Call for a new province

As the demand for creating a fifth Seraiki province reaches the UN, activists and intellectuals from the region plead their case

Call for a new province

In March this year, Dr Nukhbah Taj Langah, President Pakistan Siraiki Party (PSP), moved a petition with the Secretary General of the United Nations (UN), highlighting the suppressed human rights situation in the Seraiki region and asking the UN to urge the Pakistani government to pay attention to this long held demand of the Seraiki-speaking people.

Their demands include "political recognition (based on language, culture and geography being our distinct identity markers) through constitutional representation" and "creation of a fifth province through the bifurcation of the present Punjab". They "contest the self-imposed political and economic hegemony of Punjabi and Urdu speaking (Mohajir) ruling elite over Siraiki people which has resulted in human rights violations in our region".

Seraiki region constitutes about 19 out of 36 districts of Punjab. Seraiki-speaking people constitute about 30 per cent population of the country. Seraiki is also said to be second biggest language spoken in the provinces of Sindh, Balochistan, and Khyber Pakhtunkwha.

Dr Nukhbah Langah tells TNS that until 2013, the proposal for Seraiki province was being openly discussed in the parliament. "However, the representatives of Seraiki region sitting within the parliament have never voiced this cause clearly and have merely tried to use the agenda of the Seraiki province as a political card -- for strengthening their vote bank".

Her father Taj Muhammad Langah was the founder of the PSP. He had a long struggle for the cause of a Seraiki province and had clearly laid out the rationale behind the proposal for creating a fifth province in Pakistan. After his death, his daughter is carrying the flag of the party.

Dr Langah says in the current scenario it was important to raise a voice, to highlight our problems in front of the UN. "We deserve the right to speak and promote our mother language and encourage education in this language. We also deserve to be fairly accommodated in jobs; our region produces rich natural resources and we should be able to utilise the income generated by these resources," she says.

She says that children from South Punjab cannot get admission in the best educational institutions in Punjab; they cannot compete for jobs with the well educated youth of Punjab; there is no job security for them, or they are forced to experience internal migrations in search of jobs. "If our basic rights and objectives are not achieved and heard by the Pakistani government, then we have no option but to raise this issue on important forums like the UN."

The demand for the creation of a province in South Punjab is not a new one. This has been recorded in history from time to time, mostly by the Seraiki-speaking majority in the scattered parts of Punjab, Sindh and the Balochistan, in the form of a movement that began as early as in the 1960s. In 2002, Seraiki nationalists claimed there were over 30 million Seraiki-speaking people in Pakistan.

"This [idea of a] new province is very good for the strength of the federation and will help in strengthening democracy," says academic and intellectual Mushtaq Gaadi who hails from South Punjab. "All the share of resources of the Seraiki region is swallowed by the Punjab elite."

In 2011, during the last government of Pakistan People’s Party, there was a proposal for making a ‘South Punjab’ province. But the proposal was politically dissolved by the then opposition party -- the PML-N -- because they were not serious about the move and did not want the PPP to take credit for this.

Against that, PML-N started dividing the stakeholders by creating a move that there should also be a separate province by restoring the old status of the princely state of Bahawalpur. This was opposed by other Seraiki groups. That is why PML-N led Punjab Assembly in May 2012 passed a resolution demanding a new province but also called for a national commission to decide all important issues (judicious distribution of water and other resources, geographical demarcation and all other constitutional, legal and administrative affairs) regarding new provinces.

Dr Langah recalls how the discussion in the parliament in 2013 was strongly rejected by the PML-N. However, it was a distorted proposal and strategy for Bahawalpur-Janoobi-Punjab Province. "And now, after the general elections of 2013, this demand of Siraikistan province has completely been suppressed."

"This [idea of a] new province is very good for the strength of the federation and will help in strengthening democracy," says academic and intellectual Mushtaq Gaadi who hails from South Punjab. "All the share of resources of the Seraiki region is swallowed by the Punjab elite. In the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) regime, there were some serious efforts to create this province. The resolution was passed in the Senate but turned down by the PML-N in the National Assembly," he says.

Gaadi says that Seraikis have a peaceful movement and with the passage of time this issue has achieved some milestones like the passing of constitutional amendment in Senate. However, "with the passage of time, the identity consciousness of people living in the Seraiki region has further deepened because they figure nowhere in the human and social development indicators".

Raja Zafarul Haq of the PML-N, leader of the house in Senate who headed a committee of his party on new provinces during the last PPP regime, tells TNS that their committee at that time had decided that a commission must discuss the need for new provinces. "We do not have any problem with the demand for a Seraiki province, but the demand for new provinces should be based on administrative reasons rather than linguistic or ethnic. We should also keep in mind that there are also demands for new provinces by dividing Sindh and KP." He says the PML-N government has spent huge funds on the development of South Punjab."

A ranking of the 36 districts of Punjab shows that the least developed districts in Punjab are in the southern part of the province. Multan district, home to the largest city in southern Punjab, ranks as the 12th most developed. In other words, 11 other districts in Punjab -- all in upper Punjab -- are more developed than Multan.

A report of PILDAT on development funds for South Punjab from 2003-2010, shows that the funds allocation is very low in relation to the population. This percentage has increased after 2009 and has reached its maximum of 29.02 per cent in years 2010-2011 but it is still low than the population percentage which was 31.57 per cent in the year 2010. The report says the core reason for the backwardness of the southern Punjab has been the lack of developmental funds which is the right of this region. There are 27 public sector universities in Punjab according to Higher Education Commission data out of that only eight are in south Punjab.

It also says that the ratio of health facilities in south Punjab is 26 per cent as compared to the rest of the province. And the percentage of population below the poverty line in the Seraiki belt is on average 43 per cent while it is 27 per cent in the rest of the Punjab. It is more than 50 per cent in some districts.

"We live in the heart of Pakistan while our resources are being utilised in Lahore. We believe that our recognition is the foremost thing and that is why we call for a new province -- for this balance," Azhar Lashari, another Seraiki activist and intellectual, maintains. He says Punjab takes a big chunk of funds from the NFC in the name of poverty, which is rampant in the Seraiki region, but utilises this money on the development of Lahore.

He pins his hopes with the PPP which alone can make a separate Seraiki province. "The ruling political elite of Lahore (Takht Lahore) would never want this. And Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf has not voiced this cause openly even once," says Lashari.

Dr Langah says the budget and resources of Siraiki region are being spent on the Orange Line Project in Lahore. "Another example is the actual route of China Pakistan Economic Corridor being changed to benefit the important regions of Punjab and depriving the Seraiki region. Various development projects have been launched only for the benefit of central Punjab and largely spent on Lahore as its capital."

The petition requests the UN to establish an international enquiry into the human rights (according to the UN charter) abuses against the Seraiki, Sindhi and Baloch people, who collectively represent their respective oppressed nations residing within Pakistan and express solidarity to support each other.

Call for a new province