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New province name: Pakistan taps ethnic pride as defense against Taliban

Pakistan renamed the North West Frontier Province to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in a nod to Pashtuns, but the minority Hazars launched deadly protests. The Taliban has sought to supplant ethnic identity with pan-Islamist philosophy.

By Issam AhmedCorrespondent / April 29, 2010

Pakistani army troops stand guard close to the site of a suicide bombing at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Peshawar, Pakistan on Wednesday. Residents in the provincial capital, have expressed a mixture of satisfaction, anger, and indifference to the name change of 'North West Frontier Province' to 'Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.'

Mohammad Sajjad/AP

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Peshawar, Pakistan

The renaming of Pakistan’s Pashtun-majority province earlier this month was meant to be a triumph for local pride and one step forward in a broader effort to fight militancy in this region bordering the Taliban’s stronghold.

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Instead, celebrations marking the switch from the “North West Frontier Province,” a name assigned by British colonialists in 1901, to “Khyber Pakhtunkhwa,” a nod to the majority ethnic Pakhtun (or Pashtun) population, were marred by violent protests that left eight people dead.

Hundreds of people from the Hazara minority group, who make up almost a quarter of the population, held near-daily protests for two weeks, setting tires on fire, blocking roads – forcing markets to shut down and people to stay home. ANP leaders held a series of meetings Thursday with Hazara political leaders in an effort to diffuse tensions.

Residents in the provincial capital, Peshawar, have expressed a mixture of satisfaction, anger, and indifference to the name change. Some see it as mainly a symbolic gesture by the ruling Pakistan People’s Party in Islamabad and its provincial ally, the Awami National Party – not a move that will usher in improvements on the ground.

Empowering Pashtuns

Lawmakers and some analysts, however, say the new name can help unify the region, establish a sense of ownership, and in the long run, undercut radicalism.

For decades the populous Punjab Province, a mainly ethnic Punjabi area where the federal government is based, has dominated the country’s other three provinces, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh (where Sindhis live), and Baluchistan (home to the Balochis).

Successive governments suppressed ethnic identity to avoid nationalist separatist movements, as the British had done before them. They recognized only English and Urdu as official languages and treated the whole of West Pakistan as one unit and East Pakistan as another, until it broke off to become Bangladesh.

The NWFP was the only province not to be named after its majority ethnic group. For more than 60 years, Pashtun-led parties were rebuffed in their calls to rename the province “Pashtunistan” or “Afghania,” as they were deemed too secessionist-sounding.

The Taliban – which operate in the neighboring Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA), a largely ungoverned region bordering Afghanistan – have sought to supplant ethnic identity and power structures with pan-Islamist philosophy. In recent years they launched a campaign of beheading numerous tribal elders central to Pashtun culture. The radical religious views won some people over, bringing recruits into the militant group.

The renaming of NWFP, in a constitutional amendment passed by Parliament on April 19, is part of Islamabad’s efforts to devolve power to the provinces and increase people’s sense of ownership in governance – and turn them away from alternatives like the Taliban.

The 18th Amendment also granted provinces rights to 50 percent of energy and mineral resources found in their territory. Previously the entirety went to the federal government, whose redistribution of the revenues created discontent among the provinces.

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