Political History

The Baloch and Pashtun nationalist movements in Pakistan – II

The Colonial legacy and the failure of state policy

The British policy towards the Pashtun and the Baloch set the foundation for Pakistan’s state policy towards the two ethnic groups.

By Kriti M. Shah

Baloch tribes developed a sardar system in the early 15th century. The sardar would pledge loyalty to the Baloch Khan of Kalat and promise to defend the Khan’s kingdom against any outside attack. The position of the sardar was a crucial feature of membership in a Baloch tribe, and the ordinary Baloch were resigned to the leadership of the sardar. He was seen as a central and unifying presence, with the power to settle disputes between tribe members. The British would use this system to their advantage and force the Khannate to become a loose federation; over time, it became a ghost of its former self.

The British appointed and bribed leaders amongst the Pashtuns as well. However, the concept of a sardar is absent from Pashtun society, where the main decision-making body is the institution of the jirga. The jirga allows all adult male members of the tribe to collectively make decisions and prevents the concentration of power in a single individual. In such a system, the tribal leaders are accorded their power from within the tribe and not from their relation to the British. It was the opposite case in Balochistan, where support from the British allowed sardars to develop authority within their tribe. This helps to understand how the western frontier would evolve with its integration into Pakistan, and how the Pakistani state would dictate the frontier’s future.

The Khan of Kalat entered into an agreement with the British in 1839 which allowed them to trade and have military movements through Quetta, Bolan and Khojak passes, in return for a INR 50,000 subsidy. Over time, British involvement increased through further treaties, alliances with influential sardars, and military incursions. Within the next few years, the British annexed Sindh (1843) and Punjab (1849), extending their political footprint. The Khan of Kalat was left with no allies.

In 1877, Robert Sandeman was appointed as chief commissioner for the agency of Balochistan. He negotiated a treaty between the colonial government and the Khan of Kalat and his sardars, which allowed the British to consult and construct in the region as well as appoint a British agent to reside in the court of Kalat and settle disputes between the Khan and his sardars. The agreement reaffirmed the status of the Khan as a leader of an independent, albeit subordinate allied state. This helped the British thwart any resistance that grew amongst the local population against the Khan, who was now essentially an ‘agent’ or had at least accepted the growing clout of the British in their homeland. It was under this system that the role of sardars became part of a hierarchical British institution in the state. As the British gave sardars salaries, the fear of being denied money (which they knew would increase their influence within the tribe) forced sardars to follow British orders. In 1883, the British leased Quetta, Marri-Bugti, the Bolan Pass under the name of “British Balochistan”. Except for the Marri-Bugti area, the rest of the British Balochistan region was Pashtun-dominated.

The colonial administration faced a number of social and administrative challenges as a result of their intrusion, despite treaties designed to “keep peace” with the Khan. While they continued to expand with the building of military cantonments, post offices and setting up telegraph and railway lines, the Baloch tribes put up resistance. In the years leading up to the departure of the British and the partition of India, small-scale attacks were conducted by the Baloch tribes, punctuated by a series of uprisings. In 1897, Pashtun warriors attacked British forces across the frontier. Nonetheless, the British laid the foundation for the Balochistan agency, leaving Kalat (which was predominantly Baloch) free of colonial pressure.

On 12 August 1947, two days before the creation of Pakistan, Kalat declared its independence. After the creation of Pakistan, Kalat offered special relations in areas of defence and foreign affairs. Pakistan refused and demanded its integration into the new state. In March 1948, Pakistan annexed the entire region. A speech by Mir Ghous Bakhsh Bizenjo, a Baloch nationalist in 1947, summed up how the Baloch felt about joining Pakistan: “Pakistani officials are pressuring to join Pakistan, because Balochistan would not be able to sustain itself economically… we have minerals, we have petroleum and ports. The question is where would Pakistan be without us?”

The British policy towards the Pashtun and the Baloch set the foundation for Pakistan’s state policy towards the two ethnic groups. While the Pashtuns were stereotyped as warriors and fighters, they were integrated into the army and allowed to govern themselves under FCR and certain aspects of the Pashtun tribal code. The Baloch were manipulated by coopting their leaders to support the British. Such a policy would continue as the state of Pakistan came into being.

The Role of State Policy

The partition of India in 1947 led to the creation of an ethnically and linguistically diverse Pakistan. While East Pakistan was more culturally and linguistically homogenous, West Pakistan was less so, with five major languages, various dialects, religions, castes and tribal identities. Many groups in Pakistan have similar cultural affiliations with groups outside the borders. The Pashtuns, for example, are also found in eastern Afghanistan, while the Baloch, in southern Afghanistan and Iran.

The state ideology was based on three founding principles: Islam would be the unifying force; Urdu would be the language of the people; and the military would be strengthened to counter “Hindu India”. Instead of establishing institutions that would accord equal rights to the various ethno-linguistic groups, the state projected Islam as their common denominator. The policy exacerbated ethnic divisions in the innately diverse nation; the assertion of any ethno-linguistic identity in the context of seeking political rights was seen as divisive.

Each of these ethnic groups has had a unique path to mobilization. Yet, across all of them, the drivers of ethnic conflict are largely the same: the lack of provincial autonomy; economic exploitation; and political and military oppression.

Lack of Provincial Autonomy

In the first few decades of Pakistan’s existence as a sovereign territory, the politics of the nation was defined by the government’s ‘One Unit’ plan. The scheme involved the integration of Punjab, Sindh, NWFP, and Balochistan into a single province of West Pakistan. The aim was to neutralise the Bengali majority in East Pakistan. It was strongly opposed by the people of NWFP, Balochistan and Sindh. By then, the Pashtuns had been coopted by the Pakistani leadership and were either part of mainstream politics or serving in the military and becoming the second largest ethnic group within the army. The One Unit plan thwarted any sort of autonomy for the different ethnic groups. In NWFP, Gaffar Khan led the movement against One Unit, undertaking tours across the tribal region to address rallies and raise ethno-nationalist consciousness against the plan. The Pakistani state naturally saw the Pashtun nationalist leaders as projecting their Pashtun identity above their Islamic identity.

Following Kalat’s annexation in 1948, the Pakistani government announced that it would be treated in the same manner as it was during the British era. This meant the appointment of a political agent, entrusted with the powers to look after the state administration and guide the government on the internal matters of the state. The Baloch strongly resisted Pakistan assertion, seeing them as no different from the British. The government responded by banning political parties in Kalat and arresting the Baloch leadership. Over the years, the government in Islamabad has repeatedly tried to assimilate Baloch identity into the larger Pakistan identity. Since 1947, the state has engaged the Baloch in violent confrontations on five occasions (1948, 1958, 1962, 1973-77 and 2001 onwards).

The One Unit scheme sparked a violent uprising in Balochistan as the policy decreased Baloch representation at the federal level and forestalled the establishment of a provincial assembly, which had yet to be approved by the central government nearly a decade after Partition. The Khan of Kalat mobilized tribal leaders against the scheme which they saw as the federal government’s way of centralizing power and limiting provincial autonomy. The government arrested the Baloch leaders and crushed the revolt. The province continued to be treated like a colony and the central government exploited the resources.

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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

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