Amid the controversy surrounding Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has been that of a new province, for which the National Assembly passed a resolution at the same time as it passed a vote of confidence in the Prime Minister, beleaguered since his conviction for contempt by the Supreme Court. The man for whom he took the conviction, the President, had earlier come out in favour of another province, and that too during a visit to the Prime Minister’s hometown of Multan, when he promised to have the new province in time for the next election.

That would imply having two-thirds majorities in both Houses of Parliament, as well as in the Punjab Assembly. The general constitutional provision for amending the Constitution demands two-thirds majorities in both Houses of Parliament, while any amendment requiring the change of any provincial boundary also needs a two-thirds majority to pass the bill in the affected provincial assembly. The PPP lacks the requisite majorities, and faces the opposition of the PML-N in the Punjab Assembly.

Incidentally, to take the wind out of the PPP’s sails, the PML-N is not demanding one province in South Punjab, but two. The Janoobi Punjab resolution in the National Assembly was replied to by the Punjab Assembly passing resolutions for two provinces, with the Bahawalpur civil division becoming a province in its own right. There is some confusion here, with the impression being created that this would lead to the restoration of the old Bahawalpur State, which passed away when it was absorbed by the old West Pakistan province. At the time of its absorption, Bahawalpur had achieved self-rule, and its equivalent of a provincial government was elected, while its Amir, Abbas Khan Abbasi, later turned up as a Punjab Governor, while its last head of government, Makhdum Hasan Mahmud, later became Punjab Leader of the Opposition after having been the Pir Pagaro’s candidate against Mian Nawaz Sharif for the Punjab Chief Ministership. Restoring the old state is not feasible, for the present constitutional arrangement only allows for the creation of a new province, and it would be impossible to promise the heirs of either Nawab Abbas Abbasi or Makhdum Hasan Mahmud, anything. However, it should be noted that they (respectively Prince Salahuddin Abbasi and Makhdum Ahmad Mahmud) win their national seats with monotonous ease. They would play an important role in the politics of the new province, but the old state would probably not be restored. Still, if one state becomes a province, what is to stop other states asking for the same treatment? All provinces have at least one (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has Swat and Chitral, Sindh Khairpur and Balochistan Kalat).

The PPP would like Bahawalpur Division to form part of the new province, along with Multan and Dera Ghazi Khan Divisions, and to win the support of proponents of the Bahawalpur province, has offered to make Bahawalpur the capital of the new province, not Multan. However, it has long been the assumption of South Punjab supporters that the new province would have its capital at Multan.

Multan is an old provincial capital, being the eponymous town of the Mughals’ old Multan Soobah, to which was attached Sindh. One problem, probably more a worry rather than a cause, is that part of the motivation behind a South Punjab province is the desire to have a Seraiki province. Is Seraiki a language in its own right or a dialect of Punjabi? Punjabi itself has not received much benefit from Lahore, and more has been done for it (and to it) in India, which has already seen its share of the province divided into three states (Punjab, Arunachal Pradesh and Haryana) and two union territories (Delhi and Chandigarh), with Delhi having its own assembly and provincial government.

This is the status the PPP is clearly contemplating for the territories it administers directly, but that would mean that Islamabad, presently under the federal government, would pass to an assembly in which the PML-N might well have a majority. The Federally Administered Tribal Areas are also crucial to the war on terror, and though they have a separate Secretariat in the Governor’s Secretariat, the demand there is mixed up with the question of adult suffrage. While universal adult suffrage was introduced into the country in the 1953 election, it only came to FATA late. The demand is either for separate provincial status, or merger into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

That is not the only Pakhtun province contemplated. Though ill-defined, there is a Pakhtun element in Balochistan, which would like to see the Pakhtun areas of the province, or rather the areas of Afghanistan taken by the British during the 19th century’s First Afghan War, and which constitute the old British Baluchistan, would probably form the new province.

However, just because there would be two new Pakhtun provinces does not mean that Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa would remain undisturbed. The Hazara Division would want to become a separate province, a demand which gained strength after the province was renamed. The PML-Q has supported the proposal, and the ANP which heads the provincial coalition, opposes it. Though the PML-N has now supported it, it should be realized that this would create a third Seraiki province, as the Division consists of Hindko-speakers. Hindko is properly a subdialect of Potohari, itself a Punjabi dialect, but has enough affinities to Seraiki for its enthusiasts to claim it as one of its own. Going down that linguistic trail, the new provinces of Multan would be home to two Seraiki dialects (or subdialects, if one is to subscribe to the theory that Seraiki is merely a dialect of Punjabi), Multani and Derawali (the dialect favoured by the people of Dera Ghazi Khan, many of whom speak Balochki, which contains a healthy admixture of Balochi). If Bahawalpur becomes a province, it will favour Riasati, another Seraiki dialect (or subdialect, depending on where you stand in the linguistic controversy).

The PML-N, in the resolutions it passed through the Punjab Assembly, also demanded a commission on new provinces. It has already expressed opposition to creating more new provinces on linguistic basis. It must be noted that the British did not follow this basis, and nor did the Mughals. Both went by the principle the PML-N proposes, that of administrative convenience. This is a sound principle, for not only is linguistic basis highly political, it is also highly unstable, for one man’s language is another man’s dialect. This is particularly so in the Subcontinent, where at least the dialect, if not necessarily the language, changes at every village.

The national commission will be able to examine all the proposals (and the debate on Sindh, which has Sindhi-speakers, Seraiki-speakers and Urdu-speakers, has not really started, but which include provincialist movements if the provinces discussed above come into existence. It will also examine more practical issues, like where these provinces are supposed to fund themselves from. It should not be forgotten that if the motive the PPP has for breaking up Punjab is to create a unit where the PPP could win. However, local politicians are already dreaming of positions, like memberships and ministries, they cannot achieve at the Punjab level. In the end, new provinces will not be created from public or even political compulsions, but because of politicians’ cupidity.

n    The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as Executive Editor of TheNation.