Volume 5, No. 12, December 2023
Editor: Rashed Rahman
In the modern world, the question of ethnic identities in a multi-ethnic society poses a big dilemma. In some cases, ethnicity gradually subsided in the bigger scheme of things while on the other hand, movements for exclusive identity rights are considered a threat by post-colonial states.
Pakistan is a multi-ethnic and multi-lingual society. Since Pakistan’s inception as an independent state, the demands of the myriad ethnic and linguistic groups have not been fully endorsed by the state apparatus and its institutions. A primary reason for this is the inordinate delay in Constitution making. One such group is the Saraiki-speaking people, who predominantly reside in southern Punjab and consider their language as a marker of ethnic identity. However, Punjabi nationalists argue that Saraiki is not a separate language but a dialect of Punjabi. To counter this narrative, the Saraikis of southern Punjab started a nationalist movement for the preservation of their distinct linguistic identity.
Prominent linguists have argued that Saraiki is indeed a separate language and has been the language of the people of southern Punjab for centuries. The Saraiki linguist Aslam Rasoolpuri claims that the Saraiki language traces its origins to Pakistan’s Sindh province. As a language, Saraiki has a rich history and was known by different names, according to region. Initially, the Brahmi script was used for the language. This changed after the 7th century Arab invasion, after which the Arabic Naskh script was adopted. Though it is difficult to trace the roots of the Saraiki language in medieval times, the consensus remains that modern Saraiki closely resembles the Multani language, which was spoken at that time in the area.
It was the British in 1849 who first classified the Saraiki language as being distinct from Punjabi. Colonial era writers also claimed that the Peshawari language, which was spoken inside the mohallas (traditional neighbourhoods) and major cities of modern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, was in fact a dialect of the Saraiki language.
The Saraiki-speaking people have faced numerous challenges to their identity, beginning with the rule of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. It is important to note that the area comprising southern Punjab was not historically part of Punjab, rather it was later merged with the province. During the colonial era, the Saraiki region (the modern day districts of Rajanpur, Dera Ghazi Khan, Layyah, Bhakkar, Muzaffargarh and Multan) was merged into Sindh, NWFP (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) and Punjab. Similarly, as a direct consequence of Pakistan’s One Unit policy, the regime abolished the princely state of Bahawalpur, incorporating it into the province of West Pakistan initially and later into Punjab. The Saraikis and Punjabis have a different conceptualisation of history. One example in this regard is the memory of Ranjit Singh, who is revered by Punjabis as a hero but is demonised by the Saraikis.
The predominant impression in southern Punjab is that Punjabis are undermining the ethnic and linguistic identity of the Saraiki-speaking people. Punjabi ‘elitism’ did not emerge after the creation of Pakistan, rather it first became dominant under the umbrella of the British colonialists. While Jinnah and the Muslim League leaders were busy campaigning for a separate homeland for the Muslims of India, the British sought to counter the threat of Muslim unity by encouraging different ethnic identities to divert their attention from Muslim unity to cultural and linguistic identities. In this identity formation phase, terms like ‘Muslim Punjabis’ increasingly became mainstream and part of policy making. Thus, a new landed elite, loyal to the British Empire, emerged. Punjabi Muslims were gifted large portions of irrigated land, which constitutes the genesis of modern Punjabi elitism. Furthermore, the British recruited tens of thousands of soldiers from Punjab, who played an active role in sabotaging the anti-colonial struggle. After the creation of Pakistan in 1947, Punjabis continued to form the bulk of the army and the bureaucracy, a trend that gave rise to the notion of the bureaucratic-military oligarchy, which suppresses minority ethnic identities such as the Saraikis.
The Punjabi elite has employed a variety of different tactics against minority ethnic groups in Pakistan. The first has been the direct derailment of the democratic process via military coups, the first of which took place in 1958. Secondly, the Punjabi elite frames any demand for ethnic rights as a separatist movement, thereby legitimising violent crackdowns. Thirdly, members of the Punjabi elite consider a Saraiki province to be a fatal blow for Punjab’s monopoly in the country’s electoral politics, which can be roughly translated as ‘whosoever takes Punjab takes Pakistan’. Finally, the Punjabi elite fears that providing Saraikis with their due rights will result in a domino effect and lead to other ethnic groups demanding the same. The establishment hence considers any such demand to be a red line.
The Saraikis feel that Punjab has failed to provide administrative services and basic facilities to the people of southern Punjab. There exists a perception among Saraikis that this is primarily due to ethnocentrism on the part of the Punjabi elite, who spend the lion’s share of resources in the Punjabi-speaking north Punjab belt. Despite widespread illiteracy and underdevelopment in southern Punjab, the movement for a separate Saraiki province appears to be gaining momentum. The political faction leading the demand for a Saraiki province is the Janubi Punjab Suba Mahaz (South Punjab Province Front), which is in alliance with the ruling PTI government. However, it is important to note that the Saraiki political elite is comprised of opportunistic landlords who have exploited the demand for a separate Saraiki province for their personal electoral gains.
There are many problems that continue to hinder the establishment of a separate Saraiki province. There is no consensus on the specific demarcation of districts that is the primary precursor for a South Punjab province. This problem is compounded as people in districts such as Khanewal, Vehari and Jhang speak both languages. A second problem concerns the distribution of resources such as water. This is a major problem as Pakistan’s current water management between the four provinces is a legacy of the 1991 Water Apportionment Accord. A new South Punjab province complicates matters and might also increase tensions between Saraikis and ethnic groups, apart from Punjabis. Also, according to the Constitution of Pakistan, the process of creating additional provinces is a complicated affair as it involves a two-thirds majority, both at the federal level and in the assembly of the concerned province that is to be partitioned. While political parties like the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) have previously won two-thirds majorities at the federal level, it would be unrealistic to assume that a political party in power in Punjab would itself vote for the partition of a province that constitutes their primary support base. There are other political forces in the mix, such as the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI), the latter being the current ruling party in Punjab and also at the federal level. The PPP’s problem is that it is a relic of the past and has only a limited support base among Saraikis, while the PTI can best be classified as a ‘king’s party’ and hence a temporary phenomenon. In addition, Pakistan’s powerful military is concerned that a separate South Punjab province would further exacerbate sectarian divisions in the country as the Saraiki majority regions have historically witnessed Sunni-Shia tensions. At a time when Pakistan is on the verge of getting blacklisted by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the demand for a separate South Punjab province would not find support from the security apparatus.
Thus, even though there is no doubt that Saraikis form a distinct identity group and have been historically marginalised by the Punjabi elite, there exist numerous obstacles to the formation of a separate South Punjab province. This does not mean that the objective is unattainable, rather it demands a change of approach from common Saraikis and calls for maturity on the part of their political leadership. The common Saraikis should work to establish closer linkages and organise at the grassroots level, as well as provide support to worker parties such as the PSP (Pakistan Saraiki Party). The political leadership, on the other hand, should understand that they are being employed as pawns against their own people and must resist future pressure by the Punjabi elite for providing them support. Though the demand for a new province of South Punjab is on ethnic and linguistic lines, the state must recognise this demand on the basis of decentralisation, socio-economic rights and political development.
The writer is an independent political and social analyst. His work focuses on issues of identity, politics of the periphery and the riddle of Saraiki consciousness. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org