In 1933, Rahmat Ali, a student at Cambridge University envisioned the birth of Pakistan. Its name was an acronym representing the areas that Ali believed should secede from British India – Punjab, Afghania, Kashmir, Sindh, and Baluchistan. The state of Bengal, then home to more Muslims than any other province of the British Raj, was not part of this plan. The omission of Bengal would prove to be symbolic of Pakistan’s political trajectory, but, even without it, the name would constitute not one unified nation but rather a sum of its parts.
Today, Pakistan comprises four administrative units (Punjab, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Baluchistan,) one federal territory (the Islamabad Capital Territory,) and two occupied territories (Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan.) The country follows a federal structure, which, in theory, divides power between the centre and the provinces. However, conflicts between the provinces have dominated Pakistan politics since the country’s inception in 1947, with several regions demanding autonomy or independence. Author Smruti Pattanaik describes Pakistan’s quest for federalism in damning terms, noting that “the ruling elites in Pakistan in their quest for nationalism and national unity have always tried to suppress any spirit of genuine federalism perceiving it as a prelude to separatism.” However, in their attempt to quash separatism, these elites may have inadvertently catalysed it instead.
Separatist politics in Pakistan
As historian Saman Zulfqar notes in the Politics of New Provinces in Pakistan, even though Pakistan is a federal country, the concept of federation has not been fully defined with demands for regional economic autonomy and conflicts between the federal government and the units increasing over time. Different regions have different rationales for separatism with perhaps the most compelling coming from the dominant province of Punjab. According to the 2017 Census of Pakistan, Punjab accounts for 110 million of Pakistan’s 243 million strong population. The notion of breaking up the province is rooted in the argument that it is impossible to have effective administrative structures to deliver services to such a vast population.
That problem is exacerbated by the disparities between different regions within Punjab. For example, the poverty rate of South Punjab is 43 per cent, compared to 27 per cent in the rest of the province. According to Dawn, out of the 12 industrialised districts in Pakistan’s east, 10 are in Southern Punjab.
In Balochistan, separatist tendencies date back to the pre-independence era. Nationalist leaders in Balochistan campaigned for an independent state during the last decades of the Raj and one day after the creation of Pakistan, declared Balochistan as an independent nation. Pakistani leadership rejected this declaration and forcibly annexed the region nine months later. Subsequently, there have been a series of conflicts between the state and Baloch nationalists.
The occupied region of Gilgit Baltistan (G-B) seeks to change its administrative status. G-B was granted provisional status by then Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in 2020 after a series of protests demanding more constitutional rights for its people. But that status has not yet been conferred.
Calls for separatism have also been echoed in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, a semi-autonomous tribal region in north-western Pakistan, and in Bahawalpur, a city in central Punjab. The current debate over federalism was fuelled by the passage of the 18th Constitutional Amendment in 2010, which saw an unprecedented transfer of power from the centre to the provinces, but in truth, the seeds of conflict have existed since 1947.
Separation from India
Though Pakistan was conceived as an Islamic homeland by its founders in the days of the Independence movement, the idea carried little traction with India’s Muslims. The All-India Muslim League formally demanded the creation of Pakistan in 1940, asserting that Indian Muslims were a nation and not a minority. By doing so, the Muslim League, and its leader, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, hoped to position themselves as the spokespeople for India’s Muslims. However, the League drew most of its support from Muslim minority areas, having suffered a serious rejection from Muslim voters in the majority provinces in the 1937 general elections.
Consequently, as the Asia Society writes, “the League had no real control over either the politicians or the populace at the base that was mobilized in the name of Islam.” In the end, Jinnah was able to get a Pakistan consisting of two Muslim majority areas of the North West and North East of British India, a compromise that he famously rejected, calling the newly formed state “a shadow and a husk- a maimed, mutilated, and moth-eaten Pakistan.”
