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What lies behind demands for a separate province in south Punjab

Published Nov 06, 2018 06:56pm
Khusro Bakhtiar joining hands with Imran Khan in May this year | Tanveer Shahzad, White Star
Khusro Bakhtiar joining hands with Imran Khan in May this year | Tanveer Shahzad, White Star

The idea of reorganising a state through the creation of new geographical and administrative units within it is not novel. Recent history provides examples of such ‘right-sizing’ of several states — one well-known to us is India where a number of new provinces have been formed over the last seven decades. Is Pakistan also about to enter a phase of right-sizing itself with the creation of a province consisting of Punjab’s southern and southwestern parts?

The latest spurt for the new province came on April 9, 2018 when a new political entity, Janoobi Punjab Suba Mahaz, came into being. Comprising disgruntled and defecting members of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) – including such notable politicians as Makhdoom Khusro Bakhtiar (from Rahim Yar Khan), Malik Qasim Noon (from Multan), Nasrullah Derashik and Sardar Balakh Sher Mazari (both from Rajanpur) – its constituents blamed their party for failing to live up to its promise of creating a separate province in their native region.

The Mahaz later merged into the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), thus, helping to bridge the electable deficit that the party had traditionally suffered from. This set in motion a series of developments that paved the way for an impressive PTI showing in the 2018 elections in southern and southwestern Punjab and, consequently, the formation of its governments both in Islamabad and Lahore.

All this raises a number of important questions.

Is there a historical context to the movement for reorganising Punjab? Has Pakistan moved beyond its well-entrenched paradigm of an overly centrist state which views every ethnonationalist demand for territorial restructuring through the prism of security? Will the creation of a new geographical and administrative unit in Punjab lead to the creation of other new provinces as well?

South Punjab witnessed the emergence of two competing political trends in 1970: a Bahawalpur-based movement centred on the demand for restoring the geographical and administrative boundaries of Bahawalpur state that had been merged into One Unit in 1955 and a Multan-centred linguistic-nationalist movement for the creation of a province comprising those districts of Punjab where Seraiki language is spoken.

The former movement was premised on the contention that Bahawalpur, one of the most prosperous princely states at the time of independence, had suffered a steep economic and political decline after its merger in One Unit. A litany of complaints about developmental deprivations, administrative neglect and oppressive centralisation of power in Lahore led to public demands for the restoration of the state when One Unit came to an end in 1970. These demands received a strong impetus through street agitations in Bahawalpur in April that year that also resulted in the death of some protestors at the hands of law enforcement agencies — giving the movement its first ‘martyrs’. A political organisation spearheading the demands for the restoration of the state, Bahawalpur Muttahida Mahaz, enjoyed such widespread support at the time that it won four National Assembly and nine Punjab Assembly seats from the Bahawalpur region in the 1970 general elections.

All this mobilisation soon subsided and its proponents either joined mainstream parties or they disappeared from the political scene altogether.

In recent decades, political discourse in south Punjab has tilted in favour of an identity movement based on the Seraiki language. It has its origin in literary activism that began in the 1960s when the development of the Seraiki script and the widespread availability of printing technologies made it possible to mass publish books and journals written in the Seraiki language.

A highly important milestone in the evolution of a Seraiki consciousness was a Seraiki literary conference held in Multan in 1975. Literary, social and political activists of the region who participated in the event decided to work for the official recognition of their language. Their efforts were rewarded in the 1981 census when the speakers of Seraiki were allowed, for the first time, to have it recorded as their mother tongue.

The 1980s marked the transition of Seraiki activism from a literary movement to a political one. Thus began the quest for a distinct Seraiki waseb (region) and some proto-parties, such as Pakistan Seraiki Party, emerged to mobilise public support for a separate Seraiki province. Soon, Seraiki Sooba Mahaz, a collective front comprising many literary, cultural and political entities, also came into being.

The case for a Seraiki province has been well-presented since then by researchers, writers and poets. From Professor Akram Meerani in Layyah district, who has written many monographs on the subject, to Ashiq Buzdar, who wrote poetry, including the famous poem ‘Asaan qaidi takht Lahore de (we, prisoners of the throne in Lahore)’ and organised an annual Seriaki festival in his hometown in Rajanpur district, many activists have made this case long before the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and PTI came around to championing the idea of Punjab’s territorial reorganisation.

