The birth of a province

July 12, 2020

Has the decision to operationalise the South Punjab Secretariat created more discontent?

Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi and Punjab Chief Minister Sardar Usman Buzdar, both of whom are from South Punjab, discuss development issues facing the area at the CM House.

With its recent decision to operationalise the South Punjab Secretariat, the government of the Punjab has taken the first practical step towards fulfilling its campaign promise of creating a South Punjab province. However, it appears that the decision has caused more dissent than rejoicing.

Last month, the provincial government created 385 posts, including those of an additional chief secretary and an additional inspector-general, for the new secretariat to govern the Multan, Bahawalpur and Dera Ghazi Khan divisions.

On July 1, Zahid Akhtar Zaman, a Grade 21 officer, was appointed the additional chief secretary and Inam Ghani, a Grade 21 police officer, as the additional inspector general. Immediately afterwards, opposition to the measures started emerging in south Punjab. On July 2, dozens of activists of various Seraiki parties staged a protest demonstration in Multan. They said the proposed Seraiki province should consist of 23 districts. Nadeem Qureshi, a ruling party MPA, meanwhile, rejected reports that the new secretariat would be set up in Bahawalpur and not Multan.

A sense of injustice is central to all identity politics. The injustice may be real or perceived and may have diverse forms, ranging from economic exploitation and physical violence to a sense of humiliation and misrecognition.

The notion of perceived injustice must not be confused with a totally unreal harm. Rather, the perceived injustice, having much to do with the subjectivity, connotes an exaggerated idea of some real wrong.

The sense of injustice in an identity group - whether characterized by gender, race, language, region or any other marker - provides impetus to identity politics. It builds in-group solidarities and maintains its boundaries with the other group(s).

The Punjab government’s decision has a background of politics of Seraiki ethno-linguistic identity. For several decades now it has been highlighting the injustices meted out to the people belonging to the south western parts of the province. They have also been demanding a Seraiki province.

To what extent will the South Punjab Secretariat be able to address the grievances of the Seraiki-speaking people is the most pertinent question at the moment. To answer it, one needs to look at the nature and level of deprivation and marginality in the area; the potential and limitations of the sub-secretariat; the way the decision has been interpreted by the ethno-nationalist groups; and how the governance of the sub-secretariat is manipulated for a future Seraiki discourse.

Deprivation and marginalization of the area dates back to the nineteenth century when Ranjit Singh annexed it following the 1818 conquest of Multan. When the British took Multan in 1849 the political and administrative control over Saraiki wassayb (homeland) remained with the Punjab.

The allegedly preferential treatment which the colonial masters accorded to the central and eastern districts of undivided Punjab in recruitment, introduction of irrigation schemes, development of communication infrastructure, building of educational institutions and other development initiatives, figures in the narrative of Seraiki identity politics.

The lopsided development pattern the British left behind was perpetuated after independence. There was no substantial effort to bring the backward south western belt at par with the developed north eastern part of the province.

The British considered the farmers belonging to central and eastern districts of undivided Punjab hard-working and enterprising. Land allotments to them in the canal colonies in the south west had been a marked policy priority.

The changes in demography, control over resources and power relations in the area brought about by these allotments resulted in the disenfranchisement of the indigenous population.

The sense of deprivation and marginalization of the Seraiki people dates back to the nineteenth century when Ranjit Singh annexed that area after conquering Multan in 1818. When the British took Multan in 1849, the Punjab continued to exercise political and administrative control over the Seraiki wasayb.

The process didn’t end with the creation of Pakistan. Nor did the pattern change. Farmers from north eastern districts of the province continued to be the major beneficiaries of the land allotment schemes in Thal and Cholistan.

Intra-provincial distribution of water resources is another bone of contention. Most of the irrigation canals in south western Punjab operate for six-months unlike the canals of central Punjab which have water round the year.

Marginalization of the Seraiki-speaking locals after the independence has not been limited to land, water and agriculture sector. They also do not control trade and commerce. Before independence, trade and commerce in the area was controlled largely by a sizeable Hindus population living in the urban centres.

