In the wake of the 18th Amendment to its Constitution in 1973, many ethnic groups launched movements for new provinces on lingual and ethnic lines in Pakistan. To tackle this emerging issue, a Parliamentary Commission on the creation of new provinces was constituted but its ambit was limited to Punjab. Over the years, the demand for provinces along community lines has become a longstanding issue.
There are five major regional identities in Pakistan – Baloch, Bengali, Punjabi, Pashtun, and Sindhi. But the Saraikis of southern Punjab, bordering Sindh, have claimed a separate identity from Punjab and demanded a new province.
There are two types of regional movements in Pakistan, the separatist and the autonomy-seeking. In the former are bracketed the movement for greater Balochistan and Pukhtoonistan, who insist on or have been fighting for complete independence from Pakistan. The other nationalist movements demand either greater autonomy or the creation of new provinces on ethnic lines as in a separate Saraiki province in Punjab or a Hazara province in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Abdul Majeed Kanjoo, chairperson of the Saraiki National Party (SNP), in a writ petition filed in February this year before the Lahore High Court challenged the creation of a new administrative entity in southern Punjab, including the cities of Bahawalpur, Multan
and Dera Ghazi Khan, to be administered by a separate secretariat.
In 2020, the secretariat was established for the southern areas of Punjab (Saraikistan) made up of the Dera Ghazi Khan Division, the Multan Division and the Bahawalpur Division. It became officially operational on October 15, 2020. The division of South Punjab was in violation of the provincial status for the Saraiki people’s fundamental rights, protected by Article 8 of the Pakistani Constitution and has been challenged by lawyer Syed Muhammad Nisar Safdar.
Saraiki nationalists are not ready to accept the creation of a South Punjab secretariat as an alternative. Meanwhile, the Lahore High Court has served notices to the Punjab government and other authorities concerned.
“We want a Saraiki province comprising 21 districts out of 36 in Punjab, based on shared language, culture and history including the districts of Tank and Dera Ismail Khan from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. We will not accept any other name except Sariakistan,” says Kanjoo. According to him, “the demand is restoration of historical geography of Multan state of 1818 when Maharaja Ranjit Singh had conquered it on June 2, 1818.”
The agenda behind the division was to reduce the influence of the Saraikis who make up more than 60% of the population in Punjab itself. Pakistan could thus have a sixth province after Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab, Sindh and Gilgit Baltistan (which has de facto province-like status without constitutionally becoming part of Pakistan). Political observers believe that the carving up of South Punjab would be a future roadmap for the Pakistan government to keep the tug of war alive between South Punjab and Saraikistan. It is also a fact that the present opposition does not respect the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan.
Saraiki is the second most used language in Pakistan, spoken by over 18 million people, mainly in parts of southern-most and north-west Punjab, the southern districts of Dera Ismail Khan and also in parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh and Balochistan.
After the Bengalis, the Saraikis are the largest ethnic group in Pakistan – accounting for 40% of the population. But they are counted as Punjabis, taking the population of that province to 62.5% of the national total. According to the Indian census of 2001, Saraiki is spoken in urban areas throughout north-west and north-central India by about 70,000 people, mainly by descendants of migrants from western Punjab after Partition in 1947.
The Saraikis first raised the demand for Saraikistan in April 1970. They wanted Multan, Bahawalpur, Sahiwal, Khaniwal, Sargodha, Jhang, Rahim Yar Khan, Dera Ismail Khan, D.G. Khan, and Tang areas of Punjab to be included. The Balochs have joined the Saraikis’ ongoing struggle to fight for political, economic, and social/cultural rights and to stop the loot of their resources.
“We want a Saraiki province comprising 21 districts out of 36 in Punjab, based on shared language, culture and history including the districts of Tank and Dera Ismail Khan from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.”
It is most unfortunate that even in the 21st century, Saraikis still face severe oppression and opposition from the state. The Pakistan Army instigates agitations every five to 10 years against the contemporary dispensation and mounts pressure to defuse a democratic movement. Some parties from Punjab, Pakhtoon and Sindh plus religious groups along with the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) party make themselves readily available to act under the Army’s directions.
