The Other Threat to Pakistan

LAHORE, April 2 — At a literature festival here not long ago, I bumped into a school friend who had recently relocated from Karachi, the southern port city where we both grew up. Karachi has all the buzz, and violence, of a megalopolis — more than 2,700 people were killed there in 2013 — and none of the greenery and historic charms of Lahore, the capital of Punjab Province. “I’m loving Lahore,” she told me. “I feel like I’ve moved to Switzerland after living in a war zone.”

The contrast is not as exaggerated as it sounds. In recent years, Punjab has suffered less than the rest of the country from the suicide attacks and bomb blasts that have killed some 49,000 people since 2001. There have been dramatic exceptions: terrorist attacks against the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team and at a major Sufi shrine in Lahore, at army headquarters in Rawalpindi, and at a five-star hotel and courts in the capital, Islamabad. Anti-India militant groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and anti-Shiite organizations like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi are based in Punjab and draw most of their recruits from the province. But these groups mostly stage their attacks elsewhere in Pakistan to maintain benign relations with the local authorities.

And so the perception that Punjab has suffered less from violence than the rest of the country prevails, creating much resentment. For non-Punjabis, the province’s relative stability is just the latest demonstration of how Punjabi elites rally to protect their own interests at the expense of their compatriots. And such interprovincial rivalries could be as great a challenge for the country’s stability as the Taliban.

It is commonly said that Punjab is synonymous with Pakistan, and vice versa, which seems to relegate the other provinces and autonomous regions to the status of outliers. Some of Punjab’s good fortune is an accident of geography: the name means “land of five rivers,” referring to the Indus River and the tributaries that flow through the province, making it the agricultural and industrial heartland of Pakistan. But politics matters even more.

Pakistan’s elites, political, bureaucratic and military have long hailed from Punjab and shaped the country’s policies to the province’s advantage. Until recently, Punjab received the lion’s share of national revenues simply by virtue of having the largest population; never mind its actual needs or contributions to the national budget. (The formula was finally revised in 2009, benefiting Sindh, Baluchistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces.) Also, the government and the military have long allotted prime agricultural land and urban real estate in other parts of Pakistan to Punjabi officers and senior bureaucrats.

Punjab itself is not a monolith. Some of the province’s southern districts are among the country’s poorest, and their inhabitants have grudges of their own against Lahore-based politicians. Water and energy shortages kept Punjab’s economic growth rate at 2.5 percent between 2007 and 2011, compared with 3.4 percent for the country overall. But this has done little to temper the impression among non-Punjabis that the province is booming while the rest of the country is burning.

These resentments animate the politics of Pakistan’s other provinces and threaten national unity. A separatist movement in Baluchistan taps grievances against Punjabis it says are exploiting Baluch gas and mineral resources to spur industrial growth in Punjab. It also rejects efforts by the predominantly Punjabi military to suppress Baluch nationalists. Killings of Punjabi “settlers” — often school teachers and civil servants — by Baluch separatists are a brutal expression of this.

Concerns about Punjabi domination have soared since the spring of 2013, when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, of the Pakistan Muslim League (P.M.L.N.), was returned to power for the third time. He belongs to a Lahore-based industrial family with close ties to Punjab’s business elite and a can-do attitude to governance that features flashy development schemes. The perception that Punjab is batting in a league of its own has mounted under the Sharifs. During the general election campaign last year, while the Pakistan People’s Party, which is perceived to represent Sindhi interests, was making welfare cash transfers to impoverished women, the P.M.L.N. was distributing laptops to students.

Most of Karachi’s 18 million residents have to rely on private transport. But Lahoris commute on a rapid metrobus system, and a similar initiative in Islamabad will be the federal capital’s most expensive road project to date. While the Punjabi government is digitizing land records, automating administrative transactions and promoting what it calls e-governance, the Sindh government faces a famine in Tharparkar.

Punjab has been able to progress because it has been relatively unimpeded by terrorism. Shahbaz Sharif, Nawaz’s brother and Punjab’s chief minister since 2008, publicly appealed to the Pakistani Taliban in 2010 not to attack the province, and the request was largely heeded. His P.M.L.N. government in Punjab has not clamped down on influential sectarian militant groups in the province, instead befriending their leaders to rally votes during elections.

Likewise, the P.M.L.N. government at the center started pushing for peace talks with the Taliban in September and then even more in November, when the Taliban threatened to carry out attacks in Punjab to avenge the killing of their former leader in a U.S. drone strike in North Waziristan. The central government is considering concessions, including swapping prisoners, granting an amnesty to Taliban fighters and even giving the group a political role in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the border with Afghanistan.

Government officials have repeatedly stated that a peace deal is necessary because military strikes against the Taliban would lead to reprisal attacks. Given the carnage that Karachi, Quetta and Peshawar have endured in recent years, many Pakistanis describe that policy as a ploy to sacrifice the tribal areas in order to save Lahore. Such perceptions only heighten interprovincial tensions, just at a time when the country needs to be more united than ever.

Huma Yusuf is a Pakistani journalist and global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

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