Since the passage of the 18th Constitutional Amendment, we have seen that voices in support of more provinces have become louder. Furthermore, we have also seen that an increasing number of groups and parties seem to be demanding that the existing provinces — if not all, then at least Punjab — should be broken up into small units. Let us first try and understand the reasons behind these demands and then explain how the future of the Pakistani federation is likely to be affected.
There are three reasons that should matter in our consideration of this issue. The first is the devolution of power to the federating units of Pakistan — a dream of the provincialists and a long-standing demand of sub-national political forces struggling for their rights. There are regions within each province, which have a different ethnic concentration than the rest of the province, and those who live in them do not want to see yet another province carved from the larger one. One fault of the present government has been to hold back on the local government system during its time in office and this has only reinforced the apprehensions of those who seek greater autonomy.
The second reason relates to the issue of ethnic majorities and minorities in each province. One may argue that since they have coexisted for centuries what is the problem now. The problem is that Pakistan has changed, and the ethnic configuration of its provinces has changed as well. Populations have increased manifold and the struggle over resources and physical spaces has consequently intensified.
The historical glue of keeping multiple ethnic groups together in one provincial fold began to loosen with the renaming of NWFP to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. The political desire and some discernible political trends to create more provinces were already there, but at a much lower scale and without critical mass. What changed things was the consideration of the majority Pashtuns to insist on an ethnic name for their province. Perhaps, a pragmatic approach might not have generated feelings of alienation among other ethnic groups once the new name was adopted. This was not done and the people of Hazara division understandably protested when the name was changed.
The third reason is a spillover effect of democracy in Pakistan and is a product of the ‘law’ of unintended consequences. One may always dispute the quality, style and substance of democracy, but it has been there in Pakistan for a very long time. Even in its damaged and subverted form, it has created a new politics of entitlements, rights and groups consciousness. Furthermore, it has helped people shape and reshape their ethnic identity in a quest to access or retain power. Democracy is about rights, and democratic politics has always created greater space for social groups to demand their rights, and this includes those related to creation of their own provinces.
What has already happened in India is now bound to happen in Pakistan — ethnic mobilisation of minority ethnic groups for their own provinces. Democratic politics by necessity forces political parties to adopt popular issues, or popularise new issues where space for them exists. This is exactly what the PPP has done by raising the issue of the Seraiki province. Before this, the MQM also voiced its support for the Seraiki issue, again for the reason that it wants to expand its influence. Had there been no popular feeling for the Seraiki and Bahawalpur provinces, the PML-N wouldn’t have jumped on the bandwagon.
It is too early to say when the federation will be restructured, since new provinces will require a much broader national consensus. Also, when it happens, the change will not be confined to Punjab alone. That said, it will be safe to say that the politics of new provinces will be the defining feature of politics in the coming years and decades.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 8th, 2012.
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