Pakistan’s ethnic jigsaw shaken by NWFP name change

By Kamran Haider
April 21, 2010

Changing the name of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP) to “Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa” has triggered a new debate over whether other ethnic communities have the right to claim and win separate regions.

Parliament last week approved the new name, reflecting the Pashtuns’ demographic dominance of the province.

Pashtun nationalists, represented by the Awami National Party (ANP), who lead the coalition government in the province, argue the old NWFP name indicates only a geographical location rather than the ethnicity of its inhabitants, unlike the other three Pakistan provinces — Punjab for Punjabis, Sindh for Sindhis and Baluchistan for Baluchis.

But before its passage in the Senate, angry protesters in the Hindko-speaking dominated region of Hazara in NWFP took to the streets. They burned tyres, blocked roads, damaged buildings and vehicles and observed a strike. Seven people died in clashes with police.

Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, whose Pakistan Muslim League (PML-Q) is the third largest group in parliament, justified the violence, saying “if their rights (Hazaras’) will be denied then they have no option but to take to the streets.”

His party’s senator, Mohammad Ali Durrani Hussain, said he would soon introduce a bill in parliament seeking provinces for Hazaras, who speak Hindko, and Seraiki speakers, another large ethnic group in the northwest.

Writing in his column for the Daily Times, senior journalist Syed Talat Hussain said Hazara erupted because its inhabitants were assumed to be politically irrelevant and the ANP “drank too deep at the well of political chauvinism.”

“Anyone choosing to still ignore them would do so at his own peril,” he wrote. “And at the cost of setting this whole area up for deadly violence.”

Renaming NWFP for the Pashtuns was a major demand of the ANP, which struggled for years with a “traitor” label, because some of its founding members opposed the creation of Pakistan, preferring a Pashtunistan instead. With the passage of time, the ANP not only shed its anti-Pakistan label, but also started calling other ethnic groups Pashtuns in a bid to gain support.

To cool tempers in Hazara, all political parties now say they support carving a new province out of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

“If a separate province is the desire of the people of Hazara, the PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League- Nawaz) will support their stance,” said opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, who — not coincidentally — draws support from the Hindko-speaking region.

But like many other Punjabi politician, Sharif chose to remain silent over the demand for a Seraiki province. According to the latest census in 1998, Seraiki speakers, who are based in Central and Southern Punjab, make up about 18 percent of the province’s 73 million people.

“If they want more resources, their MPs should raise voices in assemblies and get them. A separate province is a move to a weak federation,” Punjab Law Minister and member of PML-N, Rana Sanaullah, said in a talk-show.

Taj Muhammad Langah, chief of Pakistan Seraiki Party (PSP), told the Friday Times magazine the attitude of “indifference” towards their demand could cause violence.

“Now Seraikis are in Pakistan as Kashmiris are in the Indian federation,” he said. “They are forcing us to adopt the path of violence.”

A movement for a Seraiki province hearkens back to 1960s, but it was suppressed by the powerful Punjabi-dominated establishment. Why? Because the Seraiki region grows most of Pakistan’s food, and separating it from Punjab would  take away the biggest chunk of the province’s income.

For the creation of a new province, parliament’s both houses — the National Assembly and the Senate — must amend the constitution with two-thirds voting in favour. No party enjoys this majority.

Newspapers’ editorials have termed the move for new provinces on ethnic basis dangerous. “The country should not be reduced to a jigsaw puzzle where a piece can be dislodged by the smallest of mishap,” the Dawn newspaper said.

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