Following the exodus of Seraiki-speaking Hindu traders in 1947, the Hariyanvi- and Punjabi-speaking settlers, who migrated from India, took control of the trade and commerce and now dominate the urban centres of the area.

The area is fertile and rich in terms of agriculture production, but the agro-based industry is mostly located in central Punjab.

The list of development disparities is long. The share of Seraiki region in government jobs as well as health, education and civic amenities is too small.

According to the Higher Education Commission, there are 11 HEC-recognised universities in the Saraiki region while Lahore alone has 16 HEC-recognized universities.

According to a recent research, including that commissioned by international organisations like the World Bank, the incidence of poverty in south western districts of the Punjab is higher.

Against this backdrop of poverty and deprivation, let us judge the Punjab government’s decision to set up a sub-secretariat in south Punjab to cover the 11 districts of Multan, Bahawalpur and Dera Ghazi Khan Divisions.

According to media reports, the South Punjab Civil Secretariat will function under the additional chief secretary and house 18 departments, including the Planning and Development, Health, Education, Irrigation, Communication and Works, Finance, Local Government, Housing, Women Development, Energy and Agriculture.

Around 35 percent of Punjab government’s current budget has been set aside for the South Punjab Secretariat.

Activists of Pakistan Seraiki Party, Seraikistan Qaumi Council, Seraikistan Suba Mahaz and Seraiki Democratic Party hold a protest demonstration in Multan on July 2.

Given the substantial institutional infrastructure and financial resources at its disposal, the sub-secretariat seems to have the potential to plan and execute the needed development projects and deal with the existing disparities. The day-to-day problems of local population, for the solution of which one had to travel all the way to Lahore, may now be addressed quickly and closer to home.

However, there are a number of ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ involved in the realization of these expectations. To begin with, how are the appointments to be made against the approved posts? Will the new jobs be given to the local people? Appointment of people from other districts will reinforce the existing mistrust of and fears of a Punjabi bureaucracy being once again imposed on the Seraiki region.

Secondly, what kind of mechanisms will be adopted to allocate the financial resources for the sub-secretariat? Will population be the sole criterion or will poverty, under-development and inverse population density too be factors in the allocations? If the financial resources to be made available for the secretariat are to be determined by the sole criteria of population, they will be too meagre to address the grievances.

Besides, some of the complaints cannot be addressed entirely by the provincial government. Many of the issues cannot be addressed fully without the region having the status of a federating unit.

Except for the Seraiki Lok Saanjh (Seraiki People’s Association) the secretariat plan has been rejected by most ethno-nationalists. Their major concern is that the decision is meant only sabotage the cause of a Seraiki province and divide the wassayb over a concocted Multan vs Bahawalpur dispute. Then there is the issue of the exclusion of several districts with large Seraiki-speaking populations.

The Seraiki Lok Saanjh, however, considers the establishment of South Punjab Secretariat as a step forward and has demanded immediate initiation of the constitutional process for the creation of a separate province.

“We see no hurdle in the creation of the new province since all the mainstream parliamentary parties are in agreement on the division of the Punjab and creation of a new province. The government needs to take all the parliamentary political parties in confidence and create a consensus in this regard,” says Fazl-i-Rab, a central leader of the SLS.

However, he also says that the secretariat would not be effective without a provincial finance accord. To this end, he has proposed that the Punjab government should immediately establish a Provincial Finance Commission. He has also demanded that all the staff at the newly-established secretariat should belong to the Seraiki wasayb in the spirit of regional autonomy.

He has also demanded the holding of a separate session of the elected representatives from the region either in Multan or Bahawalpur to discuss the development priorities and the challenges faced by the region.

The secretariat may perform well or fail completely. In either case, the demand for regional autonomy and a separate province is least likely to die down. In the history of identity politics of ethnicity and nationalism, grant of partial autonomy has often lent additional impetus to demands for greater autonomy.

The author is a student of anthropology and history

The birth of a province: Has the decision to operationalise the South Punjab Secretariat created more discontent?