“Pakistan-Beyond the Security State” was the topic of a conference held in Berkeley, California on February 27-28, 2015 which shed some academic light on a powerful yet troubled country whose role on the world stage continues to attract strong interest.
This two-day event was funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and was jointly sponsored by the Institute for South Asia Studies , Berkeley Pakistan Initiative and the Institute of International Studies . Defying the image of Pakistan that many in this country have developed, those who know better were not surprised that a many if not most of the academics who presented their work at this conference were Pakistani women. One of them was Dr Nukhbah Taj Langah. She is a recognized academic, author and the leader of the Pakistan Saraiki Party. And lucky for us she visited Sacramento after the conference and talked to members of the local Pakistani community both at a residence and at the Kabab Corner Restaurant.
But first, before any alarm bells go off, Dr Nukhbah is a strong proponent of a Saraiki province within Pakistan and is not heading any secessionist movement. She talked at length about that fact and said that “creating a Saraiki province means acknowledging diversity within the federation of Pakistan and strengthening and balancing the federation rather than weakening it." She added, “It is important to mention that according to our party manifesto, all people living in the Saraiki region carry the Saraiki identity, without any distinction of language, culture and ethnicity.”
This report is being written with encouragement from Sacramento’s Ubaid Khawaja who is currently the President of the International Saraiki Congress USA and at whose residence this meeting took place. Ubaid cited that the Saraiki people are oppressed and that a rich culture thousands of years old was being ignored and suppressed. And when we hear this complaint from any group in Pakistan, it is best to listen. Ubaid also mentioned that the core geographical area of the future Saraiki province was the former princely State of Bahawalpur which joined Pakistan and then later became a part of the Punjab.
I asked Dr Nukhbah about her presentation at the Berkeley conference. She replied that it was about Saraiki and other ethno-nationalist movements and how they once united as in the case of United Nations Alliance (1994) and PONM-Pakistan Oppressed Nations Movement (1998). “I am studying the reasons of the failures of these alliances and how it has weakened the ethno-nationalistic aspirations within Pakistan, thus strengthening the domination of Punjab. This is a working paper and in progress.”
Asked why a Saraiki province should be formed, she replied: “Pakistan includes diverse cultures, ethnicities, religions and identities. All the other provinces in Pakistan including Baluchistan, Sindh and KPK have one major language representing the culture of that province. Along the same lines Saraiki language is spoken in most part of Punjab but until 1970’s has been tagged a Punjabi dialect. However, historically Saraiki language and culture are far more ancient and richer than Punjabi.” She added that Saraiki is sometimes tagged as a dialect of Punjabi (and sometimes Sindhi), but it is a much older language and civilization as compared to Punjabi.
She said that the question is not just about the historic significance of Saraiki but about a people’s linguistic and political rights which she detailed extensively. Besides language and cultural identity socio-economic issues also emerge strongly. Just to highlight a few, the Saraiki-speaking areas are mainly agricultural with little or no industry of their own. Jobs in this area are mainly given to outsiders and academic institutions are backward and neglected. Apart from Multan and Bahawalpur Universities, which were set up by Mr Bhutto around 1975, no new university or college has been set up. There are few hospitals, besides Nishtar Hospital built in 1951 using local funds and Multan Institute of Cardiology, which was built after demands of area political activists. The roads and general infrastructure are also in miserable shape. There is a 20:1 disparity of development funds between upper Punjab and the Saraiki region and last but not least the law and order and human rights situation along with excesses of police and bureaucracy is shameful.
Dr Nukhbah elaborated on both the constitutional and political demand for the creation of a fifth federating unit in Pakistan by the name of “Saraiki” or “Saraikistan” province (she spells it “Siraiki” and “Siraikistan”). When I asked her about areas which the future borders of this province would include she replied that four divisions of the Punjab province, namely Multan, Bahawalpur, Dera Ghazi Khan and District Jhang along with Dera Ismail Khan Division from KPK would make up the province. She added that Saraiki is spoken in all the four provinces in Pakistan but the boundaries envisioned would not include any areas from Sindh or Baluchistan.
Dr Nukhbah is the daughter of the late Taj Muhammad Langah, founder of the Pakistan Saraiki Party and an old member of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). She is also the author of a book -Poetry as Resistance: Islam and Ethnicity in Postcolonial Pakistan (Routledge, 2012).
(Saraiki is spelled in many different ways, including Siraiki or Seraiki. For the purpose of this article the “Saraiki” spelling was used)