The South Asia Channel

A province by any other name

A province by any other name

As the 18th Amendment, the constitutional reforms package designed to bolster parliamentary democracy in Pakistan, inches closer to becoming a historic "landmark bill," one particular part of the legislation has sparked considerable controversy and political wrangling — the renaming of North-West Frontier Province to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

Over the weekend, people from the province’s Hazara Division, (who speak mainly Hindko as opposed to Pashto) staged demonstrations, and on Monday, at least seven people were killed and over 100 were injured in Abbottabad when police used force to break up a protest. The demonstrations continued on Tuesday, with Dawn reporting that mobs in Haripur, Mansehra, and Abbottabad (in Hazara) blocked roads, chanted slogans, and burned tires — all in the name of a name.

The bumpy journey to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa did not begin in the last few weeks. The Awami National Party (ANP), the secular Pashtun nationalist ruling political party of the province, has long campaigned for a change to Pakhtunkhwa, even passing a resolution in favor of the development in November 1997, noted The News columnist Rahimullah Yusufzai. The name, argued the ANP, accurately reflects the Pashtun-majority of the region, much like Pakistan’s other provinces — Balochistan, Sindh, and Punjab, which are dominated by — surprise — Balochis, Sindhis, and Punjabis.

But the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), a mainstream conservative political party with its stronghold in Punjab province, staunchly opposed this label, (officially calling for a referendum last September), claiming the title marginalized other ethnic and linguistic groups in the province, including Hindko, Seraiki, and Khowar-speakers. A deadlock over the name continued, with an array of alternative names proposed as a compromise. While some reflected more neutral geographical areas (Khyber, Neelab and Abaseen) and historical references (Gandhara, the old Buddhist-era name of the region), other noteworthy runner-ups included Afghania, the clandestine ‘A’ in "Pakistan," coined by one of the earliest proponents of the Pakistani state, Chaudhry Rehmat Ali in 1933.

At the end, hyphenating the name to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa became the compromise everyone could agree on.

Well, almost everyone.

Although Pakistani media outlets televised people in the "province-formerly-known-as-NWFP" celebrating in the streets, the honeymoon period was soon over. The Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid, (PML-Q), a centrist-conservative party that broke away from the PML-N in 2001, immediately expressed reservations over the new name, claiming they were not privy to the negotiations between the PML-N and ANP. PML-Q leaders have since criticized both the ANP and PML-N, alleging that PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif supported the new name "for his personal gains," and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa was part of "a conspiracy to divide the province."

While it would be easy to cloak Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa with the "conspiracy" label, twirl some handlebar moustaches and call it a day, Pakistani politics are never that straightforward. The PML-Q, as Ejaz Haider, National Affairs Editor of Newsweek Pakistan told me, has significant support in the Hazara division, "as is clear from the fact that its candidate was the runner-up in the January by-election in Mansehra." However, PML-N has a more considerable vote bank in the region, with strong ties to the people of Hazara.

Given that the PML-Q, the party that backed former President Pervez Musharraf, suffered major losses in the 2008 elections, it seems they are trying to remain politically relevant and "capitalize on the emergence of the malcontents at the expense of the PML-N," noted Dawn’s editorial. But at what cost? Their political provocations have indirectly led to the deaths of innocent people in Abbottabad, and the spread of mobs throughout Hazara. If the party claims to truly represent the interests of the people, it should address the issues that go beyond names and frilly hyphenated labels — the power shortages, the rising food prices, and the unemployment. Even if the 18th Amendment sails through the Senate and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa remains intact, political parties must avoid language that will destabilize the province further. At this rate, a province by any other name would not smell as sweet. 

Kalsoom Lakhani is director of Social Vision, the strategic philanthropy arm of ML Resources in Washington, D.C. She is from Islamabad, Pakistan, and blogs at CHUP, or Changing Up Pakistan.