PAKISTAN: Oppressed national groups struggle for autonomy

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BY EVA CHENG

Four of Pakistan's oppressed national groups — the Sindhi, Pashtuns, Baluchi and Seraiki — are joining forces to oppose their domination by the Punjabi ruling class.

In Sydney to attend the second Asia Pacific Solidarity Conference at Easter, Abdul Majeed Kanjoo, president of the Seraiki National Party, spoke to Green Left Weekly.

Kanjoo said representatives of the four national groups in 1998 formed an umbrella body — the Pakistan Oppressed Nations Movement (PONM) — to take their hitherto separate struggles forward.

Pakistan's ruling class founded the state in 1947, after the British partition of India, in the name of defending the Muslim religion. Pakistan then comprised two separate territories on the western and eastern ends of pre-independence India. Urdu, a relatively new language derived mainly from Arabic and Persian, was made Pakistan's official language.

In 1971, East Pakistan broke away after a civil war and became Bangladesh. The new state for the Bengali-speaking Muslims undermined the Pakistan rulers' proposition that all Muslims of the Indian subcontinent should form one country.

Despite this, the post-1971 Pakistan regime (controlling only west Pakistan) has not stopped trying to impose an overarching Pakistani identity on the different ethnic groups within its truncated territory. This undermined the linguistic and ethnic identities of these groups, creating deep resentment.

Pakistan has been mainly ruled by military regimes throughout its history and its rulers have maintained permanent hostility towards India, a situation also promoted by the Indian rulers.

Post-1971 Pakistan has four provinces: Punjab, Sind, North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Baluchistan. In 1997, Punjab was home to 56.5% of Pakistan's 135 million people while Sind housed 22.6%, NWFP 15.7% and Baluchistan 5.1%.

The Seraikis believe they comprise 60% of Punjab's population, but they were not officially recognised as having a distinct language until recent years; Seraiki has been categorised as a dialect of Punjabi. The Seraikis were not counted as a separate people in Pakistan's census. Rather, they were lumped under the Punjabi total.

According to Kanjoo, the four constituent groups of PONM feel very strongly that they are distinct peoples with unique traditions, languages, territories and histories and should not be coerced into accepting domination by the Punjabis.

The fact that the Sindhis, Pashtuns and Baluchis constitute the basis of three of Pakistan's provinces — Sind, NWFP and Baluchistan respectively — is partial recognition of their existence as distinct peoples, Kanjoo pointed out.

The Seraikis are worse off under this arrangement, said Kanjoo, because they have not been entitled to their own province.

"The PONM are fighting for the reconstitution of Pakistan on the basis of the all-India resolution agreed on March 23, 1940, which spelled out that the five national groupings — the Sindhis, Pashtuns, Baluchis, Seraikis and Punjabis — should constitute Pakistan on an equal basis", Kanjoo stated.

"We are fighting for autonomy, to have the right to be equals to the Punjabis within Pakistan, rather than seeking independence from it", Kanjoo explained.

"Such a federated Pakistan should have jurisdiction over three main areas — defence, foreign affairs and currency — leaving all other matters to be decided by the newly constituted provinces."

Kanjoo told GLW that the four groups' oppression under the Punjabi rulers went far beyond the deprivation of identity and cultural heritage.

He cited the ruling Punjabis' decision to conduct nuclear tests in Baluchistan despite strong opposition from the Baluchis, including from the province's chief minister, adding "they had to arrest him in order to force their decision through".

Kanjoo revealed that the Baluchistan National Party had made clear that it was reserving the right to claim up to US$80 million as compensation for radiation and other severe long-term environmental damage that the nuclear tests had inflicted on Baluchistan. "The immediate testing sites are now sealed for 200 years", noted Kanjoo.

"Baluchistan is very rich in minerals and the other three territories also have abundant other natural resources. Punjab is the most barren on this score", Kanjoo pointed out.

From Green Left Weekly, May 15, 2002.
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