North Waziristan Agency: They sit on bare ground in a wide circle – men dressed in white clothes. Elderly tribal chiefs, their heads are wrapped in yards of cloth rolled into big turbans, a sign of prestige in the tribal society. With rosaries in hand, they wait for the jirga members to arrive at a verdict in a property dispute between two tribal groups, etching doodles on the ground as they engage in quiet conversation with each other.
After hearing to arguments from both sides, it is time for the verdict. The elderly tribesmen sitting on the ground call on both parties to the conflict to listen to the verdict of the members and abide by it. But before announcing the verdict, the heads of the jirga demand a fee from the parties for their role as mediators. Two tribesmen – one from each party – come forward with a bundle of currency notes in their hands. This they offer humbly to the head of the jirga.
“Malik sahib, here’s Rs.2 Lacs ($ .2 m) from our side and a same amount from the other side,” said Sher Gul khan, 55, one of the respondents in the case.
The head of the jirga takes the money and distributes it among the members of the jirga according to their status and role.
In absence of a regular judicial system with courts and a police system in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), this assembly of tribal elders – or jirga as it is widely known- has long served as a community institution to help resolve conflicts – a local court of sorts with members of the tribal community and the local political administration acting as judges and jury. Since time immemorial, jirgas have dealt with cases ranging from murder to property disputes and blood feuds to conflicts related to business.
According to the FCR (Frontier Crimes Regulations) – the law governing the tribal areas since 1901 – a jirga is a group of two or more people nominated by the political agent for a specific case with the consent of the parties in a conflict.
Members of a jirga are nominated by parties seeking resolution of a conflict or if the case is in the jurisdiction of the political administration, the jirga members are selected by the political agent or his assistant.
Jirga’s role, participation and proceedings have largely been voluntary to help resolve local conflicts amicably and ensure peace between tribes. The representation and mediation on part of the tribal chiefs and representatives has largely been voluntary – until recently that is. Increasingly though, the trend of paying Jirga participants for their role in conflict resolution has been in evidence, especially since the advent of Taliban in the region that has threatened local economy and subverted local cultural institutions.
“Earlier, jirga members would spend from their own pockets. It was considered disgraceful to demand anything from the parties at loggerheads with each other,” says Malik Rehman Gul Wazir, a tribal elder. “When you demand fee from the parties, you cannot expect them to abide by your decision. When you volunteer at your own cost and time, you are in a position to make them accept the verdict.”
Sharifullah Khan Dawar, author of the Book Riwaj (tradition or the way of life in tribal areas) says the practice of receiving money for mediation in jirgas is new and detrimental to justice.
“Elders participating in jirga is meant to discourage discord among families and clans but family bonds have been weakened with elders demanding money rather than seeking peace among their people,” says Dawar.
He said even when the poor economic condition of tribesmen did not allow extra expense, the elders still participated in jirga without demanding any compensation from the parties. “They would consider it as matter of shame and dishonour,” he said.
As Taliban militancy, military operations and mass displacements from the region shattered the local economy and distorted local culture, exposing tribesmen to influences alien to their isolated region, either need or greed has come to dominate social transactions, says Dawar. “Compensation or pandona, as it is locally called, has become a part and parcel of the jirga. So much so that without pandona, a jirga is considered a weak one.”
Haji Ala Khan Umarzai, a senior jirga expert hailing from frontier region of Bannu, said pandona per day for a jirga member is equal to the salary of the deputy commissioner – the highest administrative official in mainland Pakistan.
“Jirga members are supposed to demand no more than the salary of the district commissioner of the district,” said Ala Khan.
But there have been cases when jirga members have received huge sums of money for mediation, contributing to what local intelligentsia term as “corruption” of the oldest institution of the tribal life.
This, says Sharif Dawar, can be attributed to the “ego of the parties” that seek to influence the outcome of the jirga when their position in a conflict is particularly tenuous. “They try to weaken the opponents’ case by paying large sums to the jirga members. The Jirga members, instead of stopping them from spending extravagantly, go along with them to make a lot of money in a single sitting.”
Haji Ala Khan says Pakhtun values have been threatened as the tribal society struggles to transform and find its feet post decades of conflict, radicalization, militancy and globalization, with greed and lust for money distorting the real face of a much revered institution like jirga.
“There is an ever-spreading lust for lucre, to make more and more money by hook or by crook,” says Khan. “This is the reason why our elders neglect age-old values to gain economic benefits from jirga instead of respect and honor from the parties.”
Elders like Malik Noor Rehman Wazir who are concerned about the tribal community losing a traditional platform for justice says the situation is alarming. “A time will come that a poor man will have no hope for justice through jirga if this practice of paying the mediators continue.”
He suggests that instead of paying elders huge sums that vary from jirga to jirga, a uniform payment should be paid in keeping with their participation.
Shairfullah Dawar agrees: “I think there should be a consensus among jirga members on the amount paid to mediators and it must be made a part of the Riwaj – The tribal tradition. There must be an agreement that no jirga member would take or demand money beyond that specified amount.”
Many tribesmen hold the political administration responsible for the corruption of jirga. They say since the time the jirga was officially entrusted to the political administration, it got corrupted.
“Most of our elders are bound to tradition and honour. It is when the cunning administration indulged in nominating corrupt jirga members to subvert the institution, others started demanding money too,” says Tariq Khan Dawar.
He said the administration officials have their share in the money demanded by jirga members nominated by the political administration.
“I can tell for a fact that political tehsildars have a percentage share in the fee demanded by the Jirga members,” said Dawar. “Until the tribesmen themselves decide a reasonable amount as daily wage for jirga members, this sacred, cheap and speedy means of justice will go to ruin soon.”