Demanding the creation of new provinces is in vogue nowadays but actually creating them, not so much. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, semi-besieged as he is, still finds the time to throw his ruling PPP’s weight behind a new Seraiki province. The PML-Q says that they joined this coalition on the condition that a Seraiki province will be created. The PML-F, less functional than feudal, made the most endearing case for their southern Punjab stronghold gaining provincial status: they criticised facilities enjoyed by politicians in Lahore, saying assembly members had to forego their own backward areas for the provincial capital to live ‘a decent life’.
The supporters of new provinces aren’t limited to cynics out to dent the PML-N’s vote bank. The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf chief Imran Khan promised the Hazaras a province of their own. The MQM also tabled a bill in January pushing for new provinces in both the Hazara region and the Seraiki belt. Even Maulana Fazlur Rehman wants to restore the Bahawalpur province, a relic from 1955.
A consensus among Pakistan’s political parties is evolving that more provinces mean more rights for disaffected peoples, more funds for their representatives, and less sway for parties with majorities in the current provinces, like those enjoyed by the ANP in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the PML-N in Punjab. If nothing else, it’s hoped that constituents might vote for imaginary provinces that will empower them in ways unspecified.
The PML-N sits sullenly in the middle of all this. It says it only supports new provinces that are devised along administrative lines, not ethnic ones. The PML-N is right, even if out of self-interest.
Devolution has been made a mess of, alternating from divisions to local governments back to divisions again. More provinces based on administrative ease would strengthen the federation rather than weaken it. During the 1980s, the Federal Shariat Court’s Justice Tanzilur Rahman floated the idea that the existing four provinces be dissolved and the 20 administrative divisions become new provinces in a federal system with greater devolution. It didn’t happen, poisonous as it was to provincial bosses.
Pakistan is too diverse to impose a single nationalist identity on the country. But in a nation already corroded by identity politics, whether there should be new provinces marking more ‘ethnolinguistic differences’ is the wrong discussion to be having in 2012. ‘Seraikistan’, rather than protecting the Seraiki people’s ethnolinguistic interests, would imply being content with just three lower divisions proposed from Punjab –– hardly befitting an ethnic group spread across all four provinces. Nor would it encompass Tank and Dera Ismail Khan, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa’s Seraiki-speaking districts, lest it depress the PPP-allied ANP.
And provincial status goes only so far towards addressing ethnic grievances. Ask the Baloch, Seraiki people, and the Hazara community. They are murdered in Balochistan and marginalised in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. But if ethnolinguistic interests are what our politicians strive for, then the PPP should continue playing the Sindh card, the PML-N should keep hiding from the Punjabi Taliban, and the ANP did well to change the NWFP’s name to something more representative of its Pashtun majority. The ANP’s only visible achievement over four years was antagonising the province’s Hazaras as other problems of gross corruption, mass illiteracy, and the debasement of women still remain.
Legislators baying for more ethnic-based provinces are the same landowners who made a career out of keeping the Seraiki belt impoverished, underdeveloped and its people dependent. Ideas like those of Tanzilur Rahman are worth considering; more administrative units will lead to more autonomy and preservation of cultural lineages. Instead, the government dangles a carrot in front of people’s ethnic sensibilities during election season. It’s depressing that when the hopeful step of creating new provinces is finally being discussed, it reeks of encouraging the petty divisions that Pakistanis lose blood over every day.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 11th, 2012.