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Rejoicing, Anger Over Proposed Name Change For Pakistani Province

(RFE/RL) -- Pakistan's Pashtun community has sought for decades to rename the North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

The name they want is one that reflects the way the Pashtuns themselves refer to the area in their own Pashto language: Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Loosely translated, that means land of the Pashtuns.

Now, that drive to rename the NWFP is moving quickly toward completion.

Pakistan's senate today approved a constitutional amendment that includes the name change by a majority of 80 to 12.

The approval comes just days after the lower house approved the same amendment last week. The only step still ahead is for President Asif Ali Zadari to sign the bill, something he is expected to do in short order.

RFE/RL correspondent Abubakar Siddique reports from Islamabad that the name change has great significance for Pakistan's Pashtuns.

"The name change has a lot of psychological and emotional value for a lot of people," Siddique said. "For the first time in Pakistani history you are seeing the state recognize the Pashtun identity officially and naming the largest part of the Pashtun territories within Pakistan as 'Khyber Pakhtunkhwa' from a colonial name, the North West Frontier Province."

He says that Pashtuns across the country campaigned for the name change as a symbol of cultural identity.

According to Siddique, "Pakhtunkhwa as they claim has many historical references. It basically means the land of the Pashtuns. It has been called this way in Pashtun folklore, in the Pashto language, and in particular Pashtun literature."

Opposition And Protest

The name change proposal is violently opposed by a small minority of non-Pashto speakers in the NWFP. Non-Pashto speakers comprise 25 percent of the province's population.

On April 12, at least 10 people were killed by police gunfire in Abbottabad, the main city of the Hazara division of the NWFP. In the Hazara division, many people speak Hindko, a dialect of Punjabi language mixed with Pashto.

On the following two days, April 12 and 13, more than 100 people were wounded in further street violence.

The demonstrators were demanding a tiny province with the name of Hazara.

Protest leaders have vowed to continue even after the Pakistani president signs the amendment approved by the Senate today. But they say the protest will be peaceful.

Umer Ayub, a leader of the Hazara Province movement, told RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal that they would continue their movement till "we get our own province."

"We will struggle for our province. Now all the people in Hazara are unanimous that they want their own province and if God wills us to achieve this goal we will continue our peaceful struggle."

A Constitutional Process

The drive to give the NWFP a Pashto name was spearheaded by the Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party (ANP). The party has said that it does not oppose non-Pashto speakers in the province seeking their own separate territorial divisions, but that must be done by working through Pakistan's constitutional process.

Mian Iftikhar Hussain, an ANP leader and the Provincial Information Minister, told Radio Mashaal that “We are trying our best and listening to [opposition] demands in a peaceful manner."

"We have accepted their demands to a great extent," Hussain said. "We accept their democratic rights; this is their right if they are opposed to the new name and if they want a separate province -- that is their right."

Hussain noted that Pashtun nationalists have worked 63 years for the name change. "Likewise, [the Hazaras] can continue their struggle and when they fulfill constitutional requirements they should get their demands accepted as others did," Hussain said.

A New Name And A Step Forward

The NWFP has long been a crossroads between South Asia and Central Asia, a melting pot of languages and ethnic groups. It contains many of the region's mountain passes -- including the famous "Khyber Pass" -- where traders and invaders have passed for millennia.

When the British took over the area, they formed a new province in 1901 and called it the "North West Frontier Province" because these territories were northwest of the imperial capital in New Delhi.

The changing of the NWFP's name to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is part of a larger constitutional amendment that will give greater autonomy to the four provinces which comprise Pakistan.

The amendment also will substantially weaken the president's powers. Once signed, it will end the president's power to dismiss parliament, and it will devolve substantial executive powers to the parliament and prime minister.

Among the amendment's champions is President Asif Ali Zardari himself, who says the reforms will make the system more democratic and accountable.

RFE/RL correspondent Siddique says many in Pakistan see the bill as a way to strengthen the country for the future by taking greater account of regional differences.

"I was speaking to some of the people involved in this process," Siddique said. "They told me that this will make Pakistan probably the best federation in the whole of Asia. So it surely is a huge step forward on the part of sustainable representative [democracy] in Pakistan."

Contributors to this story include Radio Mashaal Pamir Scahill, Shaheen Buneiri, and Amanullah Ghilzai in Prague