On March 1, 2020, the curtain was raised when a formidable and united opposition front under Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman, chief of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F), and Mahmood Khan Achakzai, chairman of the Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party, supported the demand for Saraikistan province. The opposition alliance was further strengthened by involving Kanjoo, Abdul Latif Junejo of the Sindhi United Party, Dr. Qadir Magsi, head of the Sindh Taraqi Pasand Party, Mir Hasil Banjajo of the National Balochistan Party, Prof. Sajid Mir of the Jamiat Ahle Hadith, and Ahmad Khan Sherpao of the Pakistan People’s Party (Sherpao faction) in a meeting.
Saraiki is the second most used language in Pakistan, spoken by over 18 million people, mainly in southern-most and north-west Punjab, Sindh and some parts of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunwa.
Achakzai openly vowed to take Pakistan out of the constitutional mess of whether the Army was for Pakistan or Pakistan was for the Army.
In an exclusive interview, Kanjoo told this journalist from Rahim Yar Khan, “I do not think army rule will come again in Pakistan because of the economic situation here. It has been the practice that the army enjoys the economic stability established by democratic governments. And, on charges of corruption, destabilises the governments for its own ends.”
Asked about divisions in the Army, he said the leadership was pro-China and the military establishment had already shifted its loyalty from the US to China. But a complete break from the US camp could create difficulties for Pakistan as China is not an “absolute alternative”.
On Balochistan’s ongoing struggle for separation from Pakistan, he said, “The SNP has no political ally except the Balochistan National Party headed by Sardar Akhtar Jan. We wholeheartedly support the demand for Balochistan.”
Before the elections of 2008, the All Parties Democratic Movement (APDM), under the banner of the Pakistan Oppressed Nations Movement (PONM), was launched in London with the common aim of boycotting the elections. The PONM is a united front of four oppressed nationalities demanding a constitution on the basis of a 1940 resolution.
The Army dealt with the challenge by indulging in politics along with allied parties, and disbanded the APDM as non-state actors. However, the PONM remained intact but became non-functional after the elections which most parties did boycott but then sided with the Army. The PONM has once again become active with the support of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM).
Pakistan Peoples Party chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari generated hope for Saraikis when he promised to back the proposed Saraiki province at a workers’ convention on September 10.
In a sense, this drive to assert regional identities reflects the wider lack of freedom for those who oppose the establishment – the elected government and the Army.
In a sense, this drive to assert regional identities reflects the wider lack of freedom for those who oppose the establishment – the elected government and the Army. Noted international advocacy group Freedom House in its Freedom In The World 2021 report said, “Pakistan holds regular elections under a competitive multiparty political system. However, the military exerts enormous influence over security and other policy issues, intimidates the media, and enjoys impunity for indiscriminate or extra-legal use of force. The authorities impose selective restrictions on civil liberties, and Islamist militants carry out attacks on religious minorities and other perceived opponents.
“…Constitutional guarantees of religious freedom have not provided effective safeguards against discriminatory legislation, social prejudice, and sectarian violence. Hindus have complained of vulnerability to kidnapping and forced conversions, and some continue to migrate to India. Members of the Shia sect, Christians, and other religious minorities remain at risk of blasphemy accusations that can arise from trivial disputes and escalate to criminal prosecution and mob violence. The blasphemy laws and their exploitation by religious vigilantes have also curtailed freedom of expression by Muslims.
The approach as reflected in the establishment’s attitude to the Saraiki movement for greater autonomy spills over into almost every other area as well. Freedom House also noted the South Asian nuclear power was amongst the top 10 countries in the world where internet freedom has been on the decline.
In another report, “The Pandemic’s Global Shadow”, the Washington-based organisation pointed out, “Pakistan’s proposed Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Consent Rules, the latest version of which were published in November 2020, outlines requirements for social media companies to establish one or more data servers in the country.
“Pakistan’s proposed rules have raised alarms about their impact on end-to-end encryption. The draft requires social media companies and service providers with more than 500,000 users to hand over personal data in a decrypted and readable format when requested by the Federal Investigation Agency.”
Thus, between ignoring or breaking up movements for regional autonomy to exerting ever greater control on the internet and other opinion-forming platforms, to wider human rights issues, the establishment in Pakistan continues to play a debatable role in basic constitutional freedoms, as the Saraikis continue to discover in ever newer ways.