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Much ado about Punjab

Those of us with short memories will not remember that there was a time when Punjab was not the most populous province in the country. For the first quarter century after Pakistan’s creation, Punjab was only the pretender to a throne that was, in principle at least, occupied by Bangla-speakers in the eastern wing. It was thus that even mention of demographic majorities and minorities could land a self-respecting citizen in jail.

It has now been more than four decades since the then Bengali-majority of Pakistan decided that it wanted to go its own way. Ever since, status quo intellectuals and politicians have harped on incessantly about Pakistan’s immutable demographic truths.

Of course Punjab has occupied a larger-than-life position in the Indian subcontinent since long before 1971. Perhaps more than any other administrative creation of the colonial state, Punjab was a truly modern construct, radically different than what had preceded it.

A vast majority of Pakhtuns and Punjabis are likely not aware that what is today Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was actually clumped together with Punjab until 1901. For the most optimistic of colonial administrators, Punjab was envisioned as a model of efficient government, enforceable property rights and liberal coexistence. The natives could be brought together across religious and ethno-linguistic lines and the imperatives of colonial rule happily realised.

In the event, Punjab became the site of the most bloodletting that the subcontinent has ever seen, following by an unprecedented exchange of population that made a mockery of its purportedly ‘secular’ constitution.

Ever since the (Punjabi-majority) Pakistani establishment has played on the gruesome memory of the Partition to deepen the unique state-society consensus generated in Punjab during the colonial period. For long periods significant segments within Punjabi society have acceded to the anti-democratic machinations of the establishment.

In contrast to what the hate-mongers would have us believe, however, Punjab is hardly a monolith, and has also been home to some of the most significant anti-establishment movements in Pakistan’s history. The role of the popular classes in Punjab during the historic uprisings of the late 1960s, for instance, was second to none. That having been said there is little doubt that, in contemporary Pakistan, Punjab is very much the ‘belly of the beast’.

Whenever the (Punjabi-dominated) establishment has been gracious enough to grant us the right to choose our own representatives in an electoral contest, it has dedicated most of its time and resources to manipulating outcomes in Punjab. It will be no different this time around.

This, of course, takes us back to the issue of demographic majorities. The simple truth is that electoral contests in this country — in terms of representation in the National Assembly — are determined by outcomes in Punjab.

At present all players craving a piece of Punjab’s political pie are involved in a furious race to the finish, ready and willing to use all means necessary to cross the line ahead of their rivals. For the incumbents the emphasis is on utilising all available public resources to meet the service-delivery demands of voters (read: building roads in and between major urban centres). The challengers, for their part, can do little more than decry the fact that patronage has not been doled out to everyone and sundry, and then hope for the establishment’s backing in the final stretch.

Indeed, even while the TV-watching public is subjected to the anti-corruption, saving-the-nation rhetoric of the Khans and Qadris of the world, negotiations over the next political dispensation in Punjab are taking place in innumerable dark, smoky rooms all over the country. Barely veiled threats are being issued even while olive branches are being extended. All for the right to represent the demographic majority.

But what of the thorniest of thorny issues: should Punjab as it is currently constituted even be kept intact? Is the proverbial demographic majority fact or fiction? Critics contend that the PPP has cynically introduced a ‘Seraiki card’ for leverage in the power game, just as it has used the ‘Sindh card’ in the past.

This may be true, but those who want real change in this country should evolve their political positions on this issue on the basis of much more than what suits the PPP.

As I have already mentioned, the administrative entity called Punjab is of relatively recent historical origin. It was a major plank of British power in the late colonial period (with even the electoral regime instituted by the Raj more about the representation of pro-state social forces than democracy per se). The post-colonial state too has relied on Punjab as its bastion, both before and after 1971.

Surely most progressives can agree that breaking up the Punjab as we know it would entail a major rebalancing of forces within the country at large. Of course such a reconstitution will neither be straightforward, nor produce unambiguously good results in the short run, largely because of the spread of parochial trends in the body-politic over the past couple of decades.

But maintaining a dysfunctional, inegalitarian and centralised structure just because the alternative is unpredictable and potentially messy is neither here nor there. In fact, this is precisely the type of argument that the guardians of our physical and ideological frontiers have always propounded.

It is time to think seriously about such options because the space finally exists for us to do so. Rejecting all talk of a Seraiki province as a conspiracy of landlords is simply not good enough. Landlords or no landlords, progressives need to develop a consensus on how to finally undo one of the most significant legacies of colonialism.

In the final analysis, ‘Punjab’ has come to mean much more than the sum of its parts. It has become a convenient punching bag amongst many non-Punjabis for just about everything wrong in the world. It is necessary both to deconstruct the monolith of ‘Punjab’ and try and understand the hostility that is expressed towards it.

At the while we must bear in mind just how central it is to the power game for all mainstream contenders, including those who actually command a relatively small vote back in the province. If they are all willing to do anything and everything to claim a share of the spoils, we should be willing to everything in our power to spread the wealth, as far and wide as is possible.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, "Much ado about Punjab," Dawn. 2013-01-11.