Baloch culture

Stereotypes and Social Hierarchy in Western Pakistan: From British Rule to the Current Insurrection

Map of British Strategies for Ruling Pakistan

Map of British Strategies for Ruling PakistanWestern supporters of the Balochistan insurgency often emphasize the region’s religious moderation, arguing that an independent Baloch state would buffer Islamic extremism. Such views are of long standing; British empire-builders similarly contrasted the religious laxity of the Baloch with the stridency of their Pashtun neighbors. But religiosity varies at the individual as well as the ethnic-group level, and it often changes over time. As is true everywhere in the Muslim world, more stringent understandings of the faith have been spreading. As Paul Titus argued in 1998:*

“Baloch do not equate being Muslim with strict observance of the practices and rituals prescribed by the Shari’a. It should also be noted, however, that orthodox Islam has been promoted by some … and is a growing force in some Baloch areas.”

The thrust of Titus’s paper is the enduring significance of ethnic stereotypes in western Pakistan. Recent scholarship, he maintains, has condemned British officials and colonial ethnographers for resorting to crude cultural formulas, “essentializing” the distinctions among ethnic groups in order to bolster imperial power. Titus finds these critiques as simplistic as the stereotypes themselves. As he shows, ethnic typecasting in the region long predated the British arrival and continues to inform local relations. Coming to terms with ethnic stereotypes is necessary for understanding the region’s social and historical dynamics.

Titus begins by quoting an adage of British colonial authorities in what is now Pakistan: “rule the Punjabis, intimidate the Sindhis, buy the Pashtun, and honor the Baloch.” He goes on to examine how the stereotypes surrounding the latter two groups influenced British strategies for imposing and maintaining power.

In the conventional view, the Pashtun are individualistic, hyper-competitive, intensely patriarchal, and insistently entrepreneurial. Aggressive individualism generates an anarchic political environment, which in turn empowers religious leaders, the only individuals capable of interceding among feuding factions.** As a result, Pashtun society has turned devotedly to Islam. Weak governance among the Pashtun is also linked to an exacting code of behavior, Pashtunwali. Its informing concept of “honor” (namuz) revolves around an individual man’s ability to maintain his autonomy and to protect himself and his relations, through violence if necessary. Vengeance must be exacted—in time—against anyone who has severely trespassed against a man or his relations. Among the Pashtun, a man who cannot hold his own can be so dishonored as to be disowned by the ethnic group; in some areas, mere landlessness can deprive a man of Pashtun standing.

Baloch culture also emphasizes honor, but of a different kind from that of the Pashtun. For the Baloch, honor rests on loyalty and honesty. Dishonor does not derive from occupying a subservient social position, provided that one follows the expected modes of behavior. Such individual-group dynamics influence inter-ethnic relations. As the Norwegian anthropologist Fredrik Barth famously showed, marginalized Pashtun individuals—and even entire clans—living along the ethnic border could, and often did, “become Baloch,” readily slotted into the lower rungs of the social hierarchy. (In contrast, non-natives could almost never “become Pashtun.”) Baloch society, moreover, is conventionally viewed as hierarchical and anti-individualistic, focusing on clan and tribal solidarity. Baloch politics have historically been lineage-based, with subclans grouping together to form clans, which in turn form larger tribes, tribal confederations, and so on. Such segmentary systems are widely distributed, even among the Pashtun, but the Baloch are noted for the power that they invest in tribal leaders, the sardars.

Colonial administrators found it much easier to deal with the ranked Baloch than with the chaotic Pashtun. In the late 1800s, Britain instituted a “forward policy,” designed to bring tribal areas beyond the frontier under imperial hegemony. Such plans were frustrated in the Pashtun north, where raids on the lowlands and rebellions in the uplands bedeviled imperial power through the mid 20th century. Colonial agents responded with periodic punitive raids (“butcher and bolt”), but they more consistently resorted to bribery, paying local notables to maintain order and keep the roads open. Attempting to “buy” support, however, did not bring stability, for the Pashtun people as a whole never accepted British domination. In Balochistan, on the other hand, strong tribal hierarchies allowed more effective imperial supremacy. British agents learned how to operate in the local cultural idiom; by “honoring” Baloch leaders—after convincing them of the futility of resistance—they could generally ensure their loyalty as well as that of their subordinates. To be sure, recent scholarship shows that British Balochistan was not as harmonious as it was made out to be; tribal rebellions did occur, and were put down with force. British agents, moreover, manipulated as well as honored Baloch leaders (sardars), taking advantage of the divisions between the confederacies as well as the rifts that periodically emerged within tribal hierarchies. But overall, British policy worked much better in Balochistan than in the Pashtun areas to the north.

