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Province that is a conspiracy

08 February, 2013

By M.A. Niazi

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The parliamentary commission on new provinces was made controversial enough by the fact that it was not consensual, as it did not have the PML-N members attending, but was made more controversial by the fact that the province in favour of which it gave its verdict was actually a clubbing together of two provinces for which movements had been carried out, as shown by its proposed name, Bahawalpur Janoobi Punjab. There seemed a further bit of hypocrisy with this name, as there was an attempt to avoid giving it a name indicating that the new province involves the division of Punjab on the basis of language. It also shows how language is not the best basis on which to construct even a provincial identity.

The name issue might seem small, and those supporters of the new province who are arguing that a Seraiki province should be created, and once created, the name can be resolved afterwards. However, it dos not augur well that the new province's name is already being abbreviated to BJP.

The reason for this unfortunate coincidence is the ramming together of two separate demands: the call for the restoration of the old Bahawalpur state is being combined with the demand for a South Punjab province. That has also created a controversy over the capital of the new province, which has been temporarily settled by the commission as a sort of splitting of capitals, with some new provincial institutions to be based in Bahawalpur, and the rest in Multan. The PML-N has argued that new provinces should be created only on administrative grounds, which might explain one province, about which the boundaries are also controversial.

There are two issues. The first is that the new province contains within itself the seeds of a future partition into two provinces, one based on Multan, the other on Bahawalpur. Restoring the old Bahawalpur state may not be feasible, as that was a monarchy, with its treaty relationship with Pakistan as the paramount power specifically excluded by the constitution. There is the recourse of making the old state, whose boundaries were not changed when it became a civil division after One Unit was broken up, a province.

Then there is the question of how far this division would be carried. There has so far been no attempt to answer the question of how far India, which has a long record of stirring any pot that might be cooking in Pakistan, might be involved in backing the Seraiki movement.

There is a clear political motive for the PPP, which is that a new province would be created where it would have a permanent majority. This ignores the fact that in 1990 and 1996, its defeats included wipeouts in the areas nominated for the new province. It also ignores the fact that the new province would remove from Punjab those areas where the PPP has its best hope of winning, and ensure that in the rump province there would be a permanent PML-N majority. There is also the need to shore up support in the BJP areas, through an issue other than inflation, loadshedding or deteriorating law and order, which are issues nationwide.

Then there is the language issue. The language of the new province would be Seraiki, but is Seraiki any more than a dialect of Punjabi? There are those who would point to Derawali, Multani and Riasati as dialects of the Seraiki language through the phenomenon of a dialect having sub-dialects is well known, and other Punjabi dialects provide examples of this.

Whether dialect or language, there is no disputing that Seraiki acts as a transition between Punjabi and Sindhi. Also, much of the classical corpus of Punjabi literature consists of Sufi poetry, with Seraiki also laying claim to such classics as the Heer of Waris Shah and Mirza Sahiban, and such great poets as Khwaja Farid of Mithankot, who was extant in the 20th century. There is also Sariki dialect of Sindhi, thus making Srasiki part of the Prakritic language group, descending from one of the vernaculars originating in Sanskrit, one of which was Prakrit. Incidentally, Punjabi and Sindhi are border languages in this vast group, which includes Bengali, but not Pushtu and Balochi, which have a common origin with Persian. Prakritic and Persian are both part of the huge Indo-Aryan language group, which includes the European languages, though which this language group virtually monopolises the Americas.

Within this context, the creation of a new province on linguistic lines lacks some consistency. There is no recommendation for ceding of territory from either Sindh or Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, both of which include what are described as 'border areas'. Multan and Bahawalpur are supposed to be the joint capitals of the new province, thus probably showing that the parliamentary commission probably took things too far. It must be accounted a small mercy it did not propose a Chandigarh-type solution. (Chandigarch is the Union Territory which serves as the capital of Indian Punjab, and Chandigarh, which was hived off it.)

The importance of a province can be seen by the posts that will be created. It is not just an assembly and a government, but also among other things various departments suddenly having a new provincial office to staff, as well as various provincial bodies, like the Board of Revenue and the public service commission. Not only will there be new jobs created, but the status of existing employees will also need examining. There will be the question of federal employees of the new province, who have been recruited on the Punjab quota, and there will also be the issue of those who are Punjab employees, recruited when there were no provincial quotas. Then there will be an inevitable migration of those who identify with one province, but are now posted in the other. This alone will ensure that this partitioning will be messy.

This process of creating a new province actually brings to Pakistan a process that started under the Raj. The British had organised into three Presidencies, based on the three main factories of the East India Company, the Governor of the Calcutta Presidency also being the Governor General of all three. Of Pakistan's provinces, two had been created in 1936, the NWFP having already had a Chief Commissioner, but with its Governor that of the Punjab, while Sindh had been part of the Bombay Presidency. Balochistan was only created in 1969, when West Pakistan was broken up, and the former princely states were merged with what had been British Balochistan (as well as the area returned by Muscat) to form the province. Only Punjab remained, but its partitioning in 1947 resulted in the creation of two provinces where there had been one. While India continued the process, carving, for example, Himachal Pradesh and Haryana states out of Punjab, as well as the Union Territories of Chandigarh and Delhi, Pakistan only carried out the One Unit experiment, though that had ended when the East Wing became Bangladesh in 1971.

Partitioning Pakistani Punjab would not be cheap. And it is not just for the new province to consider. There are national dimensions. If Mianwali and Jhang districts are not controversial, it is not because of linguistic reasons, but because of resources. Apart from job quota, there is also the NFC framework of funding to be examined, which makes it a national question. In short, creating a new province would mean all the headaches of a new accession, without the compensation of any new territory or people being added to the federation.

The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.

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