A painful fact of our life is that policies made by power wielders in the country are generally marked by illogic and inconsistency. But the situation becomes dreadful when a serious question of carving of new provinces, which is fraught with multiple ethnic, political, economic and cultural implications, is taken for short-term political gains of uncertain value.
Further bifurcation of provinces the way it’s being conceived in the official quarters can have lethal effects; it may be the beginning of unraveling of the federation held together by a fragile constitution. A hullabaloo suggests that Punjab would be the first “like a patient etherized upon a table” and dissected for its ‘crime’ of being big. But let it be remembered that the demand for new provinces is not limited to Punjab.
In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) people of Hazarajat have been agitating for a separate province for decades. One of the protest marches police at the behest of ruling clique shot dead several protesters. Muhajirs want Karachi to be separated from the feudal-dominated rural Sindh and declared an autonomous province. Brahvis too resent the Bloch domination in Balochistan. All such demands muted and loud stem from the phenomenon of diversity which is a historical legacy of all these regions.
Let’s see if diversity could be reason for the division of the Punjab? The fact is that Punjab of all the regions is most homogeneous geographically, linguistically and culturally. There is no natural barrier between different parts of Punjab. It’s one contiguous mass with slight variations. Two persons from Attock and Bahawalpur can talk in their own dialects and can still understand each other. People across Punjab with same ethnic roots have similar rituals, social habits and cultural practices.The panjandrums of cloudland who think otherwise should come out of their cocoon and look around to discover the ground reality. Can you say this about KP, Sindh and Balochistan? Can a Makrani from Gawadar understand Loralai’s Pashto or vice versa?
KP is Tower of Babel if you care to know. Can speech of a person from upper Sindh be intelligible to an Urdu speaker of Karachi? It’s merely a question of empirical data which one can collect if one dares to leave one’s sound proof office. If diversity is touted as a reason for the carving of a new province in the Punjab, rest of the three provinces be divided first to create new provinces because the phenomenon of diversity is much more deep-rooted and pervasive there. Let’s now have a look at another reason - administrative convenience - dished out to justify the division of the Punjab. The Punjab is too big, they cry. Is it bigger than Balochistan [in terms of area]? Is it bigger than Uttar Pradesh in India [in terms of population]? Let it be said for the comfort of patricians and plebeians: the Punjab despite all its failings and deficiencies is better administered than all other provinces. And that may ironically be one of the reasons for resentment. Should being big be a disadvantage? The biggest state of the USA is the most prosperous state. If the perceived exploitative role of the Punjab is the reason for unnaturally reducing its natural size, then you need to change the prevalent economic and political system. And what you say about KP which is over-represented in all walks of national life?
Another reason given out is that new province is a popular demand. But look at the results of the last two elections. Parties/ groups including Pakistan People’s Party advocating the creation of a new province were thoroughly routed in the south of the Punjab. If someone wants people’s consent they should arrange a referendum on the question. Trifling with the boundaries of the Punjab will never stop the exploitative machine from grinding.The real problem is rooted in the twin phenomena of uneven-development and concentration of power. Uneven development is product of a host of natural and man-made historical factors such as terrain, weather, geographical location and conducive or non-conducive conditions for business and connectivity with trade routes or lack of it etc.
Concentration of power is directly linked with political structures and institutional linkages between centres of power. Centre and periphery uneasily co-exist in a state of perpetual low intensity conflict. The centre by virtue of being what it tends to assume greater and greater power with the objective of administering and controlling the periphery to a point that peripheral forces are denied agency which transforms their resentment into a rebellion.
Unfortunately Pakistani state, a rehash of colonial state, hasn’t jettisoned the colonial habit of centralisation which is thinly concealed over-centralisation. Colonial forces did it in the name of order and ‘civilising mission’ and post-colonial state does it in the name of national unity and integration. Long-term remedial measures are needed to offset the effects of process of uneven development. Political point scoring would not salvage the situation.
Demonising Lahore for example would not deprive it of the leading role it plays in the economic, political and cultural life of Punjab and Pakistan. Let’s not forget it has a history of being an important power centre in the sub-continent. Akbar, the great, who unified India, made Lahore the capital of his very large empire for 14 years in the 16th century. But it in no way means that development can’t kickstart in the southern part of Punjab and elsewhere provided the required funds are made available. But the provision of funds is dependent on political will which is spectacularly lacking.
State institutions and political elite love concentration of power as it gives them immense economic and political clout which they use for their vested interests. They in no way are willing to share power with the people. Their deep mistrust of people makes them weary of notion of delegation of power. The beneficial effects of the powers delegated to the provinces under the 18th amendment have failed to percolate from the provincial centres to local level. The powers previously exercised by Islamabad are now being exercised by Lahore, Peshawar, Karachi and Quetta.
If we really feel we should create more provinces out of the existing ones, we must evolve a formula at the national level applicable all across the country. It’s foolhardy to think that slicing the Punjab would have no repercussions. The ill-conceived division of Punjab is fraught with danger and is sure to trigger a process that would pave the way for the creation of new provinces everywhere. Don’t take Punjab for granted. What would happen when Punjab gets disenchanted with the federation of Pakistan in the process of its mutilation and dismemberment? Islamabad, Imagine if you can. — email@example.com
Published in Dawn, March 16th, 2020