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The case for Pakhtunkhwa

30 March, 2010

By Rahimullah Yusufzai


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The debate on renaming the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) is serious business because it concerns the identity of its people and their place in the federation of Pakistan. However, the direction it has taken is sometimes comical, and at best uninformed and politicised. Coining a new name for the province has become a favourite pastime for many people and, surprisingly, even those not belonging to it appear keen to select, if not impose, a name of their own choices.

Names such as Neelab, Nuristan and Darul Islam have been proposed for NWFP. People with fertile imaginations and unconcerned that the issue was to provide identity to its majority Pakhtun population came up with still more bizarre names that don`t even deserve to be discussed. Abaseen and Khyber were pushed into the limelight after receiving backing from the PML-N and PML-Q. Abaseen is a name used for River Indus that runs not just through the NWFP but also Gilgit-Baltistan, Punjab and Sindh, while Khyber is the name of a mountain pass that links Afghanistan with Pakistan.

Khyber Pass is the most famous of them, but we also have the Gomal, Tochi, Khojak, Nawa and other passes that connect the two countries. Naming educational institutions, banks and other institutions after Khyber has been a popular option because it is non-controversial and possibly also for want of more suitable names. But neither Abaseen nor Khyber could confer the identity that most people in NWFP seek in demanding the renaming of their province.

Lately, compound names have been proposed for NWFP as a compromise to overcome the deadlock between the two major parties to the dispute, the Awami National Party (ANP) and the PML-N. Hyphenation to "Pakhtunkhwa" of names including "Abaseen," "Khyber," "Hazara" and "Afghania" have been suggested as a way out of the stalemate. But not only will this make the new name long, but there will be no end to demands by other parts of NWFP, including Dera Ismail Khan and Chitral, seeking the addition of the names of the own regions. Certain politicians from Dera Ismail Khan even suggested "Pakhtunkhwa-Dera-Hazara." One didn`t hear Gandhara, the old Buddhist-era name of the Frontier, as a possible new name, or part of a compound name. Gandhara is certainly better in the historical context than, say, Khyber and Abaseen.

It is understandable if politicians with an eye to their respective vote banks adopt unreasonable attitudes on the issue. But it is disappointing if respected people such as Air Marshal (r) M Asghar Khan and retired civil servant Kunwar Idris don`t check their facts before commenting on the question. Writing in a newspaper on March 28, Asghar Khan commented that "in a province in which the Pakhtuns are a little over half its population, insisting on renaming it Pakhtunkhwa could prove a divisive one." He also proposed Sarhad, which means "border" and is already used in reference to the province in Urdu, as the new name. In the same paper, Dawn, the same day, Kunwar Idris wrote that "most Punjabi- and Hindko-speaking inhabitants of the province (who, perhaps, outnumber the Pashto speakers)..." He also said that Pakhtunkhwa would carry a ring of Pakhtunistan for the devout Muslim Leaguers opposed to the ANP, which is spearheading the campaign for the name Pakhtunkhwa.

For the information of Asghar Khan, Kunwar Idris and others, the 1998 census showed that 73.9 per cent of NWFP`s population spoke Pashto, 3.86 per cent, largely in Dera Ismail Khan, spoke Saraiki, 0.97 per cent Punjabi, 0.78 per cent Urdu, 0.04 per cent Sindhi and 0.01 per cent Balochi. A significant 20.43 per cent people listed in the "Others" column obviously included speakers of Hindko (believed to around 18 per cent), Chitrali, Gojri and other languages. The next population census must have separate columns for Hindko and the other languages to avoid future controversies.

73.9 per cent Pakhtuns in the census mentioned Pashto as their mother tongue, though there are many others in Dera Ismail Khan, including the Jadoons, Tarins, Mashwanis and Swatis in Hazara region and Miankhels, Gandapurs and Kundis, who are Pakhtuns but have forgotten Pashto. Challenge them that they aren`t Pakhtun, and there is a chance they might come to blows with you.

The census figures for the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), which are geographically and politically part of NWFP, are even more revealing in terms of the Pakhtun identity of the population. In 1998 an overwhelming 99.1 per cent of the 3.176 million population of Fata, to which the change of name will also apply, declared Pashto as their mother tongue. Even though the tribal areas have a largely separate administrative setup, it is headed by the governor of NWFP. If the Fata figures are added to those of the settled areas or districts falling under NWFP, the percentage of Pakhtuns and Pashto-speakers will rise even further.

In opposing the renaming of the province to Pakhtunkhwa, the two Muslim League factions led by Mian Nawaz Sharif and Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain are driven by the fear of losing votes in certain non-Pashto-speaking areas. These are the only two significant political parties represented in parliament that object to the name Pakhtunkhwa. The Jamaat-e-Islami and Imran Khan`s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf -- lacking representation in the parliament after unwisely boycotting the 2008 general elections and now keen to contest every by-election to get back into the assemblies -- also have reservations about Pakhtunkhwa and would likely support a provincial referendum on the issue. Almost all other political parties support Pakhtunkhwa, or in case of a stalemate, the alternative names Pakhtunistan and Afghania.

If democratic norms are to be followed, then the wishes of the majority need to be respected in the renaming. The NWFP Assembly, reflecting the will of the people, a passed resolution in favour of Pakhtunkhwa by majority vote in November 1997, with only the Saifullah brothers, Salim and Humayun, opposing it, and lawmakers from the PML-N, which was then a coalition partner of the ANP in NWFP, abstaining from the vote.

Abstention isn`t opposition and the decision not to oppose the resolution was taken to save the coalition government from collapsing. Politics rather than principles was behind this decision by the then PML-affiliated chief minister Sardar Mahtab Ahmad Khan, Pir Sabir Shah and other Hazara politicians now in the forefront of opposition to Pakhtunkhwa. It is intriguing that the PML-N, according to Pir Sabir Shah, was willing to accept Afghania as the new name for NWFP. Though the ANP leadership too appears ready to agree to Afghania, it is difficult to understand how this name would protect the identity of non-Pakhtuns in Hazara or elsewhere who believe Pakhtunkhwa would wipe out their identity. Abaseen, Khyber and other names too cannot give an identity to the non-Pakhtun populations, but they would certainly deprive the majority Pakhtuns of their identity.

The argument against Pakhtunkhwa that it is ethnic-based is neutralised by the fact that all other provinces in Pakistan carry names that identify the majority ethnic groups living there. Even if Punjab is named after its five rivers or Sindh after the River Indus, the majority populations in the two provinces have come to be known as Punjabis and Sindhis. Balochistan is obviously named after the Baloch, the majority ethnic group in the province along with their Brahvi cousins.

Controversies would erupt if Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan were to be renamed today. The number of Saraiki-speakers in Punjab are 17.36 per cent of its population, compared to 75.23 Punjabis; in Sindh only 59.73 per cent of the population speaks Sindhi, while 21.05 per cent speaks Urdu; 6.99 per cent speak Punjabi and 4.19 per cent Pashto; in Balochistan, not more than 54.76 per cent of the population name Balochi as their mother tongue, compared to 29.64 per cent naming Pashto, 5.58 per cent Sindhi, 2.52 per cent Punjabi, and 2.42 per cent Saraiki. In fact, Pashto-speakers in NWFP and Fata form the largest group of a single ethnicity in any province in Pakistan.

Ignoring the aspirations of the Pakhtun people (15.42 per cent), who form the second-largest ethnic group in Pakistan after Punjabis (44.15 per cent) and refusing to provide them an identity in the renaming of their province, would be both undemocratic and unjust.

 

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