More provinces, less provincials

Published in The Express Tribune

Demanding the creation of new provinces is in vogue nowadays, creating them not so much. Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, semi-besieged as he is, still finds the time to throw his ruling People’s Party’s weight behind a new Seraiki province. The P.M.L.-Q. tells anyone who’ll listen that they joined this coalition on condition of the Seraiki province’s creation. The P.M.L.-F., less functional than feudal, made the most endearing case for their Southern Punjab stronghold gaining provincial status: they criticized 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’. Poor them.

And the supporters of new provinces aren’t just limited to cynics out to dent the P.M.L.-N.’s vote bank. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf chief Imran Khan has promised the Hazaras a province of their own. The MQM tabled a bill in January pushing for new provinces in both the Hazara region and the Seraiki belt. Even Maulana Fazl ur-Rehman wants to restore 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 the A.N.P. in Khyber Pakhtunkwa and the P.M.L.-N. in Punjab.If nothing else, it’s hoped that constituents might vote for imaginary provinces that will empower them in ways unspecified – not that they actually were in threadbare Gilgit-Baltistan.

The P.M.L.-N. sits sullenly in the middle of all this, the 800-pound-gorilla. It says it supports new provinces, but ones devised along administrative lines, not ethnic ones. And not just in Punjab – Nawaz League’s leadership says the Hazara region too should have its own province. It is a line that conflicts with that of most other parties. But the others are wrong. The P.M.L.-N. is right, if out of self-interest. The current administrative structure is untenable. Devolution has been made a mess out of, alternating from divisions to local governments back to divisions again. The population of Punjab alone is over 80 million people, nearly half the country’s. And more provinces based on administrative ease would strengthen the federation rather than weaken it.

It was during the 1980s that the Federal Shariat Court’s Justice Tanzeel ur-Rehman floated the idea that the existing four provinces be dissolved and the twenty administrative divisions become new provinces in a federal system with greater devolution. Though several of his other rulings have come in for (rightful) criticism, on this, the justice’s recommendations have been clear and constructive. But they were never implemented, poisonous as they were to provincial bosses.

It’s true that trying to impose a single nationalist identity over the country has failed in the past; Pakistan’s too diverse to do it. But in a country already corroded by identity politics, whether there should be new provinces marking more ‘ethno-linguistic differences’ is the wrong discussion to be having in 2012. Maneuvers for a new Seraiki province are driven almost entirely by short-term electoral gains, not any late realization that the Seraiki belt is poor, underdeveloped, and undereducated. In any case, ‘Seraikistan’, rather than protecting the Seraiki people’s ethno-linguistic interests, would also mean having to content itself with just three lower divisions proposed from Punjab, hardly befitting an ethnic group spread across all four provinces. Nor would it encompass Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Tank and Dera Ismail Khan districts, where Seraiki-speakers are legion, lest it upset the P.P.P.-allied A.N.P.

And provincial status goes only so far towards addressing ethnic grievances. Ask the Baloch. That doesn’t mean the Seraiki people aren’t genuinely disaffected. Nor does it mean the Hazara cause is an unjustified one. They are marginalized in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, just as the other Hazaras (the mainly Afghanistan-based people distinct from the Hindko-speaking Hazaras of Hazarewal) are murdered in Balochistan. But if ethno-linguistic interests are what our politicians should strive for, the PPP should continue playing the Sindh card, the P.M.L.-N. should keep hiding from the Punjabi Taliban, and the A.N.P. did well to change the N.W.F.P.’s name to something more representative of its Pathan majority. Even when you call the place Khyber Pakhtunkhwa though, gross corruption, mass illiteracy, and the debasement of women continues apace. Looks like the A.N.P.’s only visible achievement over four years, then, was alienating the province’s Hazaras.

New provinces are needed, but for the exact opposite reasons they are being pledged. The legislators baying for more ethnic-based provinces are the same landowners that have made a career out of keeping the Seraiki belt impoverished and its people dependent. On the other hand, it’s ideas like Tanzeel ur-Rehman’s; more administrative units, more autonomy, and the preservation of cultural lineages, that are worth considering. The government instead 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 Pakistanis lose blood over every day.