Simmering Bahawalpur Province Movement (Daily Times)

By Babar Ayaz

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

Their demand is not on ethno-linguistic basis. It is based on their historical rights, hence has support of non-Siriaki speaking people of the former province also. Former PPP MNA from Bahawalpur, Farooq Azam Malik says that the separate province movement will be energized if the present Nawab of Bahawalpur Salahuddin Abbasi will take the lead. “You will see 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 empathetically.

Malik says: “in my meeting with Shaheed Benazir Bhutto, when she was in exile, she promised that she will 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 PPP for a long time they are being neglected by the party 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 ‘Takhat-e-Lahore’ effectively.  He is nostalgic about the times when Bahawalpur was a well-managed welfare state under Nawab Muhammed Sadiq. “We had free education, quality education institutions were established by the Nawab who was progressive man and 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 of the colonial Britain or the new-born Pakistan.

Local leaders of PPP, PML (Q) and other parties at Ahmedpur Sharqia were unanimous that the rights of the people of Bahawalpur are being denied to them by the successive Punjab governments.  They pointed out that almost 80% seats in the Medical College at Bahawalpur are being given to students from outside the Division; most local jobs are taken by the Punjabis and only the left over is given to the Siriaki speaking people of the area; and for most of the official work people have to travel to Lahore where “we are treated as an inferior race.”

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

Understandably it is not in the interest of the Punjabi establishment to allow carving a province out of Punjab. At present the population of the province is around 99 million, which is over 54% of Pakistan population. This gives it over-whelming power over other three smaller provinces. According to the 1998 census 10% people said that their mother tongue is Siriaki that means they are around 17.5 million in 2011. If a Siriaki provinces demand is accepted Punjab share in the total country’s population will be slashed to about 44% from the present 54%.It could be more because non-Siriaki speaking people are also in large number in this region.  And accordingly its share in the country’s revenues and resources will also shrink.

Even only if demand for 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 share in the national population will drop to around 48%. Both the options are thus resisted by what Siriaki speaking call the ‘Takhat-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 it was not without resistance but they have sorted out this issue and are likely to create new states in future also.

Bahawalpur province demand has strong historical justification, if historical rights are of any value in Pakistan. The Ameer of Bahawalpur, Sadiq Muhammed Khamis Abbasi had signed an Instrument of Accession with the Governor-General of Pakistan, M. A. Jinnah on 5th October 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.”

Second Supplementary Instrument of Accession of the Bahawalpur State was signed by the Ameer of Bahawalpur Muhammed Sadiq and Governor General Khawja Nazimuddin. The Civil Military Gazette May 1, 1951 said: “Status of Province to Bahawalpur”. Dawn headline on the same said: “Bahawalpur on par with provinces — Amir (sic!) 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 was 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 Siriaki divisions should be given status of separate province may sound tempting to the PPP-led coalition before the elections. But their problem is that they do not have two-third majority to amend the constitution. This could have been possible when 18th Amendment was being passed: had the movement for the separate province on the basis of historical rights been whipped up to the right pitch and the MNAs of the area had stuck together. At present a separate province looks like a distant dream. Anyway good luck my friends! (ayazbabar@gmail.com)

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