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Seraiki province debate

August 14, 2011

FOR the past few weeks, talk about the creation of new provinces has dominated the discussion in the media.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has announced that the creation of a Seraiki province will be included in the PPP manifesto for the 2013 general elections, while the PML-Q claims its alliance with the PPP is only on condition that the southern part of Punjab be declared a separate province. Now, the PML-N has come up with its own suggestions for new provinces.

The creation of a Seraiki province will not only respond to the aspirations of the 40 million people of the Seraiki region, it should also remove the impression of Punjab having a ‘colonial’ mindset.

Before discussing the challenges obstructing the way to a Seraiki province, it is pertinent to mention the debate of ‘linguistic’ or ‘administrative’ provinces. Pakistan is a federation comprising federating units constituted on a linguistic, cultural and historical basis. Though the federating units have not been given their rights and have continuously been treated as administrative units so far, they have not surrendered their cultural, linguistic, regional and historical identities.

New provinces, if created, will in fact be new ‘federating units’ representing social, cultural, linguistic and historical values and the aspirations of their respective peoples in the federation of Pakistan. If talk of administrative provinces is not meant to confuse the people, then it simply shows constitutional illiteracy on the part of their proponents. The demand for new provinces, particularly the Seraiki and Hazara provinces, is not only for administrative or financial authority but also for the political, cultural and linguistic rights guaranteed under the constitution. Talk of administrative provinces is tantamount to denial of constitutional rights.

A Seraiki province is referred to as ‘south Punjab’, which is an incorrect description of the geographical dimensions of the Seraiki region. It would include not only south Punjab or the administrative divisions of Multan, Bahawalpur and Dera Ghazi Khan but the whole of southwest Punjab (including D.I. Khan and Tank in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) from Mianwali, Khushab, Bhakkar, Jhang and a part of Sargodha in the west Punjab to Bahawalpur division in the south.

There are some other important issues which should be addressed for the smooth and peaceful creation of a Seraiki province.

First, the reappearance of the movement for the restoration of a Bahawalpur state has made the demarcation of a Seraiki province a challenge. Despite the presence of Punjabi-speaking settlers largely in the rural areas, Bahawalpur division is a true representative of the Seraiki language and culture. The Seraiki Sufi poet Khawaja Ghulam Fareed belonged to Bahawalpur state. Most of the leaders and workers of the Bahawalpur Suba Mahaz, launched in 1970, later joined the Seraiki Suba Mahaz. But the fact that a separate course will ultimately dilute their cultural and linguistic identity because of the demographic changes in Bahawalpur division during the past decades has been ignored.

Political or quasi-political forces that do not want to see the erosion of Punjab’s dominance will resist the move to create a Seraiki province covertly if not overtly. The recent Bahawalpur province movement is already being seen by Seraiki activists as suspicious.

Second, the majority of people of D.I. Khan and Tank districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are Seraiki-speaking. They are asking to be part of a Seraiki province and have formed the Seraiki Suba Mahaz to launch a campaign for the inclusion of their districts in the new province. National Assembly deputy speaker Faisal Karim Kundi is in the forefront of the campaign. The ANP’s stance is not clear yet. It has not openly opposed the demand, but convincing the ANP leadership and other Pakhtun nationalists to surrender the two districts will not be easy.

Third, there are some districts in western Punjab such as Mianwali, Khushab, Bhakkar and Jhang wherein feelings of a Seraiki identity are strong but Seraiki political organisations non-existent. There are a large number of Seraiki activists in this area but they lack organisation and a vocal local pro-Seraiki leadership, except for Dr Sher Afgan Niazi.

Fourth, the Punjabi-speaking settlers in Thal and Cholistan and the urban population consisting of migrants from India are largely supporters of the PML-N. Two or three of their generations have been born and reared in the Seraiki region and the majority of them favour a separate province, but they may toe the PML-N line of an ‘administrative province’ obstructing the creation of a province on a linguistic and cultural basis.

Fifth, and perhaps the most important, is the disconnect between the PPP and Seraiki nationalists. As the nationalists have been isolated, they doubt the PPP’s sincerity regarding the creation of the province. The PPP Punjab leadership is based in central Punjab. Other senior party leaders are either from central Punjab or Sindh. Differences between the PPP and Seraiki activists does not augur well.

Intriguingly, the participation of proponents of the new provinces is missing from all discussion in newspapers and TV channels. The discussions are being held in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi without participation of Seraikis or Hazarawals. The discussions are being seen as one-sided and largely advocating so-called ‘administrative provinces’.

In view of the abovementioned challenges, the PPP and PML-Q, that are going to contest the next general elections jointly, need a comprehensive joint strategy and a joint campaign for the creation of a Seraiki province. As a first step, both parties need separate provincial organisations for the Seraiki region. Close coordination and participation of the PPP and PML-Q leaders and workers and Seraiki activists will make the strategy more effective.

Serious negotiations should be initiated with genuine leaders of Bahawalpur who have been the torchbearers of the Seraiki language, culture and history. The prime minister may compromise on the question of the capital of the proposed new province. The non-Seraiki speaking population should also be taken into confidence.

The writer is founder-general secretary of Seraiki Lok Sanjh.