Every morning Ahmed Shah puts on his circular, red-and-black cap, decorated with spades, and feels ready to take on the world. “For me this cap is a symbol of resistance,” he says. “That’s why I like it.”
Shah (not his real name) is one of thousands of Pakistanis who have taken to wearing the distinctive tribal hat to show their support for Manzoor Pashteen.
The charismatic 26-year-old, rarely seen without his “Pashteen hat”, leads the Pashtun Protection Movement (PTM), which has convulsed the country with unprecedentedly virulent criticism of the powerful armed forces.
It accuses the military of being behind a litany of abuses in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), an inhospitable, mountainous region on dominated by Pakistan’s 15-million-strong Pashtun minority and which has played host to a variety of terrorist groups.
Although Pashteen is committed to non-violent protest, his youthfulness, firebrand speeches and distinctive headgear have drawn comparisons with Che Guevara.
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What marks the PTM out as a particular threat to Pakistan’s army, which has ruled the country for more than half its 70-year history, is that its allegations mirror those made by western officials, namely that the army plays a “double game” with regard to terrorism, silently supporting groups that target India and .
The government has responded with a crackdown, banning rallies and harassing PTM supporters. Nine PTM activists have gone missing in Karachi, Pakistan’s southern business capital. At a rally last weekend in Swat, pro-military protesters tried to block entry to some of a 25,000-strong crowd.
Even the “Pashteen hat” has been subjected to local, unofficial bans. Replicas can no longer be found in the Swat valley city of Mingora, where at least five shopkeepers selling the hat were recently detained and beaten by , locals say.
At a rally in Lahore on 21 April, held in defiance of the government ban, Pashteen bowed his head like a boxer as minders escorted him through an exultant, selfie-taking crowd to a stage adorned with pictures of missing people.
My family say: if you are killed, then at least you will have done something for the people
Earlier that day, sewage had mysteriously flooded the ground. About 8,000 people – many in the Pashteen cap – chanted “the uniforms are behind the terrorists”, a slogan that fosters particular apoplexy in the military’s headquarters in Rawalpindi.
Pashteen tells his audience that he has come to Lahore, a city populated by relatively few Pashtuns, to “expose what the army are doing against us”. To his right, a gigantic poster shows a devastated, rubble-strewn street in a town in North Waziristan partly flattened during a 2014 military campaign against Pakistan’s Taliban.
That campaign is credited with helping reduce deaths from terrorism by more than two-thirds. Yet, according to the PTM, ordinary Pashtuns were caught in the crossfire, and have ever since been subject to humiliating curfews, checkpoints and collective punishment by troops stationed to maintain order.
So-called enforced disappearances generate particular grief. A government commission has dealt with almost 5,000 cases since 2011, but rights groups say this number vastly underestimates the scale of the problem. “According to the constitution, anybody who commits a crime must be produced in a court of law within 24 hours,” says Pashteen. “But so many people have been taken and are still missing.”
His voice rising, almost to a scream, Pashteen yells at the crowd “are you with the tyrants?” He calls on ordinary soldiers to defy the orders of high command, a statement some have interpreted as treasonous. One rally-goer from Pakistan’s Punjab majority bites his lip and glances anxiously over his shoulder. “It’s quite remarkable hearing this,” he says, on condition of anonymity. “What it portends for I don’t know.”
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By tradition the military is largely referred to in code, as “the establishment” or, in the case of agents of the feared Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), “angels”. Among PTM-supporters, however, that is changing.
“Before the PTM we didn’t say anything, even in our bedrooms, about the ISI and military intelligence,” says Shehrullah Khan, whose brother was “disappeared” from his luggage shop in 2016. With some safety in numbers, “we can now say everything in our mind and hearts”.
PTM leaders admit that some of the disappeared may have links to the Taliban, but argue that all should be produced in court to face charges.
A white flag, representing the movement’s commitment to non-violent protest, flutters above the stage. Among the stereotypes Pashteen is helping to break down, says analyst Fasi Zaka, is that of “Pashtuns being a martial ethnic group given to conflict”. Its leaders argue that Pashtuns are more victims of the Taliban than the willing hosts often portrayed in the media. One, Ali Wazir, has had 17 members of his family or killed.
The military response betrays choking discomfort. General Bajwa, the chief of army staff, has referred indirectly to the PTM as being “engineered” by Pakistan’s enemies. Reporting on the movement has been censored in the media.
Yet, unable to stop its growth, corps commander Lt General Nazir Ahmad Butt held a meeting last week with the PTM to discuss its “legitimate grievances”, referring to a five-point list of demands that includes de-mining, the punishment of a , and a “truth and reconciliation commission” on enforced disappearances.
“The PTM’s success,” says civil rights activist Jibran Nasir, is that after years of denial, some in the military “admit there have been some transgressions”.
From the back seat of a car whisking him away from a horde of supporters, Pashteen tells the Guardian that he is unconcerned by a possible threat to his life.
“At first my family said they would throw me out of the house,” he says, “but now they say if you are killed, then at least you will have done something for the people.”