The perpetual crises ensnaring Pakistan are merely a symptom of the need to redefine the guiding principles of this body politic. While religion has thus far been employed as its uniting proposition, particularly after the separation of East Pakistan, there is growing recognition of the limitations of such an endeavor. Instead, the country needs to be seen for what it is: a multinational state that should be capable of celebrating the diversity of its citizens and which envisions itself as greater than the sum of its constituent parts. The creation of a Pashtun province by amalgamating all the contiguous Pashtun inhabited areas of Pakistan, i.e the province of Khyber Pashtunkhwa, the primarily Pashtun inhabited erstwhile Chief Commissioner’s Province of British Balochistan, which is now a part of the erroneously named Balochistan province, and the districts of Attock and Mianwali will herald such a new beginning.
Chaudry Rehmat Ali, widely credited with coining the name of the country, had meant for the “A” in Pakistan to mean Afghania, his term for the then NWFP, a province of British India inhabited by Afghans or its synonym Pashtuns. Sadly, the independent state of Pakistan continued the colonial policy of referring to this province by an inaccurate geographical nomenclature as opposed to the ethnic and linguistic identity of the majority of its inhabitants, as is the usual convention. The name of NWFP was only changed to the current Khyber Pashtunkhwa in 2010.
The Pashtun majority Chief Commissioner’s province of British Balochistan was formed in 1876, much before NWFP was separated from Punjab in 1901 and Sindh which was separated from Bombay Presidency in 1936. The Chief Commissioner’s province of NWFP itself was raised to a full province in 1932 while British Balochistan, which had been formed much earlier was denied this advancement. This despite the fact that such an upgradation had been demanded by Jinnah for both provinces in his famous 14 points of 1929, the Balochistan mentioned there refers to the Pashtun province of British Balochistan as opposed to the current province of Balochistan.
All we have achieved in our endeavor to counter ethnic and linguistic affinity with faith is to alter the fabric of our own society, intentionally weaving into it virulent strains of fundamentalism and intolerance.
Afghania may seem an odd choice due to its similarity to the neighboring country of Afghanistan. However, globally there are many examples of homonymous states and regions: places in different countries that bear the same name or the name of a different country. For example, the Belgian province of Luxembourg borders the state of Luxembourg, Baden is the name of a district in Switzerland and a region in Germany, North and South Karelia belong to Finland, while the Republic of Karelia is a part of Russia, there is a Laponia in both Finland and Sweden, the Iranian provinces of East and West Azerbaijan border the state of Azerbaijan, the Inner Mongolia province of China abuts the country of Mongolia, the Macedonia region of northern Greece borders the state of North Macedonia, the Mexican state of Baja California lies to the south of the American state of California, the state of New Mexico borders Mexico while Congo can refer to two distinct countries in Africa, to cite just a few examples. This trend even extends to our own country, the Iranian province next door to us is named Sistan-Baluchistan while there are two Punjabs on either side of our border with India.
In the face of determined opposition, the colonial British had kept the Pashtuns of British India divided since they rightly feared their cohesion. Independent Pakistan betrayed its own insecurities by continuing this policy. The results have been disastrous. All we have achieved in our endeavor to counter ethnic and linguistic affinity with faith is to alter the fabric of our own society, intentionally weaving into it virulent strains of fundamentalism and intolerance. While many states employ proxies to further their interests, ours is perhaps the only one willing to alter its own society in the process.
While our attempts at suppressing ethnic and linguistic diversity culminated in the breakup of the country, India, which is far larger and more diverse, achieved comparatively better results by acceding to the demands of linguistic plurality and provincial autonomy.
A prime example of this is the former region of FATA. Pakistan now faces an existential militant threat against which more of its soldiers have perished than any other war and caused widespread public disenchantment with state policies in an area whose people won for Pakistan a portion of Kashmir and who were henceforth popularly portrayed as unpaid defenders of Pakistan’s borders. In the broader political realm, such policies have allowed fringe religious groups to claim large vote shares and instilled a sense of invulnerability amongst them, making it embarrassingly easy for them to blackmail and force the state to give in to their demands. Our preferences have also been allowed to impact our foreign policy. In our perpetual quest for installing friendly regimes we keep ending up with neighbors whom we deem less amiable than their predecessors.
The best way to ensure national cohesion is to formulate policy from a position of confidence, to own one’s people and make them active participants and stakeholders in the working of the country, a goal best achieved through democratic processes. Surely, given the particular characteristic of our society, it is neither reasonable nor advisable to sideline religion altogether and embark on a classical separation of religion and state. Instead, it can be accommodated as nitrogen in the air, ubiquitous but largely inert.
Emphasizing a particular system of belief is problematic, as exemplified not only by our own example but also the experience of India, an inheritor of a similar colonial legacy. Furthermore, while our attempts at suppressing ethnic and linguistic diversity culminated in the breakup of the country, India, which is far larger and more diverse, achieved comparatively better results by acceding to the demands of linguistic plurality and provincial autonomy.
Ethno-linguistic provinces are not just matters of identity. They also harbinger practical benefits such as education in the mother tongue, the benefits of which are attested to by UNESCO, and the adoption of local vernaculars as working languages. Neither are they a prelude to majoritarianism in the provincial arena. KP currently recognizes Hindko, Seraiki, Khowar and some other languages. There is no reason why they cannot also be used as working languages in districts in which they predominate. Linguistic diversity and transnational ethnic affinities need not be a source of discord. Instead, benefiting the populace that constitutes this shared heritage can turn it into a conduit for shared prosperity.