Tensions over renamed Pakistan province overshadow government reforms

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 17, 2010

HARIPUR, PAKISTAN -- This nation's squabbling lawmakers celebrated a rare moment of unity this week, easily approving constitutional changes to empower Parliament and dump dictator-era rules that stacked control with the president.

But that cohesion was quickly overshadowed by seething protests that laid bare the deep cleavages in a multiethnic country that was cobbled together 60 years ago and has struggled for a common identity ever since.

As politicians hailed the reform package, bloody riots erupted over a provision changing the colonial-era name for the volatile North-West Frontier Province, where this town sits, to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a nod to the nearby mountain pass and to the area's Pashtun majority.

The change delighted Pashtuns, who had pushed for it for decades. But it outraged the Hindko-speaking minority that dominates in this small district, Hazara. What was intended as an official acknowledgment of Pashtun identity is prompting calls for a breakaway Hazara province -- and concern that a wave of dormant demands for minority-run regions is on the way.

"This has actually opened a Pandora's box, because of Pakistan's very tenuous polity," said Arif Nizami, former editor of the Nation newspaper in Lahore. "Now, on one side, there are identity issues and ethnic issues and provincial autonomy issues. The other side is religious issues and terrorism. It's a very explosive situation."

Pakistan's population has soared in recent decades, so new provinces could be helpful, Nizami said. But the angry scenes and ethnic tensions evident this week did not portend that such changes would occur smoothly.

Security forces in the city of Abbottabad opened fire on demonstrators, killing at least seven. In Haripur, south of the city where the demonstrations were largest, protesters burned tires, felled trees to block roads and rolled around in packed pickups shouting, "Down with Pakhtunkhwa! We will get our province!"

Hindko-speaking residents -- many of whom identified themselves as ethnic Pashtuns -- said the province's new name would sideline them, further empowering the Pashto-speakers who make up about 70 percent of the province. "If there are any jobs, they are being given to Pashtun people," said Mohammed Azar Khan, 38, a teacher who was chatting with friends in a Haripur sugar shop. "Why should we be ignored? What will be our fate?"

That sounds ironic to Pashtuns, who are Pakistan's second-largest ethnic group but say the Punjabi majority has long oppressed them. The new name, they argued, would fit a pattern: There are minorities throughout Pakistan, but Punjabis dominate in Punjab province, Sindhis in Sindh province and Baluchis in Baluchistan.

For decades, Pashtun nationalists campaigned for an autonomous state, called Pashtunistan, for the Pashtun region straddling the Afghan border. Analysts say the Punjabi-dominated military establishment, which ruled Pakistan for half its existence, came to view the renaming push as one dangerous steppingstone toward secession.

Calls for Pashtunistan weakened over time as a Pashtun presence in the government and military grew and Pashtun regions in Afghanistan became engulfed by a raging Taliban insurgency. But renaming North-West Frontier Province remained a key platform of the Awami National Party, whose stronghold is in the northwest. "It's a symbolic victory for them," said Imtiaz Gul, a Pashtun who chairs the Center for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad. "The dream for Pashtunistan is sort of done. It's not on anymore."

But resentment was palpable this week in the Hazara district, even among those who watched rioters from fields where donkeys grazed or from rusty minibuses stopped by the protesters' roadblocks. The new provincial name should be Hazara-Pakhtunkhwa, some said. Others said the name should not be touched -- colonial or not, people were used to North-West Frontier Province.

Lawmakers had "failed" to gauge public sentiment, said Raja Kamran Khan, a Hazara native and Sindh lawmaker who said he had decided the demonstrators were right. Like others, he pointed out that those in Hazara had powerful cards to play: Their district includes a big dam as well as a large stretch of the Karakoram Highway leading to China.

"This is the right time," he said as tires burned in the distance. "These people have always believed in a strong country and one federal government. But the federal government has neglected them."

Special correspondent Haq Nawaz Khan contributed to this report.

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