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TO understand Baloch nationalism, it is important to know Balochistan’s history and culture.

Baloch nationalism

Ancient empires at the time of Alexander the Great
Ancient empires at the time of Alexander the Great

A confederacy of 44 tribes was formed in the 12th century under Mir Jalal Khan. By the 15th century, a powerful and the largest Baloch confederacy existed under Mir Chakar Rind, stretching from Kirman in the west to the Indus in the east. Political unity dissipated after his death. In 1666, Mir Ahmad Khan was elected as Khan of Kalat, establishing the first Kalat confederacy, which included Kandahar, Bandar Abbas, Dera Ghazi Khan and Karachi. Under his grandson Mir Nasir Khan, a unified army and administrative system was raised. Kalat was divided in two units: Sarawan under Raisani and Jhalawan under the Zehri chiefs. Thus began Baloch rule through a council of Sardars. From 1805 until British intervention in 1939, Nasir Khan’s successors remained nominally independent.

Russia’s advance into Central Asia led to Britain’s involvement in Balochistan. Maharaja Ranjit Singh refused the invading army the northern route to Kabul via Peshawar and Khyber Pass, so the British signed a safe passage agreement in 1838 with the Khan of Kalat Mehrab Khan to use Bolan Pass. However, citing violations, the British attacked Kalat and killed Mehrab Khan. His son Mir Nasir Khan II was installed as head of the confederacy. The First Afghan War was a military disaster for the British. In 1875, they signed a treaty undertaking to respect Kalat’s independence, formally establishing the sardars’ rule and raising the tribal Levies for internal security.

Balochistan’s division followed as an adjunct to the design of keeping Russia away from India by parcelling large chunks of Baloch land. The Baloch suffered dearly under ‘The Great Game’. By drawing the Goldsmid Line in 1871, one-fourth of Balochistan was given to Persia, with further border adjustments in 1896 and 1905 under the Anglo-Persian Joint Boundary Commission. In 1894, a significant strip of land was handed to Afghanistan under the Durand Line agreement. It was only after accession to Pakistan that Jacobabad was transferred to Sindh and D.G. Khan to Punjab.

In 1927, Abdul Aziz Kurd and Master Pir Baksh started the newspaper Balochistan in Delhi. But if a date were to be given to the emergence of Baloch nationalism, it would be 1929, when Mir Muhammad Yusuf Ali Khan Magsi and Abdul Aziz Kurd set up Anjuman-i-Ittehad-i-Balochistan, marking the beginning of a secular, non-tribal nationalist movement. In November, Magsi published an article demanding: (i) unification and independence of Balochistan; (ii) a democratic, socialist system guided by Islamic universalism; (iii) abolition of the sardari system; (iv) free, compulsory education for the Baloch, and equality for Baloch women; (v) promotion of Baloch culture. This was nothing short of revolutionary compared to the sardars’ obscurantist tribal traditions.

The first successful nationalist movement was launched that year against army recruitment, which led to an armed mutiny. In 1930, the Quit Balochistan movement was launched. The Balochistan and All-India Baloch Conference was held in Jacobabad in 1932, and the next year in Hyderabad. In 1934, armed struggle was proposed to obtain Kalat’s sovereignty after the British left, but postponed. Magsi died in the 1935 Quetta earthquake. The Anjuman was renamed the Kalat State National Party in 1937. It agreed with the Khan of Kalat that, like Nepal, Kalat state should have direct treaty relations with London. It did not support the Muslim League, which stood for an independent homeland for Indian Muslims.

Understanding Balochistan’s languages is important to gauge their alienation. The British replaced Persian as the official language with Urdu and English, isolating Balochistan from Iranian Balochistan. Balochi has 10 vowels while there are six in Arabic script. In the 1970s, an influential group of writers led by Gul Khan Nasir, then education minister, tried to change it to Roman script. They cited the Turks’ example: does using Roman script affect their faith? In 1990, the provincial assembly passed the Balochistan Mother Tongue Use bill, making Balochi, Brahvi and Pashto compulsory mediums of primary-level instruction in their respective rural communities. In 1992, without consultation, the PML-N government discontinued its implementation through a cabinet decision.

Balochistan suffers from many missed opportunities and unfulfilled promises. In 1948, Mir Ahmed Yar Khan signed the instrument of accession with Pakistan, ending the 227-day-old independent Kalat state and 300-year-old confederacy. His brother Abdul Karim declared a revolt in Jhalawan. In 1955, Iskandar Mirza made Balochistan part of West Pakistan under One Unit, leading to the second insurgency led by Nawab Nauroz Zehri. Both Abdul Karim and Nauroz Khan were duped into surrendering on the promise of safe passage. Instead, they faced long prison sentences through military courts. Nauroz Khan’s son and companions were hanged.

The provocation for the third Baloch insurgency came when, following the 1962 elections in which several nationalists like Khair Baksh Marri and Ataullah Mengal were elected, Ayub Khan dismissed them and, like Musharraf later, threatened them with extinction if they opposed him. In 1973, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto promised provincial autonomy in return for Baloch support for a consensus constitution. He then dismissed Ataullah Mengal’s government, leading to the fourth insurgency. The current fifth insurgency began in 2005 following a rape allegation against an army officer by a female doctor in Sui. Nawab Akbar Bugti took up her cause, but his unfortunate death in a cave near Kohlu in 2006 caused further alienation.

Festering wounds need to be healed. The speaker of the National Assembly has done well to revive the parliamentary committee on Balochistan. The path of reconciliation as recommended by CT NAP in December 2014 must be pursued. These sentiments expressed by late Mir Ghous Baksh Bizenjo deserve attention: “You cannot create brotherhood by means of bayonets, butchery, death and destruction. You cannot create a united nation by force.”

The writer is former IG of Balochistan Police and author of The Faltering State and Inconvenient Truths.

Published in Dawn, July 20th, 2020


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