Political History

The Baloch and Pashtun nationalist movements in Pakistan – V

The Colonial legacy and the failure of state policy

While Pashtuns and Baloch have had a similar history and experience with regards to atrocities committed against them by the state, their movements have taken different paths.

Pakistan’s ethno nationalists have all demanded greater political, economic and cultural autonomy for their group and region.

By Kriti M. Shah

Pashtun and Baloch Paths to Mobilization

The Pashtun and Baloch nationalist movements have evolved, and continue to do so, influenced both by the domestic environment and the role of external political actors in the region. While there is economic activity in Balochistan—development projects are being undertaken and investments are pouring in— the people do not receive the direct benefits of such developments. There has also been no political reform and the Balochs continue to lack representation in the decision-making mechanisms. The leaders are widely viewed as being disengaged, unreliable and malleable, forcing the burgeoning middle class to assert themselves free from the clutches of the sardari system. This middle class, driven by the legacy of past generations, finds itself part of the Baloch nationalist movement amidst the industrialization and urbanization being facilitated by CPEC. They are demanding their rights and claiming their stakes on the economic development of their province.

In the case of the Pashtuns, the PTM has become an unprecedented national movement. The leaders of PTM initially mobilized action on the historical problems of underdevelopment, neglect and discrimination. As the Pakistan military sought to bring down the PTM, there have been numerous reports of human rights violations being committed against the Pashtuns. Indeed, following the Soviet jihad and especially as a result of policies set down by the US and Pakistan after 9/11, the Pashtuns have found themselves associated with the Taliban, terrorism and militancy. For those who do have ideological sympathy for the Talban it is because of aspects of Pashtunwali (that dictates hospitality and safety for guests, that may be in this case, militants from Afghanistan who had fled into the tribal areas) and as a consequence of US operations and Pakistan military campaigns in the region. The movement, therefore, represents the Pashtuns’ fight for their constitutional rights. The fact that the PTM is non-violent is in stark contrast to the number of Baloch rebellions which have advocated violence against state instruments.

While Pashtuns and Baloch have had a similar history and experience with regards to atrocities committed against them by the state, their movements have taken different paths. This section seeks to understand the different underlying themes of nationalism, religion and political and economic representation that must inform any analysis of the two movements.

Islamism vs nationalism

From Ayub Khan to Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s army elite has tried to forcefully promote a united country, favoring military action over political solutions to squash any separatist tendencies. Such a policy has only reinforced these sentiments. Former President Zia-ul-Haq was once quoted as saying he would “ideally like to break up the existing provinces and replace them with fifty-three small provinces, erasing ethnic identities from the map of Pakistan all together”.

As Urdu was linked to the ideology of Muslim separatism and was projected as a major symbol for national integration, it made language an identity symbol for ethno-nationalists. Ethnic groups in East Pakistan, Sindh, Balochistan and NWFP have reacted by consolidating their identity, of which language is a defining aspect.

The Bengali and Sindhi language movements have been violent. The ethnic tensions between the Urdu-speaking Mohajir and Sindhi speakers—manifesting in language riots and the splitting of Sindh’s provincial quota into Urban and Rural in 1972-73—planted the seeds for the creation of the political party, Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) in the 1980s. While groups have asserted their ethnic identity in the form of language, the Pashtun have been different. The Pashto language movement has decreased in intensity because the Pashtuns have integrated themselves in the mainstream to a certain degree, joining the army and bureaucracy in fairly large numbers.

The division of Pakistan and creation of Bangladesh in 1971 shattered the myth that being Muslim was enough to unite the nation. Despite that, leaders such as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the 1970s, and Zia in the 1980s continued the policy of sectarianism and “divide and rule”. Rather than creating a national consciousness, however, the aggressive promotion of the Urdu language and Muslim identity became one of the major causes of the “Talibanisation” of the western border; it would drive the security establishment’s obsession with being anti-India. The Pakistan state’s quest for homogeneity created further faultlines within society and contributed to the emergence of radical Islamic groups across the country.

Pakistan’s ethno nationalists have all demanded greater political, economic and cultural autonomy for their group and region. Pashtun nationalists have tried to unite people on a more inclusive basis than tribalism. The call to create an independent Pashtun homeland (Pashtunistan) for all Pashtuns irrespective of tribal affiliations/ groupings and including Pashtuns from both sides of the Durand Line, had been a persistent feature of their politics, although it had since declined. While parties such as the ANP, which represents Pashtun interests, and the Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party or PMAP (which represents Pashtuns in Balochistan) have amassed support, their ability to form government has been controlled by other groups such as JUI (Islamic party) and other national parties. This is similar to 1947 when the Muslim League or the idea of a nation based on Islam, overwhelmed Gaffar Khan’s movement to create a Pashtun country.

During the Afghan jihad, with the proliferation of madrassas, Islamists wanted to change the local Pashtun population’s tribal affiliation into religious affiliations, as Islam was the ‘tool’ used to fight the Soviets. Militants targeted tribal Maliks, resulting in the collapse of the traditional tribal system. By eliminating the most powerful tribal leaders, the mullahs filled the political vacuum by providing religious motivation to the militants.

The British policy towards the Pashtun rested on identifying and ranking tribes in relation to one another, to determine which group was most strategically important over which region, and which sub-tribes relied on them, allocating allowances and subsidies on this basis. Years later, Pakistan identified Pashtuns and tribes based on whether or not they could forge a resistance to the Soviet invasion. By investing in the “idea of the tribe”, the military designed policies where Pashtun were motivated by religion and directed by tribal, cultural and religious principles. Although FATA was severely underdeveloped even before the rise of militancy, the decades of government neglect, archaic FCR laws and lack of investment in the region allowed a black economy and violence to flourish. As a result, military campaigns in the region after 2001 left residents more vulnerable to militant recruitment. While the government could have won over people’s hearts and minds and curbed extremism through institutional, political and economic changes to governance, it chose instead to empower those that would do its bidding and further alienate majority of the population. Therefore, while jihad initially helped suppress the Pashtun sentiments in the larger cause of jihad, it did not eliminate them. The PTM is a prime example of how ethnic nationalism in Pakistan continues to evolve today. The destruction of the tribal structures as a result of religious indoctrination and military campaigns has caused Pashtuns to seek a reversal of their fortunes and return to a time where their lives were governed by their tribal customs.

In Balochistan, the Pakistan government continues through the Ministry of Religious Affairs to set up madrassas to penetrate deeper into the Baloch areas that are opposed to the mullah. By harnessing the growing power of the clergy, they have manipulated elections, enabling religious parties such as Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI) to form the government. The rationale behind this policy is two-fold: the state assumes that this is the best way to entrench Islamic thought into society, ingrain it among the Baloch so as to subdue their nationalist and separatist aspirations; the second is to propagate a disinformation campaign that equates Baloch resistance with Islamic terrorism. Pakistan intelligence services have linked nationalist militarism in the state to the terrorism of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, while ironically Baloch insurgents taking refuge in Afghanistan, sided with communist forces.

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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 focuses 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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