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.
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.
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.
The amendment also returned to the provinces the right to set curriculum and allowed them to approach foreign donors directly for aid – a particularly important measure in war-torn Khyber Pakthunkhwa.
For Syed Irfan Ashraf, a columnist and lecturer of journalism at the University of Peshawar, the deprivation of ethnic identity was critical to the rise of religious extremism. Terror, he argues is a “form of reactionary tribalism very much rooted in the missing identity link.”
“People lack a sense of ownership because the state has failed to develop that,” he says, arguing that the continued use of nomenclature such as FATA is ”derogatory” and unhelpful.
Arbab Tahir, the provincial information secretary of the ruling ANP, agrees. Names such as FATA “are not real names,” he says. “Emphasizing our own identity helps close the door on the mullah.”
'What’s in a name?' ask disgruntled residents
Certainly religious extremists have made inroads here, not only in recruiting militants but also intimidating the population with bomb attacks.
In Peshawar’s bustling spare-parts market, traders go about their business amid heavy police security and the constant threat of suicide bombings.
A billboard featuring provincial ministers posing with President Asif Ali Zardari congratulating the province lies a short distance away, and several similar signs dot the city.
According to trader Khalil Mohammad, the name change was a good move.
“If the Punjabis have Punjab, the Sindhis have Sindh, and the Balochis have Balochistan, why should we Pashtuns not have our own name? This has been the dream since the time of Azal Khan Lala,” referring to the legendary Pashtun nationalist and staunch opponent to the Taliban.
Others are not so sure. University of Peshawar student Sarosh Tahir, an ethnic Hazara, is worried the name is not inclusive enough, and aligns the province more closely with Afghanistan, which has a large Pashtun population. “Foreigners will have a hard time pronouncing it,” she adds.
Most Peshawaris interviewed said the significance of the event was being overplayed, given the multiple crises afflicting the country and this province in particular. “Electricity is in short supply, inflation is out of control, and we aren’t safe. And they still chose to make a fuss over this?” adds Noori Yaftali, a student.
Part of the backlash may stem from the government’s zealous celebrations, which are not in keeping with the downcast mood in the province, says Rahimullah Yusufzai, the Peshawar bureau chief of The News, a local paper.
He rejects the idea that a name change can have any significant role in building cohesion. “Extremism and terror are entirely different issues and linked to Afghanistan and the Soviet invasion and the present US forces here,” he says.
“These are the factors that drive terror, not names.”