The demand for creating new provinces out of the present four federating units is not a new one. Minority ethnic groups in each province, on different occasions, in Pakistan’s history have questioned the domination of majority ethnic communities over political power, resources, government jobs, and allocation of development funds. At the root of this question is a sense of deprivation and conflicting view of history and cultural narratives between the minority and majority. The formation of each province and its history of migrations and demographic trends is such that each is multi-ethnic and also one where every ethnic group has a historical claim of belonging to a part of its territory.
All provinces of Pakistan represent the ethnic groups from the country, though their proportions may vary. This raises a question about the ethnic identity of each province. The fact is that ethnic identity is a correlation of the ethnicity of the social groups that occupy particular geographical spaces. Members of such groups tend to speak their native languages along with provincial languages as well as the national language. This is the social and historical background against which we must examine the demand for new provinces.
What factors are shaping the movement for new provinces? And how real is the possibility that we will see new provinces in the coming years, or even decades? Let’s consider a recent change in our provincial make-up; that of the name-change of NWFP to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. This was done by the ANP despite the fact that the new name represented only one ethnic group and that certain ethnic minorities living in the province were not comfortable with the change.
As expected against this backdrop, the renaming of the province led to violent demonstrations in Hazara and demands for it to be made into a separate province. Following this, minority ethnic groups in other provinces began to demand their own provinces and this has been most vocal in Punjab. Other than ethnicity, the reason for more provinces, relates to the existing system of governance centred around provincial capitals and failure of provincial governments in delivering services at the district and regional levels. Devolution of power to the provinces has created new centres of power with the ruling political executives holding all the cards. That, in turn, allows them to use power for political patronage with an eye on the next elections. This makes it difficult for those living away from the provincial capitals to conduct routine work involving government departments and related organisations. And in most cases, such people tend not to be very affluent or well-connected, and hence, they have no way but to go through the tedious process of first travelling to the provincial headquarter before any such work can be completed.
The new provinces issue is pregnant with emotions that may give birth to agitation, unrest and even violence. Some of the parties have echoed a long-standing demand for a Seraiki province or that of South Punjab. In this, it is to be noted that while nationalists in other provinces have been supporting demand for splitting Punjab into two or three parts, they are not willing to accept similar treatment for their own province.
What would happened if, say, a Seraiki province is made in the southern and western parts of the existing Punjab. Will that mean a uniform representation of all social groups in those areas given that they have a large number of Baloch as well as Pashtuns?
What should be done is that history and common sense should be used to redraw or carve out new provinces and this should not be guided by ethnic emotionalism but rather should be done following a broad political consensus.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 10th, 2012.
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