THE debate on creating new provinces in Pakistan is gaining momentum with the proposal approved by the parliamentary commission to create a new province — ‘Bahawalpur Janoobi Punjab’.
But the fundamental question which needs to be addressed while considering the demand for new provinces is: should the new provinces be established on an administrative or ethnic basis? The existing four provinces are carved along ethnic lines though the option to redraw provincial boundaries along administrative lines has been presented.
It is not only the rationale behind demanding a change in Pakistan’s federal structure that needs to be addressed; the issue that must also be examined is the potential for violence and conflict if new provinces are created without taking into consideration the interests of ethnic minorities and other stakeholders.
This is especially true when the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, which rules Punjab, is not on board. One can expect the deepening of political polarisation and the consequent impact on the election campaign.
While intolerance, extremism, radicalisation and terrorism shape the political landscape of Pakistan today, those demanding the recognition of their identities have threatened to follow a violent course if their right to a separate provincial identity is not granted.
Three contradictory factors which influenced the issue of creating new provinces in Pakistan were religion, nationalism and centralisation. The argument that the identity of Pakistan rested with Islam as a major unifying force was exploited by the bureaucratic-military establishment which wanted to suppress nationalistic forces and establish a unitary instead of federal state.
It was argued that the existence of Pakistan would be in jeopardy if ethnic and lingual identities were given legitimacy in the shape of new provincial units. The feudal-religious-bureaucratic-military nexus led to the creation of One Unit with the dissolution of the provinces in 1955 in West Pakistan as a counterweight to East Pakistan which had the demographic edge.
Although the provinces of Balochistan, North-West Frontier Province, Punjab and Sindh were restored according to the legal framework order proclaimed in 1970, since then no change in the federal map of Pakistan has taken place.
It was only in 2010 and after that the demand for new provinces gained impetus and became part of a serious political discourse. Renaming the NWFP (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) in the 18th Amendment was termed a major shift in the political landscape, and it immediately led to a reaction in the Hazara division of KP, with demands being made that a provincial status be granted to the division.
The tabling of the 20th Constitutional Amendment Bill by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement last year in the National Assembly, that sought the creation of new provinces in Punjab and KP, gave impetus to forces seeking recognition of distinct provincial identities.
The question is: why is the redrawing of provincial boundaries limited only to Punjab and KP and why not Sindh and Balochistan?
It is argued by some that when an initiative can be taken in parliament to debate the creation of Bahawalpur, Seraiki and Hazara provinces, a similar debate should be launched for redrawing the boundaries of Balochistan and Sindh. Why is the parliamentary commission only Punjab-specific and how can the constitutional requirements to create new provinces be met when the majority of Punjab Assembly members do not support the division of their province?
Constitutional ambiguity and impediments in the way of creating new provinces in Pakistan aside, perhaps the most important challenge in the process of redrawing the provincial boundaries is the potential for violence and conflict.
Three major demands for the creation of new provinces centre on Seraiki, Bahawalpur and Hazara provinces. But in all three cases, there is the likelihood of stakeholders — whether the ethnic majority or minority — not accepting the borders on historical, lingual, economic, political and ethnic grounds, thus increasing the possibility of conflict.
Even the name given to the new province — Bahawalpur Janoobi Punjab — may not pre-empt resistance from communities, particularly settlers, who may not feel comfortable in a new provincial set-up.
The case of the proposed Hazara province is further complicated because the bureaucracy in that division is Pakhtun-dominated whereas demographically there is an ethnic overlap. There is the threat of resistance on the part of the non-Hindko-speaking population of Hazara if minorities, namely the Pakhtuns, are marginalised in the proposed province.
In May 2012, PML-N members in the KP Assembly submitted a resolution in the provincial assembly secretariat asking the government to amend the constitution to create Hazara province composed of six districts of KP. Can those supporting the creation of a Hazara province get two-thirds majority in the assembly for the fulfilment of their demand?
There are two options to successfully deal with the potential outbreak of conflicts if new provinces are created or the status quo is maintained.
The first is to hold a referendum in areas where there is lack of consensus among the stakeholders — particularly in Hazara, Bahawalpur and Seraiki-speaking areas — to determine what the local people want. Second, instead of being created on an ethnic basis, new provinces could be established along administrative lines so that the threat of ethnic violence is averted.
The future parliament of Pakistan needs to seriously probe the fault lines when it comes to meeting the demand for new provinces.
The writer is a professor of International Relations, University of Karachi.