Home History The Baloch and Pashtun nationalist movements in Pakistan – I

The Baloch and Pashtun nationalist movements in Pakistan – I

The Baloch and Pashtun nationalist movements in Pakistan – I

Given that the Pashtun and the Baloch have inhabited the region for centuries, they became crucial elements of Pakistan’s ethnic tapestry after the creation of the state in August 1947.

By Kriti M. Shah

The border lands between Afghanistan and Pakistan have been a hotbed for global terrorism and jihad for the last four decades. The causes are rooted in colonial legacy and the impact of British rule on the region. In the late 1800s, the perennial question for the British was how far the northwestern border should be pushed beyond the Indus. The sub-continent was seen as a ‘Game Board’ for that era’s great powers such as Britain and Russia to expand their areas of influence and undercut one another. The British Empire wanted to have a ruler in Afghanistan who would be sympathetic to their interests and guard against Russian expansion into Kabul. Three wars were fought (1828-42, 1879-80, and 1919) between the British and different Afghan Amirs. It was during the second of these Anglo-Afghan wars in 1893 that Amir Abdur Rahman, while negotiating with Mortimer Durand, a British diplomat in Kabul agreed, somewhat arbitrarily to the drawing of a border line between British India and Afghanistan. The state of Afghanistan therefore emerged mainly as a result of the laying down of borders, and not laborious state-building. This border would be called the ‘Durand Line’ and would demarcate the future nation states of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The border would have an impact on how the British dealt with the Pashtuns in the north and the Baloch in the south on their side of the Line.

Given that the Pashtun and the Baloch have inhabited the region for centuries, they became crucial elements of Pakistan’s ethnic tapestry after the creation of the state in August 1947. Their place in Pakistani society today is an outcome of their geography, British colonial legacy, and their respective relationships with the state over time. The Pashtuns have borne the brunt of the Afghan jihad and military campaigns against their tribes for the past 40 years. The Baloch have had to deal with economic exploitation and the heavy-handedness of the Pakistan military.

Since its inception, the Pakistani state has repressed ethno-linguistic identities (be it the Sindhi, Bengalis, Pashtun or Baloch) while pushing for an “Islamic” identity. In the popular narrative, therefore, the Pashtun and the Baloch have come to be associated with violence, militancy and aggression against the state. Their political grievances tend to be viewed in terms of their ethnicity; their intent is perennially questioned; and they receive proportionately greater media scrutiny for their alleged “anti-state activities”.

Over the years the Baloch nationalist movement has articulated various demands, including secession, greater political, economic and cultural rights, and political autonomy. The Pashtun movement, for its part, had been fighting for the creation of an independent state of Pashtunistan to include all Pashtuns from either side of the Durand Line, and greater political autonomy and independence within the state of Pakistan.

This paper places the Pashtun and the Baloch nationalist movements in a historical context, traces their evolution, and examines the drivers that have led them to this stage. The paper analyses the political, economic, demographic and socio-cultural trends that have characterized the Pashtun and Baloch movements over time, while highlighting how similar state policies—of economic exploitation and political repression—as well as Islamic militancy have led to different outcomes for the two populations.

The Legacy of the British Empire

In the northwestern region of Pakistan, the Pashtuns have historically been influenced by their proximity to Kabul and, therefore, the Afghan king (in the west) and in turn, his relationship with British India (in the east). The spread of Pashtuns across the Durand Line established a transnational Pashtun community, with Pashtuns on either side of the Durand Line. This has allowed the Pashtun tribes to escape military pressure and move across the border from either side.

The British rightly feared that the Pashtun tribes, on their own or with help from across the border, would rebel against them and threaten the Indus heartland. They therefore maintained this region along the Afghanistan border as a buffer zone between Britain and Russia. Between 1849 and 1890, the British dispatched 42 military expeditions into the mountainous region, to subdue the rebelling Pashtun tribes. Unable to decisively defeat the Pashtun warriors, they adopted a policy that analysts would call “butcher and bolt”: they marched into an offending village, killed civilians, and fled before the tribal warriors could retaliate.

In 1901, the British integrated the region west of the Indus and east of the Durand line into the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). They adopted a policy of conciliation and control, backed by a massive military presence. The British built a number of forts and stationed troops in strategic points in the tribal areas. They allowed loyal tribes to trade in arms without restraint, and recruited them for military service. By 1915, the British had some 7,500 Pashtuns serving in the Indian Army.

The British strategy for dealing with the Pashtun’s local customs and power relations was based on three pillars: the tribal Maliks; political agents; and the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR). The Maliks served as local elite for the British: they ensured that British caravans could trade with Afghanistan through routes in the tribal areas, in return for benefits and subsidies. The political agent, meanwhile, was the senior bureaucrat who served as chief executive for different tribal agencies. He was the main contact for the tribal Maliks, and was bestowed the power of suspending or cancelling the Malik status when deemed necessary. The FCR was a set of criminal and civil laws that resolved intra-tribe conflicts according to tribal customs, or elements of Pashtun code (or Pashtunwali), such as the jirga. Over time, Maliks settled in the urban areas of Peshawar, Mardan, Kohat and Dera Ismail Khan, visiting their tribes occasionally and enjoying the benefits of their relationship with the British colonialists. This heightened the economic stratification of Pashtun society.

While the British vernacularized languages in other parts of India, they neglected the Pakhtun language and promoted Urdu instead, to force the Pashtuns to look to Punjab and India as part of a linguistic union.vi Pashtun leader Abdul Gaffar Khan, through his army of Khudai Khitmatgars, used the Pashto language as a symbol of Pakhtun identity.3 His political leanings brought him closer to Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian National Congress, and his success earned the wrath of the Muslim League and the British elite in the region. As the idea of partition grew and the creation of Pakistan became an eventuality, Gaffar Khan made a call for an independent Pashtunistan, although the concept was never clearly defined. After Partition, his leadership recognized the creation of Pakistan as a settled fact and espoused the reorganization of provincial boundaries under which all Pashtuns would be united in a single province called Pakhtunistan.

Meanwhile in the south, the region of Kalat (in present-day Balochistan) posed its own challenges for the British. Situated along the Iranian border with trade routes through Kandahar and southern Afghanistan, Balochistan’s strategic location has been of great importance to various nations, with Persian, Afghan, Sikh and British rulers making numerous attempts to gain control over it. While the different rulers of Kalat over the years attempted to bring the Baloch tribes under one political unit, weak institutions and political exploitation allowed the British to enter Balochistan.



About the Author

Kriti M. Shah is an Associate Fellow in the Department of Strategic Studies at the Observer Research Foundation. Her research primarily focusses on Afghanistan and Pakistan, where she studies their domestic politics as well as their relationship with each other, the Taliban, the United States and the larger South Asian neighborhood. Her other areas of interest include the role of technology in fighting terrorism in Kashmir and the ongoing Pashtun Tahafuz Movement and its dynamic and tumultuous relationship with the Pakistani state. Prior to joining ORF, she worked as reporter for NDTV. She is a graduate of McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

Courtesy: Observer Research Foundation