated by years of war. Exempting residents of Fata from taxation for five years is an important start but more must be done to treat them as equal citizens in a country that has discriminated against them for the last 71 years. For now, however, this is an achievement that needs to be celebrated. It would have been easy to ignore the demands of the people of Fata, as successive governments have done ever since the founding of the country. Fata deserves all the constitutional protections that are guaranteed to every citizen of Pakistan and now, at least on paper, it will enjoy those rights. There is still a fight ahead to ensure the merger isn’t derailed but at least the vital first step has been taken.