Demand for creating new provinces out of the existing four is not as new as many people might think.
Once the infamous one-unit scheme that had merged all the provinces and the princely states into West Pakistan in 1954 to create parity with then East Pakistan was disbanded in 1969, the peoples of Bahawalpur agitated for restoring autonomous character of the former state as a province.
The demand was so popular that a large number of nominees of the Bahawalpur Suba Mahaz won elections for the Punjab and National Assembly. The movement subsequently died down but the passion never did. Although the political actors and the dynamics that shaped them have changed a lot, one can still feel occasional rumbling of that movement.
In recent months we have seen the political class from that region, with less control than dynastic political parties, speaking their mind on the issue openly and threatening to launch a fresh move. The impetus for dividing and demarcating existing provinces has got steam from the debate on the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa issue.
It cannot be ignored and has created backlash in the non-Pashtun regions of Hazara and the southern Seraiki belt. What is wrong in naming a province after the majority ethnic group? This is what the people of the province want. While the constitutional requirements for choosing a new name were met, the democratic credentials of the process remain a suspect.
How should the renaming have been done? Ideally it should have been referred to the people directly –a referendum should have been held and if they voted for it then the name should have been changed. This is a process that is universally accepted for creating or naming states or creating provinces.
Perhaps the ANP, long associated with ethnic politics of the region, was not so sure about winning its demand through free and fair referendum or the fears of chaos in a time of raging terrorism might have deterred it from taking that route. The party played a game of politics, as mainstream parties were desperate for constitutional amendments and needed the support of the regional parties.
At the end, it was an inter-elite political bargain, an evergreen characteristic of Pakistani politics that settled the issue in favour of the ANP. An ethnic name for a multi-ethnic province that is culturally and linguistically as diverse as any other province of Pakistan will ignite latent political forces in every province of Pakistan. The latter in turn will demand that provincial status to be given to other minority ethnic groups as well.
The question on the minds of many people is whether or not more provinces are a better solution for the kind of politics and governance the helpless peoples of Pakistan have endured for 6 decades. Maybe, maybe not. The provinces of Pakistan and their boundaries have evolved over centuries and contain diverse ethnic groups that intersperse into other provinces as well; a true ethnic mosaic shaped by migration, conquest and modernization.
Undoing historical entities like the Punjab, Sindh and more so Balochistan with a clear dividing line between the Baloch and the Pashtun in the main but with other ethnic groups like Brahavi, Sindhi and Mekran Baloch may provoke sentiments of ‘divide and rule’. The question of redrawing provincial boundaries and creating new ones must be referred to the people, and not left to the ruling groups.
Even breaking down larger provinces into smaller units along ethnic or administrative lines alone will not benefit the peoples or bring a fundamental change in the quality of governance without a real change in the rule of law regime and representative character of the ruling elites.
RASUL BAKHSH RAIS