Ethnicity politics and the Restructure Debate

Ethnicity politics and the Restructure Debate


Relations between the centre and federating units is one of Pakistan’s most enduring structural problems. 
Though understandably affected by its expansive ethnic diversity and the East Pakistan secession, the country has made tremendous progress in building state infrastructure, institutions, a viable economic base, security in the face of major geopolitical challenges, and an effective national narrative. Despite these triumphs however, Pakistan’s elite, its state institutions and even its military regimes have not been able to reorganize or rationalize the provinces that became its constituent part 72 years ago.
The demographic and ethnic realities of each province must be observed, as must their symbolic transformation into ethnic entities by the taking of ethnic names. The last transformation in this respect was that of the North-West Frontier Province—a geographic category—to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, an ethnic identity as demanded for decades by Pashtun nationalist parties. But this was done against the desires and wishes of the ethnic minorities within KP, like the Hindko speakers and the population of the Hazara districts.
Indeed, there is a clear ethnic majority in every province- the Sindhis, the Balochis, the Punjabis, the Pashtuns- but there are countless other ethnic groups that share this geography.
Every province is multi-ethnic, because of historical migration patterns and post-independence migration from India. And every major ethnic group has representation in every province of Pakistan. In many ways, Pakistan’s multi-ethnic character is reflected in the ethnic composition of its provinces and even in major cosmopolitan centers. Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad are just a few of the examples of growing multi-ethnicity and the mingling of populations that are moving to urban centers.
The question is, is the existing arrangement of provinces—currently four with an evolving province-like status for the Gilgit and Baltistan region—good enough to achieve the political stability, development and ‘change’ that the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf has been talking about? And relevantly, will creating more provinces be a good answer to the many challenges of governance, security and development that Pakistan confronts? 
Ethnic minority groups in every province have been demanding the creation of their own ethnic provinces by carving out majority districts and clubbing them together. And important geographical and demographic facts support their demands—ethnic minorities have sizeable numbers and have geographic concentration of power. For example, the Pashtuns in the north of Baluchistan and adjacent to the tribes of similar types inside Afghanistan; Seraiki speaking populations in the southern Punjab; Muhajirs—Muslim immigrants from India—in Karachi and other urban areas of Sindh, and the Hindko linguistic groups in the Hazara regions of KP.

The alienation of ethnic minorities has led to demands for ethnic provinces, as their efforts to get a fair share of resources and representation in the provincial power structure have been frustrated.

Rasul Bakhsh Rais

While the state and major ruling parties have always shown political interest in the centralization of power, the dominant ethnic groups in the provinces have struggled for greater autonomy. 
However, there is a contradiction in their position: while they desire greater powers, they are reluctant to share their financial resources, administrative or political powers with their own ethnic minorities. The spirit of the 18th amendment was in the devolution of power to the districts through local governments, but this never materialized. Rather, the provincial capital in each province has become the new centre of power. No party with a majority government in any province has been willing to transfer power and resources to its minority districts, and they have blatantly stifled efforts to establish powerful local governments.
The alienation of ethnic minorities has led to demands for ethnic provinces, as their efforts to get a fair share of resources and representation in the provincial power structure have been frustrated.
Interestingly, every major political party in Pakistan, mainly in southern Punjab, has exploited this frustration. While Pakistan Peoples Party and the Awami National Party support the division of the Punjab into two provinces, they deadly oppose giving provincial rights to the ethnic minorities in Sindh and KP, where they are most powerful. The other two parties, the Muslim League and PTI have over the past two decades, supported the move for a South Punjab province by spouting rhetoric in public rallies and including it in their respective party manifestos.
Creating one or more provinces will require political consensus among major political parties. At the moment, the government and the opposition are not on talking terms; rather they are confrontational and we may see them using the politics of South Punjab province, or any other, to get political mileage as far as they can.
The commitment and consensus-building required to reorder the federating units in Pakistan simply doesn’t exist. The urgencies of electoral politics might eventually force a positive response to the demands of ethnic minorities, but for that, the different groups will have to mobilize. Going by their electoral performance, they are lacking both the spirit and the energy to put into their constituencies.

•  Rasul Bakhsh Rais is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, LUMS, Lahore.  His latest book is “Islam, Ethnicity and Power Politics: Constructing Pakistan’s National Identity (Oxford University Press, 2017). @RasulRais

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