The prime minister has recently announced that the formation of Seraiki or a south Punjab province will be part of the manifesto for the next election. The response to the demand of a Seraiki province is uniformly met with a strange ambiguity. It seems all the major political parties either agree to or are at least sympathetic to the demand of a separate province for the Seraiki-speaking people. At the same time, almost all political parties want a division on administrative grounds and not on ethnicity-linguistic grounds. The underlying fear is that demanding a partition on the basis of culture, ethnicity and language would be detrimental to national unity and identity (or more accurately, in this case, to Punjabi identity). The not so subtle irony here is that a nation brought into existence by a partition for similar reasons is fearful of further partitions. Admittedly, the reasons are not identical since Pakistan was ostensibly formed for the reasons of religion alone.
One of the inimitable WH Auden’s best poems “Partition” is about the inglorious yet somewhat godly task of Sir Cyril Radcliffe of dividing Punjab and Bengal. The last stanza of the poem goes: “Shut up in a lonely mansion, with police night and day/Patrolling the gardens to keep the assassins away/He got down to work to the task of settling the fate/Of millions. The maps at his disposal were out of date/And the Census Returns almost certainly incorrect/But there was no time to check them, no time to inspect… But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided/ A continent for better or worse divided/The next day he sailed for England, where he quickly forgot/The case, as a good lawyer must…”.
The point of reproducing this rather large chunk of Auden is not to highlight the competence or lack thereof of Radcliffe, but rather to draw attention to another irony. Almost all political parties in Pakistan are unanimous in their unadulterated loathing of the West, yet the salience attached to a week’s work of one British lawyer is staggering.
Punjab is a province that has become ungovernable due to its sheer size, and hence division on administrative grounds is a perfectly rational argument. However, the Seraiki-speaking people deserve a province not due to the failure of the Punjabi administrative machinery, but rather because they have a historical claim to their land by virtue of their language, culture and customs. The claim of the Seraiki people to a separate homeland predates Pakistan by centuries. Syed Ali Usman Hajvery (more famously known as Data Sahib) in his magnum opus “Kashf-al-Majoob” described Lahore as a suburb of Multan.
Ethnicity has become a foul word in Pakistan, conjuring up images of blood sprinkled streets in Karachi. And the easy and absurd solution devised by the state is to deny any and all ethnic differences and sweep it under the blanket cover of a singular religious identity. The problem with this monolith, grossly inaccurate generalisation is not only that it is dishonest, it also does not work. Parachinar, the capital of Kurram Agency, is exhibit A. There is genocide of the Shia Muslims that is taking place in Parachinar. Almost as tragic as the loss of innumerable human lives is the deadly silence. The Taliban have effectively taken the place over, yet, apart from solitary, vague news reports there is what seems to be a very deliberate attempt to ignore. It seems it is less interesting since it is Muslims killing Muslims (although the Taliban would differ about the Shias) as opposed to the mythical drone attacks.
A deep and unarticulated fear is the admission of the failure of a Pakistani identity to evolve. The Pakistani identity was originally supposed to be Muslims living in a tract of land with almost arbitrary lines being drawn by the likes of Sirs Radcliffe and Durand. The fall of Dhaka should have put an end to that, but curiously not only did it not, it also intensified the parochial identity. Balochistan is an example of enduring violence of genocidal proportions to homogenise the national identity. One of the most noticeable aspects of the otherwise banal Azad Kashmir election was the rhetoric of ownership employed by all political parties. The term azad seems irregular in this context. The fact that you have to appropriate, conquer and claim dominion to declare a land azad is paradoxical. Amidst two azad and two maqbooza Kashmirs, the Kashmiri and her wonderful, rich history and the right to her land is conveniently ignored.
The opposition to the case of the Seraiki and the Hazara is partially due to the fear of dilution of authority and partially due to the self-righteousness in guarding the feeble Pakistani identity. One would have thought the cause of the Hazaras would have been supported by the Khyber-Pakhtunkha’s nationalist ruling party, who themselves fought for the right to have a name that depicts them as a proud people having a distinct history and culture.
The basic failure of the state is the stubbornness in recognising that national identities cannot be imposed from a top-down model. It is almost as irrational as religious leaders calling for a ‘return’ to not only Islamic values but peculiarly to the culture of the Arabian Desert. Well, the problem is many of us have never seen the culture of the Arabian Desert, and hence find the call for return diabolical. Being a Seraiki is not in conflict with being a Pakistani. Punjabis and Seraikis both have long glorious literary and historical traditions with a significant overlap, yet that does not make them one. One of the most succinct definition of a nation was given by Stalin in Marxism and the National Question: “A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.” There are numerous nationalities in Pakistan as per this or any other definition. The state has to realise the only sustainable option is cherishing these distinct nationalities and not suppressing them, if the aim is to evolve even a semblance of a Pakistani identity.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 6th, 2011.