Adding to his dismay, the Congress refused to accept the Partition as a division of India between Pakistan and Hindustan. Instead, it asserted that the Partition meant that certain areas with Muslim majorities were ‘splitting off’ from the Indian Union. The implication, according to the Asia Society, was that if Pakistan disintegrated, the Muslim areas would have to return to India. Therefore, with this agreement, only a central authority could stand in the way of the reincorporation of these areas into India.
Islam, while proving to be a formidable rallying cry, was not enough to unite Pakistan’s provinces, each with their own cultural associations and linguistic traditions. Moreover, as the Asia Society underlines, the diversity of Pakistan’s provinces “was a potential threat to central authority,” with each, in their individualism, representing the dichotomy of support the League had across the country.
The early days of Pakistan’s formation were marred by constitutional crises fuelled by debates over the role of Islam, the status of provincial representation, and the distribution of power. Pakistan would formulate its first constitution only in 1956 and just two years later, would suffer its first military coup.
This instability was compounded by the refugee crisis derived from Partition. In her book, Life after Partition, historian Sarah Ansari argues that the massive influx of refugees from India and subsequently Afghanistan, radically altered the demographics and socio-political composition of Pakistan. The change, she writes, was most acutely felt in Sindh, which saw its traditionally Sindhi population overrun by “well organised colonies” of refugees who were apathetic towards the local culture and language.
Between 1901 and 1951, the rural population of Sindh increased by 40 per cent, and the urban population by 120 per cent. Furthermore, as Sushant Sareen writes for the non-profit Observer Research Foundation, while the Punjabi migrants were able to assimilate with the dominant groups, what the migrants to Sindh had in common was “their physical and psychological separation from the host population of Sindh”.
Despite these initial challenges, the Pakistani state could still claim to be the representative of South Asia’s Muslim population. However, that would change with the loss of East Pakistan in 1971.
A country divided
As per the 1951 census, the Dominion of Pakistan had a population of 75 million, of which, 33.7 million resided in West Pakistan, and 42 million in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh,) with the two halves of the country divided by almost 2000 kilometres. This unique situation would serve as the basis of a brutal power struggle between East and West.
According to Gulawar Khan, in a paper for the University of Westminster, Punjab, which dominated the military and bureaucracy during the colonial period, did not want to lose its supremacy in Pakistan under the majority of Bengal. Maintaining its control would only be possible with the merger of smaller provinces into one large province dominated by Punjab.
Consequently, in 1955, the Pakistan government introduced the controversial One Unit scheme that amalgamated Sindh, Punjab, the North West Frontier Province and Baluchistan into a single province called West Pakistan. The remainder of the country, comprising the populous province Bengal, was named East Pakistan.
One Unit pitted East Pakistan against West, with issues from the division presenting themselves from the very beginning. The first conflict between the two stemmed from language. While Urdu was deemed to be the sole national language of Pakistan, the population of East Pakistan demanded that Bengali, spoken by the majority, also be included. When the West refused, protests broke out, causing Jinnah, by then in failing health, to visit Dhaka to try and calm the situation.
Although Bengali was recognised as a national language in the constitution of 1965, by then, more serious problems had begun to emerge. According to a report published by the Brookings Institute, the country’s Punjabi dominated government prioritised development in the West, recruited for the army and the bureaucracy primarily from the West, and treated the East “like a colony separated from its motherland by India.”
The report notes that at the time, Pakistan was already suffering from a weak economy, inexperience in governance, tribal tensions and an increasingly tense conflict with India. Against that volatile backdrop, the battle between East and West would prove “fatal” for Pakistani democracy.
The situation would only get worse after the 1958 military coup led by Ayub Khan, the chief of army staff. Khan planned to infiltrate Jammu & Kashmir with Pakistanis who would then foment an uprising to prompt a Pak intervention. However, Khan’s plan failed to achieve its desired results, ending in a stalemate that led Khan to recognise the vulnerabilities posed by East Pakistan to a country at war.
According to the Brookings report, Khan publicly conceded that East Pakistan, surrounded on three sides by India, was “virtually indefensible.” His statements further convinced the aggrieved East Pakistanis that the central government didn’t care about their interests, and were prepared to lose the region in order to gain Kashmir.
