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Article by Ella Rolfe

March 27, 2009

Partial abandonment, sometimes akin to simple marginalisation but bearing characteristics that suggest statelessness is on the agenda, has threatened Chitralis and other ethnic groups in the country’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP) for decades, in the form of a campaign to rename the province after its dominant ethnic group, the Pashtuns or Pakhtuns.

The Pakhtuns are a tribal and linguistic grouping spanning the northern half of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, with significant populations on both sides. The 1981 census of Pakistan recorded some 11 million speakers of the Pukhtun language, Pashto or Pakhto. Their role in allowing the free flow of violent extremists from Pakistani training grounds to Afghan battlegrounds, along with the fact that the overwhelming majority of Taliban are Pakhtuns from both countries, have both been big factors in US pressure on Islamabad to rein in the Pakhtuns. However, this tribal group are one of the most dominant forces in Pakistani politics, occupying positions of influence throughout the upper echelons of the Pakistani army and bureaucracy; and their demands exert significant leverage on Pakistan’s federal government.

Thus, during the last thirty years, there has been an intermittent political movement to rename the British-named province of NWFP – where most Pakhtuns reside and where their influence is even greater – as Pakhtunkhwa, the name historically used by Pakhtuns to refer to their lands in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. First placed on the agenda by President Zia Ul Haq in the early 1980s as a means to gain leverage in war-torn Afghanistan by supporting Pakistani Pakhtuns (as part of a general widening of federal patronage of Pakhtuns which Zia oversaw), the proposal to rename NWFP has repeatedly seemed a good idea to governments trying to either court or appease the powerful Pakhtun tribal chiefs who rule the frontier lands. Thus the idea has been championed by both of Pakistan’s major political parties, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N), over the last ten years. In 1997 the NWFP provincial assembly actually passed a resolution to enact the renaming (with, surprisingly, the only two opposing MPs being Pakhtuns). But the move was abandoned by the central government of PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif, who reneged on his previous commitment to the issue after a fierce backlash from the right wing press and his supporters in Punjab province. The fickle game of Pakistani politics is well illustrated by the fact that when the renaming was again proposed in May 2008, this time by the PPP, the PML-N opposed it “on ethnic grounds” in an attempt to undermine Pakhtun support for its rivals within the shaky coalition in which both parties are (intermittently) engaged.

The PML-N’s ethnic argument shows the other, forgotten side of this debate. The fate of the renaming idea has largely rested on federal politics: the machinations of central governments have mostly ignored the implications of the move for NWFP’s many non-Pakhtun peoples.

The demand has always been tabled by the Awami National Party (ANP), the outgrowth of a progressive and non-violence advocating social movement which began in NWFP in the 1930s. Since its founding in 1986 it has consistently opposed the Taliban, prompting a growth in its popularity both among the people of NWFP and with central government in recent years. In the 2008 elections, to the relief of many the ANP swept to power in NWFP, dethroning the Islamist Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) party which had been in power since 2002.

However, despite its stated commitment to equality and lack of discrimination between all the peoples of the province in its 2008 election manifesto, and its espousing of “democratic pluralism, cultural diversity, social justice, [and] non-sectarianism,” the ANP has always been a Pakhtun movement and has thus cemented Pakhtun dominance by its frequent participation in, and now leadership of, the province’s recurrent coalition governments. Its statement of its aim to “fight for the rights of the province and remove the wrong impression of depicting [sic] Pukhtoons as the hard-liners and religious extremists,” along with its cited reason in the 2008 manifesto for renaming NWFP “according to the aspirations of the people and the resolutions of the provincial assembly,” show that in the ANP’s view, Pakhtun identity and the province itself are coterminous.

The ANP is especially keen to push this agenda in the light of the power struggle in Pakistan between Pakhtuns and the country’s other major dominant group, the Punjabis. Clearly evident in Punjabi opposition to the renaming attempt in 1997, this power struggle is further suggested by another of the ANP’s fundamental principles: freedom from external domination. Although this ostensibly refers to Pakistan’s sovereignty against outside intervention (a very live issue in light of current US and Nato activities in the area bordering Afghanistan), this could also be taken to mean Pakhtun freedom from the economically dominant Punjabis and the Punjabi-heavy Islamabad government. In a speech outlining the ANP’s election manifesto for NWFP in December 2007, party leader Asfandyar Wali Khan stated that the party would work for provincial autonomy, and that a major policy would be to retain for the province revenues from tobacco excise duty which at that time went to the federal government. In the context of NWFP’s perceived marginalisation within the wider state, therefore, the renaming movement can be seen as a reaction to this and an assertion of Pakhtun power against the Punjabis.

All this is bad for NWFP’s non-Pakhtuns. Within the province, the ANP’s pro-Pakhtun attitude is built on a strong and unquestioned Pakhtun identity, based on a common language and a unified tribal system (which sees all the Pakhtun tribes as different lineages of the same ancestral tribe) and bolstered by the Taliban’s refusal to adhere to any specific ethnic identity, thus ironically strengthening Pakhtun unity by bypassing existing tribal segmentation within the Pakhtun group. In comparison to this, other ethnic groups – although they have mostly been in the province for much longer than the Pakhtuns, who migrated there from Afghanistan about 150 years ago – do not have well organised and motivated enough leaderships to oppose Pakhtun domination.

The PML-N’s ethnic objection to the renaming motion in May 2008 referred specifically to the Hindko speaking Hazara peoples – whose co-ethnics in Afghanistan have suffered a long history of violence by Pakhtuns and Taliban – as a group who would lose out in the Pakhtun-isation of NWFP. Another group whose lack of political voice closes power to them are the Chitralis. The Chitral region in northern NWFP was not a part of the historic British North West Frontier; only during the twentieth century did it become incorporated into the province. Chitralis speak a language unrelated to Pakhtun, and many of them are also Ishmaili Muslims (a minority and slightly ritually divergent branch of Shi’a Islam), setting them further apart from the mostly Sunni Pakhtuns. Many Chitrali politicians oppose the renaming movement, citing not only their own people but the many Punjabi and Seraiki speakers living in the southeast of the province.

Gohar Khan, a Pakhtun whose grandfather migrated to Chitral, says that the people in the region are not behind the renaming move. It is purely an ANP agenda, he says, and does not really enjoy popular support, especially in Chitral. The Chitralis dislike the Pakhtuns because of the latter’s business skill and hard work, he says, which has led the Pakhtuns to dominate in parts of Chitral too. The Chitralis want the Pakhtuns out of Chitral.

Chitralis and other non-Pakhtun peoples in NWFP are in some senses at risk of being made stateless by the renaming movement. Their example points to the murky badlands where marginalisation meets statelessness, and brings into question whether statelessness itself is restricted to formal withdrawal of citizens’ privileges. It can be much more subtle.

What are the alternative options? Gohar Khan recommends a referendum to determine whether indeed the majority of NWFP’s population are behind the move; but this could simply confirm the power of the Pakhtuns, who are certainly numerically dominant. Another possibility has been recently illustrated by the government of Rajasthan in India in its dealings with the Gujjar people. In June 2008, following protests by Gujjars at their lack of access to employment and education in which over 40 were killed, the Rajasthan government struck a deal with the protesters to award the Gujjar community a special status within their current classification as part of the Other Backward Classes, which allows them greater access to education and provides new job opportunities.

If the Pakistani state can make people within its own boundaries stateless, Rajasthan is an example of how a provincial government can bring people back into the state through particular provisions or types of special status. Even if the ANP’s agenda is once again quashed by a central government wary of Pakhtun influence, Chitralis and others in NWFP may still have watched events in Rajasthan with interest.

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