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The rise of ethno-nationalism

July 12, 2009

GENERAL Yahya Khan announced the dismantling of the One Unit Plan on July 1, 1970. He restored four administrative units with added territories which were previously part of the princely states — Khairpur was added to Sindh, Balochistan States Union to Balochistan, Bahawalpur to Punjab while Swat, Buner, Amb and Dir were made part of the NWFP. To him and his associates the ethnic question was probably solved through this measure. Though it was a dictator's decision, the political parties endorsed it by unanimously signing the constitution of 1973.

In Pakistan it does not matter whether the political system is democratic or dictatorial, it is the mindset that makes a difference. Why in a land of ethno-cultural diversity, only four nationalities were recognised? Why additional population was added to Punjab when it was already a heavily populated province? The same questions can be raised about other provinces as well.

Why One Unit plan was conceived and implemented appears to be a very intriguing matter for those who are up in sleeves to protect the legacy of Sikh rule in Punjab as the country struggles against extremists with the support of the US and its western allies. Behind the scheme were certainly the status-quo forces that had determined the fate of the people since colonial era.

The One Unit plan was a move to counter the majority ethnic group, the Bengalis, who were poised to dominate the decision-making process of the state lest democracy guided its affairs. The plan was an open confession that Pakistan is a pluralist society; the authors of the plan definitely saw country's existence beyond the communal divide of South Asia.

The One Unit plan offered West Pakistan more than it deserved. It could now have equal number of representatives in the legislative assembly and could claim due share in jobs and development expenditure. So when this riddle was solved, the task of constitution making that had been unusually delayed was completed within one year of the implementation of the plan. The country had actually moved towards more centralisation; the provinces and a dozen of princely states were abolished and a single unit was created in West Pakistan.

However, the elections that were due after the making of new constitution were never held. Martial Law was imposed in 1958 to the utter disappointment of the non-Punjabi leadership who would blame Punjab for the wrong done against what they termed a consensus constitution.

The Bengalis separated their ways and became independent after a fierce struggle that pitted them against the Pak Army. Though all the four provinces of West Pakistan, when restored in 1970, got due share in the distribution of the areas previously under the jurisdiction of princely states, the ethno-nationalism that the martial law gave birth to had not died down.

Punjab has now become the target of resentment for the intelligentsia of the smaller provinces. In colleges and universities, the nationalists are convincing the youth that the underdevelopment of their provinces is due to the dominance of Punjab in the decision making process of the state. It outnumbers the others in terms of population; it takes away most of the jobs and development funds.

Even within Punjab the southern belt is up in sleeves against Central Punjab and the MPs of the PPP and the PML-F are demanding exceptional treatment for their area. Some have even threatened on the flour of the Punjab Assembly to launch a movement for the division of Punjab as a measure to end woes of the people they represent.

Outside Punjab there is a common sentiment among the regional parties against the dominance of Punjab in the federation. The best way to end this is considered the division of the province at least into two parts. This will bring about not only much-needed balance in the centre-province relations but will also introduce harmony of interest in the ethnic groups of the country. Seraiki movement is one factor that has emerged as a result; South Punjab identity has been constructed to neutralise the effects of rising wave of ethno-nationalism there.

The PPP, which has formed its government at the Centre and in two provinces, has ethno-nationalist parties like ANP, MQM and the BNP (Mengal) as its partners who have developed an urge to divide Punjab to ensure smooth working of the federation. If a Seraiki province is not possible, the provincial status of Bahawalpur can be restored. It is what the PML-F legislators from Rahimyarkhan and senator of the PML-Q is suggesting.

Ethno-nationalism is essentially a negative force and needs to be suppressed with the military muscle like we did in the case of East Bengal. In an ethnically diverse society like Pakistan, those who are denied due share in country's resources are bound to see the affluence of the others with suspicion and mistrust. That is why Sindhis oppose the Kalabagh Dam and see the rising influence of the MQM and ANP as a sign of alien forces getting stronger in, what they term, their homeland.

Not only Punjab but other provinces as well are experiencing a change due to the introduction of the local government system as well as the opening of private TV channels. The conservatives have been opposing the idea of devolving power to the district levels because it hurt their ethno-nationalist interests. But the groups formerly marginalised on political front welcomed the move of bringing the government to people's doorsteps.

In Sindh the very talk of wrapping up the system has angered the MQM while in Punjab the demand for dividing the province is getting stronger. The political leadership of Hazara division in the NWFP has not appreciated the idea of changing the name of the province to Pukhtoonkhawah; such is the case with DI Khan where Seraiki is the dominant language.

It is unfortunate that the country is sandwiched between the two divisive ideologies of ethno-nationalism and sectarianism. The blame goes to none but the vested interests that, to serve their own ends, have kept Pakistan politically unstable by promoting hatred among the people who have lived side by side for centuries; the land from Khyber to Sindh has been subject to foreign invasions and anarchy for last one thousand years. The nations in the neighbourhood and beyond have seen their interests served only by introducing divisions among the people of the area comprising Pakistan, say, the Indus-Hakra Valley.

If Punjab stays democratic and sees martial law a threat to the survival of the country, it would certainly improve its image in the eyes of the people from smaller provinces. Another way is to cut its size unilaterally or demand the federation to lay down a principle that should also apply to the other provinces as well.

If the politics of the four provinces creates deadlocks, then the creation of more provinces will certainly benefit the Centre. If ethnicity is not to work as a guide, good governance can be a principle.