By Sarah Eleazar
The dark specter of Seraiki nationalism in southern Punjab and separatism in Bahawalpur has been looming in the fringes of political machinations in Punjab since the dissolution of the one unit scheme by Yahya Khan in 1970. Before the annexation of the state of Bahawalpur into Punjab in 1955, the huge tract of desertified land was ruled by Nawab Sir Sadiq Muhammad Khan Abbasi Bahadur who opted to integrate it with Pakistan in 1947 hoping to keep intact it’s autonomy and provincial status.
The Military Regime that took over in 1999 announced devolution as part of its ‘seven point agenda’, 25- 27 new provinces were envisaged on the basis of Pakistan’s 27 administrative units (divisions), the groundwork required for such an ambitious venture was hefty and controversial . The Seraiki Suba Project lies within the fold of the devolution of powers plan and is beset with its own internal conflicts and political frou frou.
Historically an endemic feudal stronghold, Southern Punjab has as its claim to fame illustrious politicians who were able to ensure dynastic political careers within a democracy. They thwarted Bhutto’s foibles to bring about land reforms and their 54 seats in the National Assembly boast twice the clout. Every one of them sees’ certain ramifications for themselves in the new province and has tailored manifestoes to reflect party positions. These along with the six nationalist parties’ operative in the region make for a tempestuous political meshwork, especially now that work on the project is underway.
The purported economic imbalance in the region is cited as the main reason behind the outcry for separation. The question hour in the National Assembly in June 2009 revealed that out of 20 billion rupees taken as a loan for development of infrastructure from the World Bank, not a single project was carried out in Southern Punjab. However misappropriation of Rs.490 billion allocated to Punjab in the 09-10 budget in which a measly Rs.5 billion spent on the south of the province was the last nail in the coffin.
Punjab plays host to 60% of the country’s population and consequently commands the federation. Central and Northern Punjab being the hub of industrial and agricultural activity in the country- the food basket, has flaunted its position since before we lost Bangladesh to egotism. PML-N doesn’t need a majority in the parliament to rule the country, the province’s sheer size hands it the power to amend the constitution. It is thus an astute administrative attempt to split the province and ensure equitable distribution of funds imperative for the development in the south; the region will also finally be able to truly own its cotton and agricultural industry. The region it is argued cannot exercise its political clout over framing policies for the province owing to its distance from Lahore. The decentralization of power will encumber all potential dictatorial takeovers and Cholistan will finally be able to deal with the issue of unjust allotment of tracts of land in the desert on its own terms.
It all depends what lens one chooses to view this move from. If the Seraiki belt boasts an inexhaustible list of powerful politicians, not to mention key actors in the national assembly, it does seem suspicious that it has it taken 64 years to take a substantial step for their region when all they did previously was build infrastructure for Arab Sheikhs’ hunting grounds in Bahawalpur and Rahimyar Khan.
Is it really that cynical to view the Seraiki Movement as a predominantly cultural movement demanding recognition as a separate language in its own right, turned political for purely political reasons? The timing of this call for separation makes it appear to be just that. With the addition of devolution of powers and provinces added to the PPP manifesto for the next term, PML-N is going to have to stop viewing this as a political back stab and support its senior member Javed Hashmi on the issue. Whether this is a move to save its popularity ratings from plummeting, PPP does realize the political ramifications and will try and stay entrenched in this region.
The winners and losers in this political maneuver don’t really matter- the real winners ought to be the people. While dividing up provinces on linguistic and ethnic grounds tempers many a separatist feud it might also stoke intolerance and racism once Pandora’s Box opens. Devolution is an administratively sound plan and therefore should be carried out for administrative purposes only. Questions that arise out of creation of new provinces need to be riposted satisfactorily: will the people have a voice; can it be administered easily and can it lead to possible violence in the region? The creation of an exclusive PPP stronghold Seraiki province is a direct sneer at the PML-N led Hazara community in KPK. The precedence Seraiki Suba will set for ensuing devolution projects will only gratify lingual nationalists.
And there is no dearth of those in Pakistan. Leader of Punjabi Language Movement Nazir Kahut declared that PPP will be buried alive in Punjab and Sind if it ever raises the slogan of Seraiki Suba in the next elections. PLM has been working tirelessly to quash the movement and demanded all Seraiki channels and newspapers be banned in Punjab. Such resentment against linguistically motivated cartography may just prove to be precursors of outright violence and mayhem.
Thus pouring money in to the south and capitulating to their demands to stop tongues from wagging may be the opportunistic thing to do, but will it really solve this region’s problems? With the same politicians cast into the same roles and increased overhead administrative costs for the country will devolution really deliver? The country’s leadership needs to take a step back to assess the political ramifications of such decisions before engaging in verbal diarrhea. While devolution maybe indeed be the order of our time, it needs to be carried out meticulously with savoir faire not by ham fisted opportunistic political parties.
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