Shahbaz’s Karachi province call reignites old controversy

Notwithstanding a subsequent retraction, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif’s call for creation of Karachi province after bifurcating Sindh, has reignited an old controversy. It has, understandably, provoked a furor in Sindh amid charged sentiment against division of the province.

By Afzal Khan (Dateline Islamabad)

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Published: Sat 30 Apr 2011, 12:04 AM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 8:00 PM

Already, there have been strong voices against the way Census 2011 is being carried out. Nationalist parties have called for a shutdown on April 30 in protest against what they term as attempts to turn Sindhis into a minority in their own province. The reference to Karachi as a new entity was bound to further exacerbate nationalist sensibilities and add a potentially volatile issue to the litany of grievances that would be articulated during the strike.

The remarks about Karachi are, apparently, Shahbaz’s cynical response to the stepped up demand for bifurcation of Punjab to carve out a new Seraiki province. Shahbaz, however, has displayed a tendency for poor and impulsive choice of words that he has to explain later. In one of such unguarded moments he urged the Taleban not to commit suicide operations in Punjab given the fact that his government is also opposed to military operations in tribal belt and US war in Afghanistan. The statement has since provided a big handle to opponents to brand him as promoting Punjabi chauvinism.

In the north, Khyber Pakhtunkhawa’s Hazara region is also up in arms for seeking a new provincial status on linguistic and cultural grounds which are distinct from Pakhtun’s. In the distant past strong voices were also raised in country’s biggest province in area, Balochistan, to dissect it among Pushtoons and Baloch who are equally divided. Within the Seraiki belt in Punjab, a segment of politicians in Bahawalpur division has been calling for revival of once rich former princely state that had provided funds to the newly-created country after partition of India in 1947. One subdued demand relates to Potohar region in Punjab’s north which produces most of personnel for Pakistan’s military forces.

The rationale for Punjab’s division stems from its being too unwieldy for purposes of administration and in terms of gross power imbalance and uneven development that causes disaffection among smaller provinces. It is also the bastion of country’s army which has ruled for better part of its history engendering a sense of deprivation, alienation and anti-Punjabi sentiments in rest of the country. In its latest manifestation politics has crept in with PPP’s backing for Seraiki province where it has larger vote strength than Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League. It would thus like to confine Sharifs to central and northern Punjab. The advocacy of Karachi province provides another handle to Shrifs’ foes to whip up ethnic bias accusing them of working against Sindhis’ interests.

A survey conducted in 2009 showed that the Seraiki belt has not received the attention it deserved in terms of economic development. The distances from provincial capital cause hardships for people who have official work in Lahore.

It is also argued that Seraiki region has a distinct cultural identity besides being economically viable because of its rich agricultural base.

The reaction in Sindh, however, defies logic because all political parties and nationalist groups support the demand for creation of Seraiki province on linguistic basis which they reject in Sindh. Ironically, the MQM has also joined the chorus in denouncing Shahbaz Sharif while emphasising that Sindh is an integral one unit that cannot be divided. The PML-N spokesman, Senator Pervez Rashid, has made a valid point that under Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s benign patronage, the MQM had divided the historical district of Hyderabad and united all districts of Karachi into one to consolidate its constituency and substantially enhance parliamentary strength. Former Sindh chief minister Arbab Rahim had claimed that the MQM is demanding over 286,000 acres of land between Karachi and Hyderabad to link it up into one demographic unit. Its latest stance, however, is guided by the compulsion to expand beyond narrow linguistic prejudices and avoid alienating Sindhi voters.

The issue of creation of new provinces requires a profound national debate, free from political considerations. There is a strong argument that the divisions should be based on administrative considerations and not linguistic or ethnic which would deepen divisive sentiments and prejudices seriously undermining national integrity and cohesion.

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