By Arshad Abbasi

The issue of provincialism and drawing and re-drawing provincial boundaries has been rooted in the history of United India under the British rule. The issue cast a hangover even after the partition of British India. It was in 1905 when a large unwieldy province of Bengal was divided between eastern and western wings. The partition of the province had to be revoked under popular pressure by the British.

This is the mazar of a famous saint Shah Rukn Alam in Multan, South Punjab. Photo Credit: Waleed Khan/ Citizen Reporter/PakVoices

In 1940 in the Lahore Resolution the Muslim League called for the creation of Muslim states in South Asia. However, in 1946 the word “states” was replaced with the word “state” meaning thereby that there would be only one state after the British departure from the Indian Subcontinent. So Pakistan was created in a novel way i.e. two territorial entities in one federation separated by thousands of miles from each other. In this manner, the issue of provincialism took a tangible expression in Pakistan right after the independence.

A number of schemes have been proposed and some of them put into effect to resolve the asymmetric demarcation of the provinces of the country. The nonresolution of the issue resulted in a lack of autonomy for the provinces consequently fueling the centrifugal tendencies which culminated in the disjunction of Pakistan in 1971. Instead of learning from the tragic breakup of the country resulting from the usurpation of provincial rights of the then Eastern wing, the rulers subsequent to 1971 continued to evade the issue.

Spells of military rule further deteriorated the situation of provincial autonomy let alone creating new provinces. This state of affairs is best described by Anatol Lieven in his book“Pakistan a Hard Country” that in Pakistan democratic leaders behave dictatorially and dictators behave like democrats. The troubled political journey of Pakistan witnessed among so many things the rise of a movement for provincial status for South Punjab.

The reverberations and ripples caused by the movement for a provincial status of South Punjab were given a manifest expression in 1990s. It was an outcome of a popular movement launched by the disgruntled smaller regional parties that the South Punjab began to be discussed as a separate province. The mobilization under the banner of “Pakistan Oppressed Nations’ Movement-PONM caused the then incumbent Pakistan Muslim League and Pakistan People’s Party to take the notice of the demand for the provincial status for the southern part of Punjab.

However, the PONM movement which gathered some pace and speed in the second half of 1990s ended with a whimper after the coup of 1999. The fire burning for South Punjab as a separate province refuse to be put down altogether, rather the embers flickered on resulting in the re-kindling of the conflagration. With the freedom of media accompanied by the mushroomed growth of electronic and print media outlets, proactive judiciary and activism-driven civil society, the voices of South Punjab began to be heard and felt.

The political wheeling-dealing continued on the issue with a view to grab votes in the elections leaving substantive debate at the side-burner. Receiving a big push during the current democratic interregnum the question of carving out a new province in the South of Punjab with a view to fulfilling a long-standing demand of the masses of the area. Going into specifics of the latest twist in the saga of a provincial status of South Punjab, it was the PPP opposition in the Punjab Provincial Assembly calling for redrawing the map of Punjab so as to divide it into more provinces. The sitting PML-N government showed the interest in the proposal but again remained contented with sitting on the files.

The realpolitik calculations driven by short-term electoral interests blurred the vision of political forces to neglect the vital issue of creation of new provinces. Hot-ballooned rhetoric centred on point scoring has been delaying the fulfillment of popular aspiration of the people of South Punjab to have a separate province. The political elite of the country is naturally inclined to maintain status quo on the crucial subject of altering the existing federal structure of the country. The size of Punjab creates disequilibrium resulting in provincialism in the country.

Within the Punjab the distinct ethnic and linguistic denominations call for their separate provinces. The voices from South Punjab have always been vocal and meaningful in this regard. So based on the twists and turns of history and ups and downs of the present the future of South Punjab as a province on its own does not look bright. But the frank and candid analysis is not to be taken as sounding casandra, rather it ought to be a clarion call for keeping the demand alive.

Mixing politics with philosophy Bertrand Russell comes handy in the present scenario as he says that extreme hope is born amid extreme misery. The resilient people of South Punjab know that they can unleash their hidden talent and overt potential by wisely and vocally calibrating their voice to the participatory electoral forces and their manifestos. It is therefore in this way that South Punjab can acquire the provincial status thus leading the way for the much-needed restructuring of the federal makeup of Pakistan.

Editor’s Note: The views expressed in this article are solely of the writer.