Amid Violence, Pakistanis Debate New Provinces

There is a talk of creating new provinces in Pakistan. The proposition has caught momentum with the political parties of Pakistan, especially the PPP that rules at the center and in two of the current four provinces of Pakistan. The inspiration comes from the arch rival India, where 28 states and 7 union territories have been carved out from the original 7 provinces at the time of independence. The focus is on the Punjab, the largest Pakistani province by population and the nerve center of its political and military establishment. If things go according to plans, the province of over 100 million people is expected to become a thing of the past.

There is a suggestion of dividing the province in three to four regions after taking into account the ethnic and administrative aspects. Punjab has an interesting history of dominance, betrayals and sacrifices. A major chunk of the powerful Pakistani military comprises of Punjabi soldiers and officers. They also dominate the civil bureaucracy and police.

This dominance has created rifts within the Pakistani society, especially among inhabitants of the other three provinces. The southern part of Punjab is equally agitated as the region is home to the Seraiki people, who speak a language different than Punjabi and complain of discrimination in government jobs and military recruitment.

The proposal to divide Punjab was put forward by the ruling junta more as a provocation than heeding the demands of people. Punjab is being governed by the largest opposition party of Pakistan, the PML-N, and the staunch rival of the PPP. The ruling party has never been able to gain electoral majority in the province ever since its last victory in 1970. It, however, do have some traction in the Seraiki areas. The proposal was probably aimed at avenging the historical lack of popular support but surprisingly enough; it has been welcomed by the political rivals.

While there seems to be an emerging consensus on the division of Punjab, there is little support for the creation of new federating units in other administrative regions of Pakistan. Take Sindh for example. The ruling party draws its power from the rural areas of the province but has negligible support in the urban areas. Karachi, the largest city of Pakistan with a population of over 18 million, is the capital of the province. It, however, has a minuscule population of Sindhis. The city is dominated by Mohajirs, migrants from India who speak Urdu as their native language. It also has a significant population of Pashtuns and Punjabis. Over a million Afghan refugees live in the city as well as hundreds of thousands of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants.

Karachi is also the city that has seen a massive unrest during the last two decades. In the recent spate of violence, over 800 people have lost their lives during the first seven months of this year. Ethnic, political and sectarian killings are tearing apart the very social fabric that holds Karachi together.

It seems only natural that any carving out of provinces should include Karachi. MQM, the main representative party of Mohajirs that also enjoys electoral plurality from the city, currently appears to be unconvinced of such proposals. It might risk alienating its voters in that case as they are already wary of its political flip-flopping and involvement in violence. I sensed a growing anger among Mohajirs who talked about suffering at the hand of Sindhis and being forced to study the language at schools. They spoke of the language riots of 1972 when ethnic Sindhis forced them out of their homes in rural areas and they had no other option but to seek refuge in the squatter settlements of Karachi.

Sindhis, on the other hand, are against the division. "We will never allow that," a Sindhi student at Karachi University told me. When I asked about the Sindhi political parties' support for the division of Punjab, he said they were simply avenging the sixty year old dominance of the Punjabis. The ruling party is also against the proposal as it mostly comprises of Sindhi politicians, including the current president of Pakistan. It, however, appears as a high form of bigotry as best and a blind refusal of the stark demographic realities.

Voices are also emerging from Balochistan to bifurcate the province on ethnic lines. There is an active insurgency in the central parts of the province and ethnic and lingual differences only enhance the need for an administrative division. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the land of the Pashtuns, is another ideal candidate for division on ethnic lines as Hindkowans are in majority in the eastern parts.

"The current debate has opened Pandora's Box and is bound to create acrimony in the already tattered national fabric of Pakistan," a senior constitutional lawyer told me. He opined the political parties follow the constitution and address the genuine demands of the people. Political maneuvering notwithstanding, that appears to be the only feasible way of altering the dynamics of Pakistani federation.