For as long as I can remember, I have heard passionate arguments about whether the four provinces of Pakistan should be divided into multiple smaller provinces. The discussion has, once again, gained momentum. This time the focus is the Punjab and converting Southern Punjab into a separate province (a ‘Saraiki sooba‘).
The political optics of the situation remain in flux. The PML(N) has reacted to the current discussion with suspicion seeing this as a ploy by PPP to break the PML’s hold over the Punjab. The PPP has reacted, for the moment, with both President Zardari and Prime Minister Gillani saying that no such move is on the cards. That may well be so, and may well be subject to change, but my question for our readers today is whether — irrespective of political motives — creating a new province in Southern Punjab is a good idea or not? And what this may mean, if anything, for other provinces?
First, let me put my own cards on the table. The first time I wrote about this subject was back in the 1980s – in an op-ed in The Muslim I argued for a total of 6 to 8 provinces (each of the current four provinces being redrawn along lines consistent with historic, linguistic and cultural affinities). My most radical idea, then, was to reconsider the provinces not just along the lines of existing provinces but across existing lines (to use language as an example, Hindko, Sindhi, Seraiki, and Pushto speakers all straddle across current provincial lines). My motivation then, and now, stemmed from demographic concerns of concentration of populations, resources and, therefore, power in one province and the attendant feelings of peripheralization felt by other provinces. Importantly, this can – and has – led to a politics of fragmentation and distrust where it becomes too easy to evoke distrust and disdain through legitimate as well as exaggerated fears. There is also the concern about fewer provinces strengthening a provincial group identity at the expense of a national identity as well as of more local identities. Importantly, in the case of the Saraiki belt, the local identity sentiment for a separate province is the strongest reason to support such an initiative.
After writing that piece I remember having protracted conversations on this with the late Dr. Mahbub-ul-Haq who had been arguing for a much more elaborate scheme that woud end with there being 16-25 different provinces. Over the years I have become more and more sympathetic to his developmental argument: that creating smaller provinces will also de-centralize power and localize opportunities – each provincial capital requires a provincial capital infrastructure and create local employment and opportunities and therefore development opportunities get spread around the country rather than being centralized in a few locations.
I tend, therefore, to lean towards this idea. However, practical realities have tended to mute my enthusiasm somewhat. But, only somewhat. I realize, of course, the fracturous politics that will be unleashed in the process of redrawing provincial lines, even though my hope has been that the coalitional politics that will emerge for having more units will be, in fact, less fracturous than our current provincial frictions. There is also the practical matter that while in most of the country the affinities have long historical and cultural roots the demographics in urban Sindh are ‘modern’ and constructed through the traumas of sudden migration patterns. Not surprisingly, the resultant identity politics also tends to be more traumatic.
So, my own leanings on this are clear and I would certainly support aSeraiki province, even if a more elaborate redrawing of provincial units across the country were not possible at this time. Three reasons would make me support such a move: (a) it is a deep demand of the area itself and (b) it begins to balance out provincial distributions and (c) amongst the various cases for provincial redrawings this is clearly the strongest case for the clear cultural and historic affinities and this could serve as an important first step.
I have been in this debate long enough to know that there can, and will, be many arguments against mine. So, lets please hear them. Is there a logic to redrawing provincial units? If so, why? If not, why not? I suspect it will not be so, but I hope people will focus especially on the longer-term national logic of such a move rather than whatever short-term political gains or losses this might mean to particular political operatives.