ROVER’S DIARY: The simmering Bahawalpur province movement —Babar Ayaz - Tuesday, February 08, 2011

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If the demand for Bahawalpur province is accepted, which has an estimated population of 10 million, Punjab’s share in the national population will drop to around 48 percent. Such options are thus resisted by what the Seraiki speaking call Takht-e-Lahore

The demand to restore the status of a province to Bahawalpur division is gathering momentum, though a bit slowly. My take from a brief visit to three cities in Bahawalpur division was that the workers and local leaders of all the political parties have reached a consensus that they need a separate province. Perhaps the only exception to this was the PML-N workers who are not vocal on this issue for the sake of political expediency.

Their demand is not on an ethno-linguistic basis. It is based on their historical rights, hence it has the support of the non-Seraiki speaking people of the former province as well. Former PPP MNA from Bahawalpur, Farooq Azam Malik, says that the separate province movement will be energised if the present Nawab of Bahawalpur, Salahuddin Abbasi, will take the lead. “You will see that the next election in this area will be fought on the issue of restoring the pre-One Unit provincial status of Bahawalpur,” he told me emphatically.

Malik says, “In my meeting with Shaheed Benazir Bhutto, when she was in exile, she promised that she would restore the status of Bahawalpur as a separate province.” But the beleaguered President Zardari seems to be careful not to raise this issue at present. Malik is disappointed that although his family has been with the PPP for a long time, they are being neglected by the party’s leadership.

Former PPP MPA Hasan Askari Sheikh, whose cousin is still a MNA from the area, says that Punjab is a big province of about 100 million people and cannot be managed from ‘Takht-e-Lahore’ effectively. He is nostalgic for the time when Bahawalpur was a well-managed welfare state under Nawab Muhammad Sadiq. “We had free education and quality education institutions were established by the Nawab who was a progressive man. There was also free medical treatment,” Sheikh claimed. Historically, he is correct because Bahawalpur was a prosperous state in the pre-partition days and the Nawabs were always helpful to the central government, whether it was a government of colonial Britain or new-born Pakistan.

Local leaders of the PPP, PML-Q and other parties at Ahmedpur Sharqia tehsil were unanimous in stating that the rights of the people of Bahawalpur were being denied to them by successive governments in Punjab. They pointed out that almost 80 percent of the seats in Bahawalpur’s medical college are being given to students from outside the division and that most local jobs are taken by the Punjabis and only the leftovers are given to the Seraiki speaking people of the area. For most official work, people have to travel to Lahore where “we are treated as an inferior race”.

To my question of why they are demanding provincial status for Bahawalpur, I would like to know why they do not demand a separate Seraiki province, which may draw more people to the movement as it will include Multan and D G Khan division also. Almost all the local political leaders, even if their party is supporting the Seraiki province demand, said that the Bahawalpur province demand has a historical basis and is more likely to be successful. Farooq Azam Malik says that advocates of a Seraiki province have not managed to get enough support in Multan and D G Khan and have bagged hardly a couple of thousand votes in the elections. “The Makhdoms, Gilanis, Legharis and Khosas are not interested in carving out a separate province from all powerful Punjab,” he reminded me.

Understandably, it is not in the interest of the Punjabi establishment to allow the carving of a province out of Punjab. At present, the population of the province is around 99 million, which is over 54 percent of the Pakistani population. This gives it overwhelming power over the other three smaller provinces. According to the 1998 census, 10 percent of the people said that their mother tongue is Seraiki — that means there are around 17.5 million Seraiki speakers at present. If the demand for a Seraiki province is accepted, Punjab’s share in the total country’s population will be slashed to about 44 percent from the present 54 percent. This could be more because non-Seraiki speaking people are also present in large numbers in this region. And, accordingly, its share in the country’s revenues and resources will also shrink.

If even the demand for only Bahawalpur province is accepted, which has an estimated population of 10 million — although the advocates of this demand claim it is 12.5 million — Punjab’s share in the national population will drop to around 48 percent. Both the options are thus resisted by what the Seraiki speaking call Takht-e-Lahore.

On the other hand, India has created nine more states since 1950, slicing big states on the basis of linguistic and administrative basis. Of course, this was not without resistance, but they have sorted out this issue and are likely to create new states in the future also.

The Bahawalpur province demand has strong historical justification, if historical rights are of any value in Pakistan. The Ameer of Bahawalpur, Sadiq Muhammad Khamis Abbasi, had signed an Instrument of Accession with the Governor General of Pakistan, M A Jinnah on October 5, 1947. While agreeing to accept the federation of Pakistan’s authority, Clause 7 of the document said: “Nothing in this instrument shall be deemed to commit me in any way to the acceptance of any future constitution of Pakistan or fetter my discretion to enter into agreement with the government of Pakistan established under such future constitution.”

The Second Supplementary Instrument of Accession of the Bahawalpur State was signed by the Ameer of Bahawalpur, Muhammad Sadiq, and Governor General Khawaja Nazimuddin. The Civil Military Gazette’s headline on May 1, 1951, said: “Status of province to Bahawalpur”. Another headline in a major daily, on the same date, said: “Bahawalpur on par with provinces — Amir signs new agreement, federal laws applicable”. This new province had its own legislature and high court. But once One Unit was made to cheat and deny East Pakistanis their majority, all the provinces in the West were merged into one province.

Now, the supporters of Bahawalpur province say that their status should have been restored when the One Unit was undone by the General Yahya regime and the 1973 constitution was made. A movement for a separate Bahawalpur province started at that time but fizzled out as the new constitution did not entertain their demand.

The proposition that Bahawalpur or Seraiki divisions should be given the status of a separate province may sound tempting to the PPP-led coalition before the elections. But their problem is that they do not have a two-third majority to amend the constitution. This could have been possible when the 18th Amendment was being passed had the movement for a separate province on the basis of historical rights been whipped up to the right pitch and the MNAs of the area stuck together. At present, a separate province looks like a distant dream. I wish good luck to my friends!

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