The sixth national census has been postponed sine die after wrangling for weeks. The Council of Common Interests (CCI) that was convened after almost a year against the constitutional stipulation of meeting every quarter, took the decision mainly due to unavailability of sufficient personnel to ensure transparency of the process.
Except Punjab, all three provinces expressed their reservations on the presence of illegal immigrants, particularly Afghan refugees, and demanded their expulsion before conducting the census.
Sindh and Balochistan had long resented the influx of non-local population. Communities native to these provinces consider non-local population as not only a burden on their resources but also a threat to a fragile demographic balance in their respective regions.
The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) government has recently raised voice on the issue of Afghan refugees which they consider a major reason for incidents of extortion, kidnapping for ransom and terrorism in the province.
The census of 1998 had revealed that the Baloch were approximately 55 per cent of the total population of Balochistan. The province has witnessed a heavy influx of the Afghans since 1980. Hundreds of miles long porous border has made parts of Balochistan a second home for millions of these refugees. Pashtun ethnicity is particularly an advantage for them to get subsumed in the local population. The Baloch population has the apprehension that without sifting out the Afghans from the local Pashtun community, they will outnumber the Baloch population.
The development of the Gwadar Port and China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CEPEC) projects will open the floodgate of non-locals to Balochistan. A chronic deficit of skilled human resources will justify this influx to meet development needs in the province. Their concern is compounded by the fact that several insurgency-hit parts of the restive province will remain inaccessible to the census staff, rendering the Baloch under-enumerated. Hence, the Baloch face a double whammy of over enumeration of non-locals and under enumeration of their own community. This situation is likely to cause a simmering ethnic divide in the province.
Similarly, Sindh endured a demographic shock in 1947 due to a massive cross-border migration. According to the census of 1941, native population (Sindhi, Seraiki, Dhatki, Thari-speaking, etc.) constituted 3.9million of the total 4.5million people. In other words, over 86 per cent population of the province spoke native languages.
Migration from India continued for several decades. Karachi emerged as an economic magnet for millions of people from other provinces and foreign countries. Immigrants of all kinds continued to pour into Karachi that drastically altered the demographic configuration. Five decades down the road, census held in 1998 revealed that Sindhi and Seraiki-speaking local population shrunk to only 63 per cent of the total population in Sindh. Thus, native population’s share was curtailed by 23 percentage points within five decades.
The enormity of influx can be judged from the fact that since 1941, the native population increased five-fold compared to twenty-fold increase in non-local population. Hence, every single local person added in Sindh’s native population was outnumbered by four non-locals. This indicates that the inflow of population to Sindh was relentless throughout the years.
The situation further exacerbated post1998 census. New streams of population have flowed into the province. In 2011, Afghanistan was invaded by the US and its allies that triggered emigration from the country. Two military operations in Swat and North Waziristan also displaced a sizeable population in KP. A large number of people, including several extremist fugitives, made their way into Sindh.
Like Balochistan, local Pakhtun enclaves were used as a sanctuary by the immigrants from Afghanistan and upcountry areas. An urge for ethno-centric political ascendancy gave them local empathy and support. The gradual increase in the number of extremists groups in rural Sindh is an outcome of this pernicious demographic incursion. The native population is experiencing a cultural shock where communal harmony and a secular society are struggling for their survival. Hence, census has become a politically inflammable substance in Sindh.
In Punjab, Seraiki identity is gaining momentum. The Seraikis are asserting their ethnic as well as political identity in the province. Nationalist groups have launched a campaign, mobilising communities to enumerate themselves as Seraikis in the census. This may not pose an imminent challenge to Punjabi-speaking population yet the demographic patters in south Punjab will certainly influence political discourse in the province.
Census, entailing far reaching political implications has, thus, emerged as a divisive matter. In a country where national identities have been suppressed for decades, census has become a springboard for oppressed communities to reclaim their existence and political share.
Latching on its numerical supremacy, Punjab-dominated establishment made population the sole parameter for resource-sharing and political representation for decades. Smaller provinces are now considering census a matter of life and death as all political and financial advantages are linked to this data.