Most British place names have been changed in the subcontinent since its independence in 1947. However, the North West Frontier Province, popularly known as NWFP, retained its nomenclature. This geographical area lies south of the Khyber Pass bordering Afghanistan, forming the northern edge of Pakistan. It is inhabited by the sturdy Pathans, so lovingly remembered by Rudyard Kipling and Sir Olaf Caroe in their books. This was one of two areas (the other being a part of Assam now in Bangladesh) which were bitterly contested between the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League in 1947 when the subcontinent was being partitioned. Referenda had to be conducted before they could become a part of either Pakistan or India, and in both cases India lost.
Up to now, among Pakistan’s four provinces (states) the Punjabis have Punjab, Sind his have Sindh, Baluchis have Baluchistan, but Pathans have had NWFP!
It was inevitable that the Pathans, or Pushtoons, would seek a change. On Nov. 14, 1997, the NWFP provincial legislature passed a resolution changing the name NWFP to “Pukhtoonkhwa” meaning “support Pukhtoon.” If the question were just one of changing the name, the matter would be of little political consequence.
However, at present, when Afghanistan is in turmoil, neighboring Central Asian republics are in a new formative phase and the internal politics of Pakistan need to be handled with great care, the evolution of NWFP into Pukhtoonkhwa has several complications. Most Pathans living in Pakistan speak the Pushtoon language, which is also the mother tongue of Afghans living south of Kabul and on to the borders of Pakistan. There are other Pathans living in parts of Punjab in divisions like Hazara, Dera Ismail Khan, Kohat and Bannu and in areas of Baluchistan and in sections of Peshawar, capital of NWFP, who speak Hindko, a dialect different from Pushtoon. They do not support Pukhtoonkhwa.
The Awami National Party (ANP) which has made this demand is an organization that in many ways is a successor to the group that once sided with India and opposed Pakistan. Their credentials, however, are not in question, since the earlier dispute is history.
There are other groups within Pakistan who also have been asking for places to be named after the language they speak. On the face of it, there is no problem. With the experience of East Pakistan that later became Bangladesh, however, Nawaz Sharif is hard put to endorse Pukhtoonkhwa.
In 1956, it was Nehru who divided the political map of India on linguistic bases. Pakistan today does not have an equivalent of a Nehru and the environment is also very different. Sooner or later, the matter will have to be resolved at the national level and in a manner that the entire nation can support.
Had Mian Nawaz Sharif ignored family advice to the contrary and nominated someone from Sindh, Baluchistan or NWFP as the president of Pakistan, instead of selecting a fellow Punjabi as he did, he would have a useful balancing voice today to reinforce his opposition to the Pukhtoonkhawa issue.
Just as a reminder of how volatile ethnic or tribal politics remain, in March a Pathan girl eloped with and married an Urdu-speaking young man in Karachi. The result was turmoil that engulfed the giant metropolis. The young man was even shot at when the police brought him to court, despite the girl’s protestations and affirmations that she wished to remain his bride. The situation in Pakistan illustrates that while many countries talk about the demands of the coming millennium, many of their people still have some serious catching up to do.