A proposal to carve new provinces out of Punjab is based in narrow partisanship and threatens to stoke the fire of separatism.
Pandering on the provincial level will drive Pakistan apart
In the midst of all the din and anarchy in Pakistan one of the most important developments, with far-reaching consequences for the country, and for the region, is going unnoticed.
Early this month President Asif Ali Zardari sent a formal reference to the speaker of the National Assembly asking her to set up a commission to look into the legal, political and economic issues of creating Multan and Bahawalpur provinces (located in southern Punjab) out of the existing Punjab and to initiate the necessary constitutional amendments for this purpose. The move seems timed to draw maximum benefit for the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) in elections due in early 2013.
With nearly 60 per cent of Pakistan's population, Punjab is a major political force. The province contains the key military recruiting districts. Much of the senior bureaucracy hails from Punjab. Its size, resources and power are resented by the other units in the federation.
Any demand for dividing the province raises alarm bells in Pakistan, which came into being after a bloody partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947. Pakistan itself split in a civil war between the west and eastern wings, leading to the establishment of Bangladesh in 1971. Deep down Pakistan lives with a fear of further fragmentation; over its six-decades of history more than one smaller province has been known to nurture separatist tendencies. And the current turmoil in Baluchistan seems to be led by separatist forces.
The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a coalition partner of the ruling PPP, took the first formal step in seeking division of Punjab in January this year by moving a constitutional amendment forward. The MQM, which holds sway in Karachi, is often accused of harbouring ambitions of separating Karachi from Sindh and making it into a province for Urdu speakers. While the MQM denies these allegations, maps of a proposed Karachi province remain in circulation.
With Pashtuns migrating to Karachi in droves, the MQM feels it is being pushed to the wall and would logically have a better chance of setting up a province now rather than years later, when their declining numbers will dilute their political clout further.
Supporters of a Saraiki province, meanwhile, claim that they need a separate province so they can take control of their own resources, which are allegedly diverted to northern Punjab.
PPP detractors believe that a platform of perceived "discrimination" against a subregion is a vote winner, and the real reason for championing this is the PPP's inability to break the PML-N's stranglehold over the most populous province. The party is headed by the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who is now increasingly at odds with Mr Zardari. Firdous Ashiq Awan, a PPP minster, expressed her party's true motives when she said recently that "a party that doesn't support the creation of South Punjab runs the risk of becoming politically irrelevant in one half of the province".
In other words, it suits the interests of the Sindh-based PPP well to pit the people of Punjab against each other.
Rumours also abound that Prime Minster Yusuf Raza Gilani, a Saraiki speaker, is seeking to secure a place for his sons in politics. And in the mode of hereditary political transition in South Asia, the separatist move is designed to secure the chief minister's position in a Saraiki province for one of his children.
Mr Gilani claimed that "the chief minister of the Seraiki province will be the one hearing the grievances of the people of the region, and the courts in the region will give them quick justice", adding that a province will give people of the region "a separate identity".
Mr Gilani obviously does not realise that the same argument of "separate identity" and perceived injustice, successfully used for the creation of Pakistan, came back to haunt the country in the shape of Bengali nationalists who deeply resented Punjabi domination of the state apparatus and economy. Against the backdrop of similar Bengali claims leading to Bangladesh, the narrow use of these arguments today sounds like a dangerous course.
Stoking the fires of division in Punjab on linguistic grounds is likely to have a snowballing effect, beginning with forces seeking division of Sindh, which Sindhi nationalists have vowed to fight.
Supporters of a Hazara province, many of whom died protesting the name change of North-West Frontier Province to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are already agitating for separation. And Baluchistan remains on fire, drawing parallels with the 1971 break-up of Pakistan.
Logistically, the drive for new provinces would be fraught with challenges. For one, how would Pakistan's ailing economy support several more governors, chief ministers and a brigade of new bureaucrats who would all expect extraordinary perks?
The Pakistani politicians must understand that the notion of "separate identity" has its limits. Pushing the notion too far is destructive.
Instead of improving governance as a panacea for many political and administrative ills, the ruling PPP's current leadership, by pursuing a narrow agenda, has chosen this highly risky and divisive course, which could seriously dent the federation of Pakistan.
Sajjad Ashraf is a former Pakistani foreign service officer and an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore