One province leads to many

August 08, 2011


THE wish has been expressed, the slogans raised. The people have set off on the road to a new province, which will take some travelling and entail quite a lot of discomfort, not to speak of the pain of those who must view this as a parting.

All historical tours of Pakistan must begin in India. Indian examples abound in all our discussions. It is no surprise then that the new province debate is in part sustained by how the Indians divided their provinces. They divided them in the wake of Partition, chastened by Partition. It was in a way logical for the people of India to demarcate the boundaries when a partition had just happened.

The movements for division — or as it were, a coming together of small British-period states — on a linguistic basis was strong even in the early 1950s, and following the creation of a Telugu-speaking Andhra Pradesh just six years after Partition, a number of new states emerged on the Indian map in 1956. The principles set and constitutional cover given, it later led to the creation of more states. Pakistan, meanwhile, decided to go its own way in nation-building.

Religion was a given, and it used Urdu, in the name of unity of the people who lived in its five provinces. East Pakistan was told by none other than the Quaid himself that Urdu was going to be the national language of Pakistan. The declaration itself and its consequences are indicative of the tough regime that the new nation-building exposed Pakistanis to.

Religion, as it turned out, was not enough of an adhesive, and those running the country’s affairs searched for the right kind of constitution and were desperate enough to go on adventures such as rule by the bureaucracy and by the military soon after independence.

They pandered to false notions of a union by experimenting with the One Unit system. All these steps failed and East Pakistan went its separate way in 1971.

That the remaining parts of Pakistan didn’t quite fit official definitions of a single nation was clear when the Baloch took up arms against the state in the 1970s. The Balochistan problem as it is often called persists to this day and other provinces have joined the protests against what they call Punjab’s hegemony.

Within Punjab, in areas at a distance from Lahore, local bards have been for long heard coming up with strong denouncements of the ‘Takht Lahore’. In the province’s southern parts, the political divide between the ‘locals’ and ‘settlers’ has been stark, manifesting itself ever more strongly in the politics of the areas.

In the 2008 election, for instance, a large number of seats in southern Punjab were won and lost on the basis of the local-settler bifurcation. Also the rural-urban divide was quite clear, reflecting in the tally of seats secured by the PPP and PML-N.

The PPP did win some seats where settlers had a significant presence while doing remarkably well in constituencies dominated by the locals. The PML-N, on the other hand, did better in urban areas with a sizable population of Punjabi- and Urdu-speaking voters as compared to its showing in the rural parts of southern Punjab.

There is truth in the observation that it is the PPP’s formal embracing of the idea that has given the call for a Seraiki province its verve and drive — more than half a century after our Indian cousins saw logic in smaller provinces ultimately formed on a linguistic basis. Mr Nawaz Sharif’s views notwithstanding, this is the basis on which provinces are going to surface in Pakistan, be it in Punjab or anywhere else.

Since few have been able to oppose it or even stay neutral, it has to be a genuine demand supported by public sentiment as well as logic. There are reports from southern Punjab areas such as Multan which say the people there are confident about being able to secure a province of their own.

There is a suggestion that the years that have passed since the great migration of 1947 have actually meant that groups have had that much more time to assimilate in a common culture.

In these times of high hopes and expectations, in these times of disillusionment with the existing system, settlers from Punjab’s upper parts are also seen to have become culturally compatible with the ‘locals’, the old measure of intermarriages still acting as a gauge to knowing the level of assimilation. Indeed, many new-generation ‘settlers’ have taken to speaking Seraiki.

These happy estimates from observers are quite contrary to the political news emanating from the area in the past. In all honesty, this assimilation part is yet to be fully probed. The earnest political impetus for a province has recent origins and it is only now that analysts will be drawn to looking at the cultural differences that exist. An analysis of potentially how disruptive they can be is yet to be undertaken. These will have to be reconciled as a new province matures from a dream to a practicable, constitutional option.

At this moment, a lot of work remains to be done, before the constitutional spadework on the matter begins. For one, there is not just one demand but various sets of ideas. Groups in Bahawalpur want a state of their own. Unlike Multan that has to dig deep in history to prove its exclusivity as well as affinity with parts that it now wants included in a Seraiki province, Bahawalpur was a separate state until only half a century ago. And then there are areas such as Dera Ismail Khan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa whose politicians want a union with the new Seraiki province.

These are as yet disparate claims that could ultimately set in motion a process aimed at a demarcation of the entire country.

Javed Hashmi has 16 provinces in mind. His PML-N colleagues could soon be found repeating elsewhere what they are hearing today in their home province of Punjab.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.