The Seraiki Suba bandwagon

Updated 04 Jul 2018

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THE issue of a separate Seraiki province was one of the highlights of Pakistan Peoples Party Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari’s visit to Multan in April when he raised the slogan of “Ghinsoon Ghinsoon, Suba Ghinsoon” — a watchword in Seraiki meaning “We will get a province” — while addressing a public gathering here.

The PPP and the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) have now publicly announced their support for a separate province and included the demand in their manifestos. No central leader from the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz has so far uttered a word about it, even though its local leadership has been supporting the demand for a separate province in southern Punjab.

The question of a separate southern Punjab province — or a Seraiki province — has been addressed by these two parties during their election campaigns. Only July 25 will tell whether the masses have answered the question or not if they significantly vote for either of the two parties.

A couple of days after Bilawal’s visit, PML-N parliamentarians from southern Punjab abandoned their party and came out in support of the demand for a separate province. This motivated PTI chairman Imran Khan into formally declaring his support for a Seraiki province for the first time, although his lieutenants like Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Jahangir Tareen had been making efforts to convince him over the issue for long.

It was Mr Tareen who had arranged a meeting between leaders of Janoobi Punjab Suba Mahaz party and Imran Khan.

Bilal Butt, the PML-N’s district chief, said in an interview to Dawn that the party’s local leadership was in favour of the creation of a new province.

“The party should have taken a stand over the issue as both major opposition parties are vocal about it. Silence will damage the PML-N’s vote bank,” he said, sounding a note of caution.

He claimed that the major obstacle to the division of Punjab was PML-N chief Shahbaz Sharif, who wanted to rule an undivided Punjab as its chief minister.

“He (Shahbaz), however, will not oppose the carving out of a new province if he feels confident that he will become prime minister after the elections. He will not even object to the division of Punjab into four provinces,” said Mr Butt.

Punjab PML-N’s General Secretary Raja Ashfaq Sarwar said his party did not oppose the creation of a new province, but division should be based on administrative grounds and not on ethnic lines.

He accused both the PTI and PPP of trying to exploit the matter to their advantage, recalling that none of their members or the legislators who formed Janoobi Punjab Suba Mahaz had submitted a resolution in any legislature calling for the creation of a new province.

“Putting the blame on the PML-N will only be justified if a resolution is presented in the assembly and we oppose it,” Mr Sarwar stressed. “We are ready to create a new province if this is the desire of the people of southern Punjab. If they want two provinces we will create two.”

In reply to a question as to why his party did not take an initiative while it was in power, Mr Sarwar said it was the opposition’s duty to take such initiatives.

Shah Mehmood Qureshi, the PTI’s vice chairman, said his party did not favour the creation of a separate province only for the sake of votes, but it believed a new province was necessary to strengthen the federation, improve governance and ensure devolution.

“How can you justify a province with a population of 110 million when many countries are smaller than this?” he questioned.

He alleged that the PPP was using the issue as a gimmick, while the PML-N was creating hurdles by floating the idea of two provinces — south Punjab and Bahawalpur.

“We will forge a consensus after coming to power. The PTI has promised that it will work for the creation of a Seraiki province within 100 days of taking over. Even if we do not come to power we will make efforts for the creation of a new province.

“The PTI did not have enough votes to get approval for the merger of Fata with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, but we did it with the help of other parties,” said Mr Qureshi.

Former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani claimed that it was the PPP which had a bill passed for Seraiki province from the Senate.

“Former president Asif Ali Zardari and I, as prime minister, raised our voice in favour of a separate province for the first time. The PPP included the creation of a new province in its manifesto,” the former premier added.

Seraiki intellectual Dr Ahsan Wagha observed the only progress over the last 50 years had been that major political parties had started acknowledging the importance of the Seraiki belt and its people.

“The trend now is to seek administrative separation of the Seraiki region from Punjab. Nationalism is not a popular phenomenon in Pakistan and no nationalist party has ever made it to parliament purely on the basis of nationalism,” he stressed.

Dr Wagha further said although the Seraikis’ problems were recognised by all four provinces as a national issue, there were rare exceptions that still opposed Punjab’s division.

“The demand for a Seraiki province is a national demand and not only that of Seraiki people. In the census of 1998, the Seraiki-speaking population was recorded at seven per cent, but it has now risen to 13pc in the latest census. Even this does not reflect the total Seraiki population, which is much more,” he added.

He further said it was now up to political parties and their candidates to show their commitment to the demand for a separate province.

“There will be a tough competition between the PPP and PTI as their candidates will raise the issue of a new province in their campaigns.”

Published in Dawn, July 4th, 2018