The South Asia Channel

What’s in a name?

A beast has re-awoken in Pakistan, and it’s not the Taliban. Renaming the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) has been stirring emotions in Pakistan since the creation of the province: many view it as a product of British colonial branding. Last week, the President of Pakistan Asif Ali Zardari signed into law the 18th amendment, which ...

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

A beast has re-awoken in Pakistan, and it’s not the Taliban. Renaming the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) has been stirring emotions in Pakistan since the creation of the province: many view it as a product of British colonial branding. Last week, the President of Pakistan Asif Ali Zardari signed into law the 18th amendment, which included a clause to rename the NWFP to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. The new name seeks to reflect the majority Pashtun community living in the NWFP. While Pashtuns rejoiced throughout the province, dancing and handing out sweets, minority groups in the NWFP were incensed at a name that they perceive as a stamp of marginalization.

Let’s start with some sweeping history. In 1901 the NWFP was drawn out of neighboring province Punjab. Among the motivations for this was the idea that the creation of their own province would lead to improved relations between local British officials and the independent tribesmen. In the years since, local and provincial leaders have implored the government to amend a name which has no cultural or ethnic significance for their people. Today, in order to improve relations once again with political figures who could be critical to the fight against the Taliban, the national government has decided the time is right to listen to the demands of the people of the NWFP.

But whose voice should be heard? The NWFP is home to a variety of tribes, spiritual and political leaders, and minority groups. The ruling party of Pakistan, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), decided to rally the support of the Awami National Party (ANP), a secular Pashtun nationalist group which leads the provincial government in the NWFP. The ANP lobby decreed that the province be named "Pakhtunkhwa" to reflect the Pashtun ethnicity of 75 percent of its 20 million people. The PPP obliged. The logical argument was that the ethnic association of the name would bring the identity of the people in line with that of the other provinces — Sindh, Balochistan, and the Punjab — which have names that match their majority ethnic groups. But political decisions are not a matter of pure logic. Shortsightedness by those involved in the re-naming may have created more problems than they are resolving.

Most notably, since the renaming of the NWFP re-surfaced in 2008, the Hindko-speaking population of the Hazara division, the Hazarawals, has been fuming. Hazara is the largest division within the NWFP, and is home to big industry, including the NRTC (National Radio Telecommunication Corporation) and the renowned Tarbela Dam. Despite sharing one province, Pashtun nationalists — and their party, the ANP — have never been able to sink roots into Hazara because of historical disputes. In fact, differences are so distinct that in Abbottabad, the central city of Hazara, Pashto (the main language of the NWFP), is spoken by a mere 2.22 percent of the population in Hazara. For some Hazarawals, the name name-change signaled a future of Pashtun rule.

Right on cue, up stepped the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N), Pakistan’s second-largest party, and part of the current coalition government, which draws most of its support from Punjab province and also has a large support-base in the Hazara division. The party’s leadership openly promised that they would fight for the recognition of the Hazarawals, and against the name "Pakhtunkhwa."

After weeks filled with violent protests across the Hazara division and discussions between the PML-N and the ANP to find a compromise, the Pakistani Senate ratified the name "Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa" on April 15. The only change from the initial name was the addition of the word "Khyber" before "Pakhtunkhwa." This did little to appease the Hazarwals, and, according to local workers in Peshawar, even served to antagonize some Pashtun nationalists, who felt that the addition of "Khyber" diminished the importance of Pakhtunkhwa. The Hazarawals, meanwhile, argued that "Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa" failed to recognize their culture and identity: "Khyber," the name of a mountain pass linking Pakistan to Afghanistan is not near enough to Hazara to encompass it. 

Back to the drawing board then … well, not quite. As the 18th amendment becomes law, Hazarawals are now demanding their own province, "Hazara." However, separating the province could illustrate a domino affect throughout the country. In Balochistan, for example, separatists have long fought for greater autonomy, or even independence, from a national government they see as indifferent to their needs. Elsewhere, in southern Punjab, the minority Seraikis have been calling for their own province, Seraikistan, for some years. And what would happen after a breakaway province? Fighting over water, energy, and land — already difficult enough issues in Pakistan? Creating more provinces would exacerbate pre-existing conflicts across different cultural and linguistic groups in Pakistan, weakening the political and economic fabric of an already fragile nation.

This entire debacle could have been avoided. Among the main culprits of the mess must be the ANP, who are the provincial leaders of the now former-NWFP. The ANP leadership not only discounted other linguistic groups when putting forward initial names, but also rejected a referendum that could have given credibility and authenticity to the new name. Moreover, the PML-N — who attempted to represent the Hazarawals — ended up causing more harm. As a result, the inept handling of the issue by political leadership in both parties caused unrest that went onto rock the province. For the past month violent protests, deaths and casualties have increased. Hazarawals have attacked ANP offices, smashing portraits of the party’s founders and setting equipment alight.

What the entire debate highlights is how much ethnic and cultural divisions still permeate Pakistan. Perhaps the answer to such disputes is in carving out provinces wherever groups see fit, or adding prefixes to the names of current provinces. But to what end?

Immediately, Pakistani political leadership must engage with people on all levels who want representation, and seek to build on negotiations and peaceful compromise. It is clear from conversations with the people of Hazara — and other communities — that separate provinces are not the first demand but the final. The Hazarawals, for instance, find themselves feeling unheard and unrepresented. Pakistani leadership must ensure that the representation that currently exists actually represents the views and sentiments of the people. Referendums and consensus votes must not be rejected, but welcomed.

In the long term, Pakistan must fight the challenges of ethnic nationalism. The founding father of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah once stated that: "If we begin to think of ourselves as Bengalis, Punjabis, Sindhis etc. first and Muslims and Pakistanis only incidentally, then Pakistan is bound to disintegrate." Jinnah is hardly known for his prophetic statements, but there is much truth to his assertion. Since the establishment of Pakistan, politics have followed ethnic and linguistic lines. In recent interviews with politicians in Pakistan, village and federal level leaders say they have tried to advance the causes of their ‘own,’ in all areas of policy, be they Pashtun or Punjabi, Shia or Sunni, Seraiki- or Sindhi- speakers. Pakistan’s national leadership should decide what is good for the country and national cohesion, not for those who belong to his or her ethnic background, or those who speak their language (quite literally). Unless this tradition is reversed the beast will continue to grow.

Bilal Baloch is a Research Analyst with the Transnational Crisis Project.

Bilal Baloch is a co-founder of GlobalWonks, a tech-enabled marketplace connecting global affairs experts with organizations around the world. He is also a nonresident fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. You can follow him @bilalabaloch

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