Recently, the debate over the creation of new provinces has steamed up. Various political parties have supported the idea of new provinces and the MQM has even tabled a resolution in the parliament for the creation of the Hazara and Seraiki provinces. But before we jump into political point scoring on the issue, we need to understand a few things.
New provinces are created for various reasons. Primary among them is the administrative reason that a province has become so large, in terms of population, that adequate provision of public services to the people is not possible without carving out smaller units. However, in reality, political considerations often overshadow the reasonable administrative and welfare reasons and create further complications. In our current debate over new provinces, let us remember that the creation of newer units obviously has a political dimension but the primary consideration must be the welfare of the people.
The current debate centres around two regions: the Seraiki area in southern Punjab and the Haraza region on the Frontier. The main impetus behind these movements is that of language. The Hazarewal speak Hindko and are mostly non-Pakhtun, while southern Punjab speaks Seraiki. Aside from these linguistic differences, we need to recall how both these areas became a part of their current provinces.
The history of the Hazara region is peculiar in that it has changed hands several times in the last few hundred years. From being a tribal-run society, it became a part of the Sikh empire in the early 19th century, followed by British rule, after a brief interlude of Kashmiri Dogra rule. Thereafter, in 1901, it became a part of the now-defunct North West Frontier Province which was composed of the five non-Punjabi frontier districts of Punjab. It is important to remember here that the main impetus for creating this new province was not the separation of non-Punajabis from the majority community, but to ensure a firm hand on the Frontier during the Great Game syndrome. Therefore, little attention was given to the fact that different ethnicities and languages were being mixed in the new province. Tight government control and the disputes with Afghanistan over the Durand Line meant that there was little room for renegotiation of boundaries in the region in later years.
The Seraiki belt is also an interesting region, since it is actually composed of two different areas. The Multan division which was once a great province under the Mughals, forms one part of it, while the second part consists of the erstwhile princely state of Bahawalpur. The region of Multan was only brought under Punjabi control under the Sikh empire, while Bahawalpur remained a princely state throughout Sikh and British rule. As a matter of fact, after Bahawalpur acceded to Pakistan, it was given full provincial status, at par with the other former British India provinces, in 1953. It is also a historical fact that Bahawalpur merged with the West Pakistan province in 1955, and not with Punjab. It was only in 1969 with the dissolution of the One Unit that Bahawalpur was unceremoniously merged with Punjab (just as Khairpur which also had provincial status was merged with Sindh). Before Bahawalpur was merged in the One Unit, it had an exemplary record as a constitutional monarchy in welfare provision for its people. The state had an excellent free education system, good hospitals, an ever-expanding road network and a booming industrial sector. The merger of this princely state with West Pakistan and later Punjab, stunted development in the area and created tensions which are now precipitating calls for a division of Punjab.
With the history of these two regions in mind, it is no wonder that support for these two areas attaining provincial status is strong. There is no reason why the Hazarewals need to stay in a province which now clearly identifies with an ethnicity and language they do not share and the Seraiki people, especially in the Bahawalpur region, have a right to reclaim their old status as a province in Pakistan. However, what must be remembered is that any new provinces should be self-sustaining and not dependent on the central government for development, or else the mere replication of provincial structures further will do little to alleviate the sufferings of the people.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 10th, 2012.