IT was perhaps inevitable: with President Zardari camping out in southern Punjab for a couple of days, talk of a ‘Seraiki’ province would be whipped up again. And so it came to pass, this time with the president’s suggestion that a new ‘Seraiki Bank’ would be established — though the modalities and legality of such a step were conveniently overlooked. That the PPP is playing up the emotionalism of the Seraiki issue in the pivotal south Punjab region ahead of the next election is known to one and all. But it has already forced a concession from the PML-N, which was perceived as being reluctant to carve up its Punjab base. Earlier this week, Nawaz Sharif endorsed the creation of a new province essentially reviving the territorial limits of the old Bahawalpur state.
While political rhetoric regarding the creation of new provincial units is common nowadays — perhaps keeping upcoming general elections in mind — the fact remains that this will not be an easy task. It is true that Seraiki speakers have a distinct identity and their voices need to be heard. Perhaps the first step should be the initiation of a debate on the issue; legislators, civil society and most importantly the people of regions demanding separate provincial status must discuss the question. If there is accord the debate can move to the legislatures. Aside from the constitutional process, there are thorny questions regarding the division of assets, resources and redrawing of boundaries. For example what will be the geographical boundaries of a proposed Seraiki province? Will it incorporate three divisions of southern Punjab, as the president suggested, or will the Seraiki-speaking parts of other provinces be included? It should also be realised that forward movement on the Seraiki issue will energise demands for other provincial units, such as the Hazara belt in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In Sindh, the issue of division is at least publicly disowned by the major parties with the MQM denying it wants a ‘Mohajir province’; however, the appearance of posters and graffiti demanding such a province has raised the suspicions of Sindhi nationalists.
In Punjab, it is fairly clear that the PML-N needs to discuss the Seraiki\Bahawalpur issue with the PPP-led federal government. The call for a new province must not be motivated by point scoring and political expediency, neither should it be rushed before the next polls simply to grab votes. Also, the province’s assent is key and cannot be overruled. The question of new provinces requires thought and consensus, not bluster and hyperbole, while the creation of new units should be guided by the need for better governance and devolution of power.