How far are Seraikis from their dream?
"When a party advocates for setting up an administrative secretariat for people of Seraiki region, instead of agreeing to the creation of a province, it means the party does not acknowledge our national character. Postings and transfers are not such a matter of grave concern; we want to protect the legacy of our history, culture, identity and language which has carried on for thousands of years. We want to be recognized as equal to Punjabis, Sindhis, Pakhtoons and Baloch,” says Ujala Langah.
Langah is a radical Seraiki nationalist, heading Seraikistan National Front. “Why was Seraikistan not named a province when four provinces have been created in the name of their national identity?” she asks.
The Seraiki nationalists’ demand for the province has seen more than 50 years of political struggle, agitational protests, poetry and big cultural-cum-political gatherings. The Seraiki rights movement emerged as resistance against Zia martial law when political activities were banned. Leftist intellectuals, political workers from central Punjab and south Punjab including Prof Aziz ud Din Ahmed, Imtiaz Alam, Ustaad Fida Hussein Gadi, Mazhar Arif, Taj Langah, Hamid Asghar Shaheen and others started political activities highlighting Seraiki culture, deprivations and Punjab’s exploitative and discriminatory policies against the Seraiki region. Pakistan National Party led by Mir Ghous Bux Bizenju was the first political party to form a separate party chapter for Seraiki region in 1984.
Zahoor Dhareja the chairperson of the Seraikistan Qaumi Council, says, “We demand a province consisting of 24 districts: Multan, Lodhran, Khanewal, Vehari, Bahawalpur, Bahawalnagar, Rahim Yar Khan, Dera Ghazi Khan, Layyah, Muzaffargarh, Rajanpur, Pakpattan, Okara, Sargodha, Khushab, Bhakkar, Mianwali, Jhang, Toba Tek Singh, Chiniot and Faisalabad. We also demand inclusion of two districts from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa: Dera Ismail Khan and Tank where 70 percent of the population speaks Seraiki language.”
Mainstream political parties are divided on the issue. The Pakistan Peoples Party supports South Punjab province consisting of 13 districts including 11districts from Multan, Bahawalpur and Dera Ghazi Khan Divisions and Mianwali and Bhakkar.
The Pakistan Tehreek Insaf has promised a South Punjab province comprising 11 South Punjab districts. However, the PTI says it will initially establish two administrative secretariats in Multan and Bahawalpur as a two-thirds majority for legislation is not available.
The Pakistan Muslim League-N supports two provinces: one Bahawalpur and the other a South Punjab province comprising Multan and Dera Ghazi Khan divisions. PML-N MPA Hina Pervez Butt tabled a resolution in Punjab Assembly for the creation of a separate Bahawalpur province last May.
There is an apprehension among Seraiki political workers that the demand for two provinces is an effort to continue hegemony of central Punjab in the Senate. The Senate is currently dominated by Pakhtuns; after the creation of two provinces in South Punjab, the Senate would be dominated by the Punjab as each province has 23 members in the Upper House for equal representation. If the Bahawalpur province is created, it will solidify Punjab’s domination in the Senate where each province has an equal representation of 23 members.
The PML-N and PML-Q have strong pockets in the Bahawalpur division since the large-scale settlement of central Punjab tribes in Cholistan. They were allotted lands there, which has turned the local Seraiki population into a minority.
The PPP is opposed to the division of South Punjab into two provinces. Syed Yousaf Raza Gillani who as PM boldly announced that PPP would create a Seraiki province had constituted a Province Commission in 2012. It was headed by the then Senator Farhatullah Babar. The commission had proposed naming the new province as Bahawalpur-South Punjab.
Political pundits say that new power-brokers have emerged in the Punjab politics in 2018 elections shrinking space for South Punjab’s powerful political dynasties. These dynasties are now betting their bottom dollar on the new province.
Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi says that the PTI is making serious efforts to set up two south Punjab administrative secretariats in Multan and Bahawalpur. He say the creation of a province needs an amendment in the constitution with a two thirds majority which the PTI lacks. He says the PTI would seek cooperation from the PPP and the PML-N.
However, such support from PML-N and the PPP seems unlikely anytime soon. Former prime minister Syed Yousaf Raza Gillani says that he thinks that the PTI is not serious about creating a South Punjab province. He says PPP did not want an administrative secretariat but a province with its own high court and assembly. “PTI’s proposal of setting up two administrative secretariats is ridiculous, and not feasible”, he says.
The proposal to set up one or two administrative secretariats is also not acceptable for Seraiki nationalists.
“We cannot accept any option except a province based on Seraiki identity, with proper boundaries. The PTI has no right to humiliate millions of people of the Seraiki region”, says Zahoor Dhareja.
Criticising the PTI, he says that 600 days have passed without the creation of a province the PTI promised to create within the first 100 days of taking charge of public offices. He says that only a constitutional commission can propose boundaries and the name for the new province.
The writer is bureau chief of The News in Multan. He can be reached at [email protected]