Politics on South Punjab is on, once again. The ruling party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which had promised to create the South Punjab province within the first 100 days in power, is suggesting a separate administrative setup with chief secretary and inspector general police, possibly in Multan, before amending the constitution for a new province.
While the decision to set up a secretariat is still in the pipeline, the opposition party, Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N), has moved a bill in the National Assembly for a constitutional amendment to carve out two new provinces — Bahawalpur and South Punjab. Some people are anxious to see Bahawalpur either as a separate province or a headquarters of the new South Punjab province, while many others want to make Multan its capital.
Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who belongs to Multan, recently announced to hold “consultative meetings” with the lawmakers of South Punjab for evolving a deeper consensus on creation of the South Punjab province. “We want to assure decentralisation of powers at grassroots level,” he told the media, hoping to set up a civil secretariat in South Punjab by mid-year.
“The establishment of civil secretariat in South Punjab is one step forward. It shows how serious the PTI government is about this cause. The secretariat will help us in having some experience before moving further towards formal division of the Punjab province.”
“This will enable people to get their administrative affairs sorted out in the region. They will not have to travel long,” he tells The News on Sunday.
Creating the South Punjab province is a gigantic task. A major challenge to this mission is to get the military establishment to back it, which is said to be making moves to reverse the 18th amendment. Another challenge is serious lack of consensus among political stakeholders on the capital of the province.
The Seraiki nationalist parties that want a new province on the basis of language are outrightly opposed to the creation of two provinces in the south of Punjab. In a recent development, Seraikistan Sooba Mahaz, an alliance of about a dozen small and big nationalist parties have opposed this idea. They want division of the existing Punjab province to give separate identity to the Seraiki ethnic belt. However, many think that this ethnic and linguistic division may pose serious challenges to the country, where it may become difficult to meet the demands of other ethnic groups to create new provinces on similar grounds.
Also, there are different voices from within the Seraiki belt, demanding to include parts of the Seraiki-speaking districts from central Punjab, like Sargodha, Jhang, Khushab and Mianwali in the new province.
“There is consensus on the creation of South Punjab, as all major parties are for it. But its implementation is a problem. We believe the parliament is the right forum to take this up,” says Seraiki activist Mushtaq Gaadi. He thinks the PTI government should bring this matter to the parliament as early as possible, as “it’ll help the party build consensus”, rather than towards the end of its term “when all the parties will have high stakes”.
Commenting on the proposal to make Bahawalpur a separate province, he says, “It’s not viable” because there are other princely states that may demand separate status on similar grounds. “Also, dividing contiguous regions is not a good approach.”
Gaadi views the plan to set up a separate secretariat in South Punjab without giving it financial and administrative autonomy as useless. “The government has to follow Provincial Financial Award to make this plan really beneficial to the people of Seraiki belt.”
“Some groups are playing politics on the issue of South Punjab,” says political analyst Dr Rasul Bakhsh Rais. He suggests setting up of a separate secretariat in the beginning for political survival. “The PML-N will continue to press for the creation of a new province because this will help the PML-N in having its own government in the remaining Punjab where it has a majority.” However, he adds, the creation of a new province will be challenging for any government, keeping in view the demands of other ethnic groups.
In the last general elections, the ruling PTI won more than 50 provincial and 29 National Assembly seats in the south of Punjab. Most of the candidates promised to create the South Punjab province in their election campaigns. Many former PML-N politicians formed the South Punjab Province Front and won independently on this single agenda and later joined the PTI.
At the moment, many key leaders of the ruling PTI and its political allies belong to the south of Punjab, include Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Federal Minister for Planning and Development Khusro Bakhtiar, Jahangir Tareen and Federal Minister for Housing Tariq Bashir Cheema of Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-e-Azam.
Previously, the PML-N and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in their respective governments had also promised to establish the South Punjab province but failed to resolve the matter. The last PML-N government passed resolutions in the Punjab Assembly for the creation of South Punjab and Bahawalpur province.
In the latest development, the PML-N has assured full support to the ruling PTI if it manages to create two provinces rather than one.