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The numbers game

Published Mar 18, 2017 07:08am

WHO wants to be PM? Not me, for sure. I keep a mental list of jobs I’d hate to have, and Pakistan’s prime minister — or all-powerful dictator, for that matter — is at the very top.

Consider: we are a country of 200 million people mired in ignorance and poverty; the infrastructure is stretched beyond breaking point; we are bedevilled with internal and external problems, mostly of our own making; and we define ourselves more by sectarian and ethnic markers than we do as Pakistanis.

So who would wish to run this circus? Plenty of people, apparently. As though we didn’t have enough internal divisions already, Asfandyar Wali Khan, leader of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa-based Awami National Party, has just written to the prime minister to complain about the treatment of Pakhtuns living in Punjab.

The background to the alleged racial profiling of Pakhtuns in Sindh, Punjab and Islamabad is the recent spate of suicide bombings. According to security forces, the perpetrators were Pakhtuns of Pakistani or Afghan origin, and the Jamaatul Ahrar — the group that has claimed responsibility — is based in Afghanistan.

In retaliation, Pakistan has closed border crossings, and launched a dragnet aimed at Pakhtun housing colonies in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad.


Who would wish to run this circus?


Earlier, in the wake of the horrific attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar in 2014, many Afghan refugees were pushed out. Apart from waking dormant separatist tendencies, these moves also threaten already fraying ties with our north-western neighbour.

As it is, our national identity is a fragile thing. Some 45 years ago, it was undone by Bengali resolve to forge a separate destiny. In the mid-1970s, it was tested by Baloch separatism that has resurfaced in recent years. Jeeay Sindh was another potent voice, and the MQM once clamoured loudly for autonomy verging on independence.

Many of these forces appear to be stirring again after being prodded by a fear of the results of the long-delayed census. They have good reason for concern, as the 2017 census will overturn many assumptions about demography and power.

Consider its implications for Sindh: between the census of 1981 and 1998, figures show that the percentage of the province’s Urdu-speaking population fell from 24.1pc to 21pc, while the number of Sindhis rose from 55.7pc to 59pc in the same period. Over the last 19 years, many Pakhtuns, Punjabis and Baloch have migrated to urban Sindh for economic and security reasons.

This migration, together with lower birth rates among Mohajirs, could translate into fewer parliamentary seats for the MQM, and alter the power dynamics of the province. In Balochistan, there are concerns that there has been a steady increase in the number of Afghans in the northern part of the province. Many reportedly obtained Pakistani identity cards, thus being eligible to be registered as citizens in the census. This has alarmed the Baloch as the new numbers would call for a redrawing of the electoral map of the province.

Punjab also has reason to be concerned by the census. Rapid urbanisation will result in less rural seats and, thus, reduced clout for the established feudal families that have called the shots for years. And higher birth rates in the smaller provinces will reduce Punjab’s lion’s share of the country’s resources and civil service jobs. A rise in numbers in southern Punjab might well revive the demand for a Seraiki province.

The census will cause changes in the allocation of resources as well as parliamentary seats, so there will be winners and losers. And, as we know all too well, there are few good losers when it comes to money and power.

Already, Balochistan has demanded a delay in the census until the Afghans in the province leave. But if we wait for this to happen we might have to leave it till the next century. Traditionally, there has always been a significant Afghan presence in both Balochistan and KP, and since 9/11 it is believed to have grown considerably.

In most countries, a census is seen as a routine administrative exercise held periodically. But in Pakistan, it becomes a contentious struggle for power carried out to further certain interests in the eyes of those directly affected. This is why the army has been deployed in large numbers to ensure security for the enumerators.

The MQM sees the census as a weapon being used to cut the party down to size. The Baloch view it as an instrument to make them a minority in their own province. For feudal landlords, the whole exercise is a means to deprive them of their traditional power.

Given these apprehensions, we can expect howls of protests and accusations of foul play. After all, if politicians don’t accept elections as being fair, why would they endorse census findings? See why I don’t want to be the PM?

irfan.husain@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, March 18th, 2017