Naming Controversy Sparks Riots in an Already Embattled Pakistan

Violent riots have erupted in the Hazara division of the North Western Frontier Province that has recently been renamed as Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. And the issue is the same -- the renaming of the province. At least eight people have lost their lives and the whole region has come to a standstill. Karakorum Highway, the main artery connecting Pakistan with China has been blocked by protesters and life has come to the proverbial standstill.

Hazara division is the easternmost part of KP and is dominated by the Hindko-speaking tribes while the rest of the province is home to the ethnic Pashtuns. According to the 1998 census of Pakistan, Pashtuns constitute 74% of KP population with Hindko speakers being the second largest lingual group.

NWFP was the name given by the British in 1901 when they created a new province out of the north western borders of the British India while leaving the tribal agencies as a buffer zone between Afghanistan and India. British did not give a name to this new province based on its historical or cultural significance but chose its nom de geographique as its official name. Controversy over the name started immediately after the independence in 1947 as the ethnic Pashtuns wanted to name their province Afghania. They later changed their stance and started campaigning for the name "Pakhtunkhwa" or land of the Pashtuns.

Awami National Party (ANP), which is the main political party of the ethnic Pashtuns and currently ruling the province, has always campaigned for Pakhtunkhwa and finally has been able to achieve its long cherished dream though they had to add the name Khyber to Pakhtunkhwa to tame controversy. People in Hazara, however, are not happy with this development and have took to the streets.

The whole situation has turned into a political mess where every political party is out to score points. There has been talk of carving out a new province for Hazara, among other proposals. Most parties are agreed on this proposal including the ruling ANP but any development towards the creation of a new province might end up in a disaster.

Unlike India, where sustained democracy has resulted in relative calm and many new provinces have been carved out; Pakistan remains a highly centralized state with Pakistani Army being at the helm of the affairs. Analysts say that it is in the interest of the army to support a strong central government where it can exert more influence. It is expected that the army will crush any movement for a new province as they did in the past when the ethnic Mohajirs in Karachi demanded for a province of their own. Army moved in and conducted a violent operation that resulted in the loss of thousands of lives; many more died in extra judicial killings in a joint paramilitary and police operation conducted by Benazir Bhutto government.

The course of recent protests and any political development will heavily impact the already compromised stability of Pakistan. Army is currently watching the proceedings from the sidelines but it will move into the picture in case the protests continue and more lives are lost. And that might result in mindbogglingly disastrous results.