Khan resigned in 1969 and was replaced by Yahya Khan, who attempted to appease the Bengalis by promising free elections. In 1970, the Awami League, an independence-leaning Bengali party, swept the polls, winning 160 out of 162 seats in East Pakistan and consequently gaining a majority in Pakistan’s National Assembly. Yahya refused to accept the results of the election, instead enforcing a brutal crackdown on the East, resulting in an estimated three million deaths. New Delhi soon intervened and in 1971, Pakistan surrendered to Indian forces and the country of Bangladesh was formed.
According to Mansoor Akbar Kundi, a researcher at Istanbul University, the loss of East Pakistan undermined the notion of Pakistan as a Muslim Homeland, paving the way for even more regional conflicts between different ethnic groups. Kundi writes that ultimately “the creation of Bangladesh on the world map was the result of the power distribution over the issues of the Federal-Units relationship.”While the One Unit scheme was abandoned a year after the war, creating the four provinces that exist today, its legacy continues to live on.
The dominance of Punjab
From the beginning, West Pakistan was dominated by Punjab, which had the largest population, best farmlands, and most representation in the military. However, as RSN Singh, a former military intelligence officer, writes for the Indian Defence Review, Punjab, like Sindh and Balochistan, was not initially enthusiastic about the concept of Pakistan.
In the 1936-37 elections, the Muslim League had won only one seat out of 84 Muslim reserved seats in Punjab. Recognising the importance of the state, Jinnah entered into a pact with the ruling Unionist Party leader Sikander Hyat Khan, under which Sikander conceded to Jinnah’s claim of being the sole spokesperson for the region’s Muslims in exchange for Jinnah promising not to interfere in the politics of Punjab. However, with Sikander’s death in 1942, the Unionist Party’s dominance was eroded, its influence ceded to Jinnah, who would go on to describe Punjab as the “cornerstone” of Pakistan.
From the onset, Punjab was integral to the conceptualisation of Pakistan, a fact enshrined by its political importance under One Unit. In One Unit Scheme in the Federation of Pakistan, Abdul Shakoor Chandio claims that the One Unit scheme not only created antipathy between East and West, but also between Punjab and the other provinces. Writing that the merging of all territorial units “invariably created centre-province tension,” Chandio argues that the disconnect was most notably felt in Sindh.
Despite One Unit’s promise to create uniformity, Punjab was favoured by the central government, given preference in terms of taxation, salaries and recruitment. Many vocal Sindhi politicians such as G.M Syed opposed the scheme but were eventually overruled.
Even after the scheme was abolished, Punjab continued to dominate national politics. Under the Pakistani system, federal institutions are structured around population size, giving Punjab 148 seats in the 336 seat Pakistani National Assembly. As a result, according to the Asia Society, “political developments in Pakistan continue to be marred by provincial jealousies and, in particular, by the deep resentments in the smaller provinces of Sindh, Balochistan, and the North-West Frontier Province against what is seen to be a monopoly by the Punjabi majority of the benefits of power, profit, and patronage”.Singh goes one step further, writing that “the Punjabi domination of Pakistan has been the biggest obstacle in nation building”.
However, it is worth noting that Punjab’s influence, while significant, is not all-encompassing. In an article for The Indian Express, Sameer Arshad Khatlani points out that as of 2016, Punjabis have occupied the top army post for only 28 of 69 years. Moreover, non-Punjabi dictators have ruled Pakistan for 25 of its 34 years of military rule. Nonetheless, perceived or actual overrepresentation of the province continues to impediment the federal structure of the country.
As Chanzeb Awan, a researcher at the University of Karachi notes for the Journal of South Asian Studies, “the demands for new provinces have their roots in the historic, ethnic and demographic makeup of Pakistan which were intoned intermittently ever since Independence from the British Empire in 1947. Domination of particular ethnic groups, sense of alienation, lack of justice, huge size of existing federating units in terms of population, area and inability of the successive governments have been the intrinsic factors giving periodic impetus to these demands.”