The demand for the creation of a new province in south Punjab is rooted in the economic, political and cultural grievances of the people of the region. By all objective accounts, the districts of south Punjab rank far behind those from north and central Punjab in social and economic indicators. Seraiki civil society complains about the persistent neglect of its region by takht Lahore. Non-compliance with the regional job quota for south Punjab and the lack of suitable allocation of the development budget for the region are cited, among many other things, as major justifications for the division of Punjab. These arguments have some merit: the government’s general performance in south Punjab shows how distant the state is from the people living in this region.

Then there is something else.

The 2017 census placed Punjab’s population at approximately 110 million. If the province were a country, it would be the 12th most populated state in the world. The demand for its geographical and administrative reorganisation is rooted in the argument that it is not always possible to have effective administrative and governance structures to deliver civic services to such a vast population.

The passage of the 18th Constitutional Amendment in 2010, that saw an unprecedented transfer of power from the centre to the provinces, is also an important development as far as the quest for a Seraiki province is concerned. The powers gained by the provinces under the amendment produced an instant reaction among ‘minorities’ within each of them. Urdu-speakers in Sindh, Hindko-speakers in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakhtuns in Balochistan and Seraiki speakers in Punjab all demanded provinces of their own.

Illustration by Essa Malik Taimur
Illustration by Essa Malik Taimur

Thus began the latest stage in the territorial imagining of the Seraiki movement: a Seraiki province increasingly looked like a distinct possibility. It was under these circumstances in 2012 that the National Assembly and the Punjab Assembly passed resolutions in support of the creation of new province(s) in Punjab. These resolutions were passed despite the fact that there were open differences both within PPP and PMLN, ruling in Islamabad and Lahore respectively at the time, over whether there should be one new province or two in south Punjab — or none at all.

The debate about right-sizing, or rather downsizing, Punjab subsequently came to the forefront of electoral politics as PPP embarked in 2013 on a proactive voter mobilisation around the demand for a Seraiki province. The politics of province-making, however, had no effect on the party’s electoral fortunes and it was routed in south Punjab, winning only one National Assembly seat from the entire region. Most of its stalwarts, including former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s sons, were defeated.

The 2018 elections offer a contrasting story.

Traditionally, south Punjab is home to some of the leading names among electables, politicians who have a steady record of winning elections. The only variable in their electoral politics is their party that changes in virtually every election — the reason why a very large number of political turncoats is found in south Punjab. It was a combination of the politics of electables and a careful use of the Seraiki card that enabled PTI to win more than 55 per cent of the National Assembly seats in south Punjab in the most recent elections.

A subsequent welcome development for Seraiki nationalists came with the appointment of Usman Buzdar from Taunsa tehsil deep in the Seraiki-speaking region as the chief minister of Punjab. Another important progress has been the tabling of a resolution by Mohsin Leghari, a PTI legislator, in the Punjab Assembly on August 15, 2018 for the creation of a new province. But perhaps the most important step in this regard has been the formation of a committee by PTI’s federal government in Islamabad. Comprising federal minister for planning Makhdoom Khusro Bakhtiar and foreign minister Makhdoom Shah Mehmood Qureshi, the committee has been assigned the task of consulting and convincing other political parties on the issue.

Together, these developments have generated an unprecedented optimism about the possibility of a Seraiki province becoming a reality.

Will this optimism translate into policy?

In neighbouring India, the creation of new provinces is a relatively easy affair — at least on paper. The central legislature approves the creation of a new province through a simple majority of its members even though the constitution requires it to have a (non-binding) consultation with the concerned state’s legislature too.

In Pakistan, Article 239 of the Constitution sets the bar extremely high when it comes to the creation of new provinces. Changes in the boundaries of existing federating units require a constitutional amendment that, in turn, needs two-thirds majority in the two houses of the federal legislature. What makes the changes even more difficult is that they also need to be endorsed by a two-thirds majority in the provincial legislature of the concerned unit. The creation of such a large-scale political and constitutional consensus is a tall order by any standard.

The Pakistani federation is also essentially a demos-enabling mechanism where federal institutions structured around the size of population, such as the National Assembly, remain far more empowered than those that are based on equal representation of the federating units regardless of their population — such as the Senate. This means that Punjab, having the highest number of representatives in the National Assembly, possesses an overriding legislative strength to thwart any move to divide it.

Will the whole effort for a Seraiki province, thus, flounder under the heavy weight of these requirements? Will all the latest developments merely end up making Multan a secondary capital of Punjab so as to better administer the southern and southwestern parts of the province? Will the linguistic/nationalistic ambitions of the Seraiki-speaking people be satisfied with any arrangement short of a province of their own?

These are all tough questions searching for early answers.


The writer is a PhD in political science and teaches at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.


This article was published in the Herald's October 2018 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.