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Playing the Seraiki card

22 August, 2011

By Asif Ezdi


Southern Punjab is economically one of the more disadvantaged parts of the country. One reason is that it has been denied a fair share of the development funds by the provincial and federal governments. The region also has a distinct historical and cultural identity. Both these factors have given birth to a largely leaderless movement for the creation of a separate province, which has been gaining in strength over the years.

This is a legitimate demand that needs to be accommodated through a process of political consensus-building in quiet consultations, rather than through fiery speeches and divisive election-time politics. Above all, it is essential to avoid the kind of inflammatory rhetoric that was witnessed in the Punjab Assembly earlier this month.

But Zardari has different ideas. He sees in the issue a tailor-made opportunity for exploitation in the next election. After having repeatedly and brazenly played the Sindh card to bolster the corrupt and dysfunctional system over which he presides, Zardari is now scheming to exploit the Seraiki card in the hope of consolidating and expanding support in the Seraiki belt. Clearly, nothing is too sacred for him as long as it helps to prolong his rule and enables him to continue enjoying the immunity from prosecution that the constitution grants to a sitting president.

A clear signal of the PPP leadership's plans was given by Gilani last March when he declared that the creation of a Seraiki province would be made part of the PPP`s manifesto for the next elections. Babar Awan hinted last month that an announcement by Zardari on a Seraiki province was imminent, saying that the people of the area would be given the “greatest news in the history of Pakistan” during Ramazan. Since then, the date for that joyous event has been pushed back somewhat. Zardari would now be visiting Multan shortly to seek suggestions on ways of “removing the sense of deprivation of the people of South Punjab,” as Gilani has announced.

While PPP pursues its campaign to win votes in southern Punjab by holding out the prospect of a separate province, the party's new-found coalition partner, the PML-Q, is championing the cause of a separate Hazara province. The aim of this division of labour between the two parties is to cut the PML-N down to size in its two traditional strongholds: Punjab and Hazara Division.

The PML-N has clearly been put on the defensive. In central Punjab, where the party's power base lies, the idea of splitting the province is anathema. At the same time, the PML-N does not wish to risk losing further support in southern Punjab by coming out openly against a Seraiki province. The party has therefore recently adopted a more open stance on the issue. Nawaz Sharif declared last month that while it remains opposed to creating new provinces on ethnic and linguistic lines, the party is for setting up more provinces if justified for administrative reasons. The party has called upon the government to set up a ‘national commission' in consultation with the opposition to evolve a consensus over the idea of creating new provinces. Not surprisingly, this proposal has been turned down by the government.

The PML-N is right, up to a point. Creating new provinces on ethnic or linguistic lines alone will be both impractical and fraught with risks. Pakistan is a multi-ethnic and multi-lingual state in which people of different ethnicities and speaking different languages have so far co-existed peacefully in different provinces, moving freely from one part of the country to another. (Recent incidents of attacks on ‘settlers' in Balochistan are a regrettable exception; and the violence in Karachi has been fanned by unscrupulous, self-seeking and thuggish politicians rather than ethnic discord.)

Creating new provinces, or redrawing the boundaries of old provinces only on ethnic or linguistic basis would therefore be a formidable, if not an impossible, challenge. It will also generate new animosities and fan old ones that have been dormant. This is certainly no time to create new fault lines where there have been none so far.

Besides, Pakistan is home to nearly a dozen or so languages: Urdu, Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashto, Seraiki, Potohari/Hindko, Balochi, Brahui, Khowar (Chitrali) and Kohistani. In addition, there are Kashmiri, Shina and Balti in Jammu and Kashmir. Some of these languages have only a few million speakers, or even less. But if we are to take the principle of language-based provinces to its logical conclusion, we will have to create separate units for each of them, raising the number of provinces nearly three-fold, some of which would be too small to be viable. A fragmentation of this nature and on this scale of the state's institutional structure would certainly bring no benefit.

At the same time, since language is a very important element defining group identity and is the main vehicle of cultural expression, it is highly relevant in evaluating demands for the creation of new provinces, together with other pertinent considerations such as cohesiveness, viability and the weight of history. Whether all these factors taken together add up must be a matter of political judgment rather than something for determination by a commission of ‘experts'.

There are at present four proposals for new provinces that demand attention: Southern Punjab, South Pakhtunkhwa, Hazara, and Bahawalpur. Of these four, the demand for Bahawalpur is the least viable. Essentially, it is a demand for putting the clock back and reversing the merger of a former princely state. If Bahawalpur is restored, why not revive also the other states which were merged in the adjoining provinces: Kalat, Khairpur, Swat, Dir, Chitral and Amb?

The demand for Hazara province was raised only after the renaming of NWFP as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Those now demanding separation might still be persuaded to stay within it if ‘Khyber', the prefix to Pakhtunkhwa, is substituted by another word that they and the other non-Pakhtuns can identify with.

The demand for a South Pakhtunkhwa province to be carved out of Balochistan has been made for a long time by the PKMAP. It is now being supported by the ANP. But the Balochistan chief minister and many others in the province are opposed to this. The issue needs to be resolved amicably by the two sides. There is no other alternative.

The Seraiki province is an idea whose time has come. It would not really be a new province but the restoration of an ancient suba known in history as Multan. It existed as a separate entity for more than a millennium under successive Muslim rulers starting with the Arabs in the eighth century. Multan lost its separate status when it was annexed to Lahore after its conquest by Ranjit Singh in 1818, a few years before Peshawar met the same fate at the hands of the Sikh ruler. Peshawar re-emerged as a separate province in 1901 under the name NWFP but Multan has had to wait longer.

The name of the province and its boundaries are also potentially controversial issues. The supporters of the movement for a southern Punjab province would do themselves and the nation a service if they were to do three things.

First, they should make it clear that they do not want to name it after the Seraiki language and certainly not ‘Seraikistan' – for the same reason that NWFP was not renamed Pakhtunistan. Seraiki is in any case only a language and not an ethnic group. The province should be given a geographical name; or the old historical name of Multan could be restored.

Second, the province should comprise only Seraiki-speaking territories of the Punjab province. Any move to include Seraiki-speaking areas outside Punjab would be deeply divisive and should be firmly discouraged.

Third, the movement for a Seraiki province should organise itself on cross-party lines and rebuff those who are thinking of playing the Seraiki card.

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