The militancy factor in south Punjab – by Riaz Missen

SOUTH Punjab is a term coined by some quarters in the last two decades to distinguish lower areas of Punjab from its central and northern parts. To begin with, the region in question has been identified with poverty, underdevelopment and the dominance of the feudal clans and castes. Now it is being projected as the home for the recruitment of the Taliban suicide bombers. The fate of South Punjab really hangs in balance.

South Punjab has not been mover and shaker of the country’s politics. Located far away from centres of power, the people have had no say in the matter of socio-economic development programmes launched by one or the other military regime. Actually this has been the case since the Khalsa forces (Sikh military) conquered the states of Mankera, Multan and Derajat in the first quarter of the 19th century. Maharaja (king) of Punjab, Ranjit Singh, wanted to conquer Bahawalpur, Khairpur and Sindh as well but the British asked him to keep himself strictly confined to the western banks of Sutlej.

The desire to establish hegemony of the militarised Punjab over what was formerly northwest India was materialised in 1954 through One Unit plan with Lahore becoming the capital of the West Pakistan. For one and half decade, Lahore enjoyed power and was subjected to condemnation by the ethno-nationalist elements of Balochistan, Sindh and the NWFP. The opponents duly encouraged the ethnic feelings in the so-called South Punjab to fracture its will to rule the country with iron fist. Even some politicians of this region, as indicated by Shafqat Tanvir Mirza in his “The origin and politics of Seraiki movement” (Encounter, May 24), have tried to utilise such feelings for political mileage.

One needs to probe in detail into the consequences of the One Unit Scheme besides the one that led Bengalis to the path of separatism and winning freedom after a bloody civil war and intervention by the neighbouring India. The future of democracy was doomed when Punjab insisted to be counted equal to Bengal although it did not match its counterpart in numerical strength. Three eastern rivers were lost to India through Indus Basin Treaty.

Tan Tai Yong’s The Garrison State: The Military, Government and Society in Colonial Punjab 1847-1849, published in2005, provides guide to the will of Punjab to keep intact its dominance in the decision-making process of the newly-borne state. The British after defeating the armies of Takht-e-Lahore actually disbanded the Khalsa army and quelled the rebellion by force but the events of the 1857 forced it to look towards Punjab for a succour to save Delhi and crush the revolt of the army mainly recruited from Bengal and Southern India.

The castes and tribes (predominantly Jats) that provide solace and saved the British Raj were duly rewarded. Declaring the tribes from Rawalpindi down to the Ravi-Sutlej Doabas martial races, their share in the royal army was increased to the extent that it became nearly a Punjabi army during the last century of British rule in India. The thick forests were cleared off in Central Punjab and the ‘crown lands’ were distributed among these loyal subjects. The canal colonies, as they were called, were expected to not only provide for the British Raj the defenders of its frontiers, threatened by the expanding Russian influence, but also make Punjab as the food basket of India.

As far as other areas of today’s Pakistan are concerned, the British did not develop the socio-economic system significantly except displace the forest communities whom they termed uncivilised and unruly people. A little bit administrative change was made by carving out of the Ranjit Singh’s Punjab, the NWFP. The feudal system was made hereditary and proprietors of jagirs in South Punjab and Sindh were given the revenue and magisterial powers to keep their subjects under control. The privileges of the Baloch tribal chiefs were kept unchanged while Maliki system was introduced in tribal regions bordering Afghanistan.

That the British patronised the loyal castes and tribes of Punjab during their rule in the north-western India is not only evident from allotment to them of agricultural lands supported by the canal system but also from the legislation carried out in their favour.

The most prominent of such legislations was the Punjab Land Alienation Act of 1900 that prohibited the non-agriculturalist castes from acquiring lands in the province. These were not only the enterprising Hindus that were victimised through such legislation but also the Janglis who were transformed into kameens due to the shrinking of forest area.

Nothing explains the frenzy following the partition except the way British colonised Punjab. The prospects of the Sikhs, who had got a major share of agricultural lands in Central Punjab, leaving for India, prompted the small landholders (Arains) to cross over to Pakistan in the hope of getting fertile lands. The Muslim tribes of Central Punjab expected to have their own share in the property vacated by the Sikhs. The Khalsas on their own part reacted sharply to revenge the loss of what they had in the past. The trauma of partition did influence the domestic and foreign policy of the country for the very reason that the immigrants dominated the civil-military bureaucracy of the nascent state.

The size of army (recruited from the known military districts of Punjab) would remain intact while the civil administrator would mainly belong to the Urdu-speaking segment. India would be regarded as an enemy while the duty of guarding the frontiers of British Raj would now assume a global dimension — Pakistan would play the role of a frontline state against the communist powers (Soviet Union and China).

The US and its allied western powers pumped into Pakistan huge funds to help it maintain a huge army and construct the ideological infrastructure to discourage the influence of communism that the capitalist bloc deemed a strategic threat. The nexus between the US and the civil-military bureaucracy of Pakistan is well known. So are the consequences.

Out of the many sectarian groups the country has had, only Deobandis and Wahabis had entertained the concept of waging jihad, even against the will of the state of which they were part. It is worth mentioning that neither of these groups had strong presence in the old population of the country which were either tolerant Brelvis or docile Shias. These militants groups were encouraged as a matter of policy. They first consolidated their position in Central Punjab and then penetrated into the South with official patronage during Zia-ul-Haq era. The pattern of the establishment of the mosques and Madrassahs belonging to Deobandi and Wahabi sects followed the settlements of the immigrants in the canal colonies of southern Punjab.

As the government is determined to eradicate militancy and launching military operation against the militants wherever they pose a threat, some sections of intelligentsia have raised an accusing finger at southern Punjab.

What this region has done? It is true that Punjab had provided largest share of funds and recruits in Afghan jihad and the structure of militancy still remains intact there. Why to make the south a scapegoat? Had the centre acted and cleared off Punjab from militants, Swat would not have seen its bad days.

Military operation is neither a solution to the problems of tribal region nor of south Punjab or any part of the country. True militancy is the law and order problem that the police and paramilitary forces have failed to tackle. Army has been used as the last option and it remains so in the future as well. But the government has not even started to address the root cause of militancy.

It is the ideological structure supported by none but the state that is fuelling militancy and creating inflexible and rigid souls. From constitutional provisions to the contents of the textbooks, the regimented and bigoted worldview is being promoted. Official media that is still selling religio-nationalism rather than building unified national identity on the traces of 5000 years old Indus-Hakra civilisation.

As far as south Punjab is concerned, religious militancy is not a phenomenon specifically associated with it. Actually there is widespread realisation among the intelligentsia to stop further colonisation of the region.

Whether it is Thal or Cholistan, promotion of agriculture has been followed by the expansion of networks of religious seminaries based in Central Punjab, the area wherefrom the colonisers come.

A separate province has emerged a viable option. Only the basis on which such administrative unit should be created is a matter to be settled. Some want to separate the agricultural districts from

the military-industrial areas, other want it on the basis of language and culture. Still there is another solution: converting the administration divisions into provinces will not only solve the problems of the Southern Punjab but also all the regions that are located far away from the centres of power — Islamabad and the capitals of the four provinces.

Source: Dawn, 7 June 2009ssp

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