Map of Political Divisions in British BalochistanUnder the Raj, Balochistan was split into five administrative divisions. Four were indigenously run “princely states,” subordinate to Britain. The largest and most powerful was the Khanate of Kalat, which held the smaller princely state of Kharan as a vassal territory. Between 1876 and 1891, British colonial agents wrested away the northern portions of Kalat (including the vital Bolan Pass), which were reorganized as the Chief Commissioner’s Province of Baluchistan, nominally under direct British power. Even here, however, rule was indirect in most places, accomplished through the manipulation of the tribal order. As can be seen in the map, much of the Chief Commissioner’s Province was Pashtun rather than Baloch, and hence less amenable to the creation of subordinate states than areas further to the south.

Image of Bolan PassThe hierarchical nature of traditional Baloch society has important implications for the current insurgency. On the one had, opposition to the government of Pakistan has been readily mobilized; whenever tribal leaders have lent their support, loyal followers have been plentiful. Partly as a result, the push for an independent Balochistan has been more insistent than that for an independent Pashtunistan.

But on the other hand, fears have been expressed that tribal leaders could be tempted to come to terms with the Pakistani government, just as their ancestors had done with the British. An entire English-language website, “Baloch Sardar Watch,” is devoted to this viewpoint. But as can be seen in the comments to this post (below), many Baloch activists think that “Sardar Watch” is a creation of the Pakistani  intelligence service, designed to undermine the movement from within. I would advise readers to pay particular attention to the comments section of this post, and I would like to thank the commentators for taking the time provide such critiques and information. GeoCurrents is devoted to the exploration of contemporary geopolitical issues, not to putting forward any particular viewpoints. I am therefore always happy to receive informed criticism.

* “Honor the Baloch, Buy the Pashtoon, Stereotype, Social Organization and History in Western Pakistan,” Modern Asian Studies 32 (3).

**Although unmentioned by Titus, forms of piety have changed among the Pashtun. In earlier generations, cannabis-using Sufi mendicants complemented fiercely moralistic mullahs. That is no longer the case.

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Support for the Baloch Insurgency: Right-wing or Left-wing?

Ralph Peters Alternative Map of the Middle East

Ralph Peters Alternative Map of the Middle EastA recent (May 14) discussion thread in GeoCurrents takes on the one-dimensional left/right political spectrum. Jim Wilson perceptively notes that he “always like[s] watching political commentators trying to decide whether those who want to roll back the reforms of Deng Xiaoping are the right wing or the left wing of the Chinese Communist Party.” Another instance in which it can be difficult to distinguish left from right is the debate over the role of the United States in the Balochistan conflict. Several recent articles exemplify the difficulties involved.

The first case in point is a recent article by Tony Cartalucci, entitled “US Government is Behind the Baluchi Insurrection.” Cartalucci blames the United States, along with oil companies, international financial firms, and “corporate-financier funded NGOs,” for inciting violence in Baluchistan. The nefarious goals of such intervention, Cartalucci argues, are to partition Pakistan, to “hobble the development” of India, Iran, and China, to weaken Asia more generally, and thereby to secure the US-led “international system.” His conclusion is extreme:

For those wondering why America is attempting to escalate tensions in Pakistan over the “Bin Laden” hoax instead of using it as an excuse to leave the region, the Balkanization of Pakistan and the permanent disruption of Pakistan’s, Iran’s, and China’s development is your answer. It isn’t a matter of if, it is now only a matter of how big the insurrection can be grown.

On the face of it, Cartalucci’s article might seem to be on the far left of the political spectrum. The periodical in which it is published, Salem-News, carries article with such provocative titles as “Military Rape: (SOP) Standard Operating Proceedure.” On further examination, however, the situation is not so simple. Cartalucci, it turns out, traffics with the far right, working with Liberty News Radio, which features the infamous White-supremacist show, The Political Cesspool. Just below a recent Cartalucci piece on the LNR website is an article claiming that “Martin Bormann, the man who signed Hitler’s paycheck was a Soviet i.e. Illuminati agent.” Perhaps, in the end, Cartalucci is simply an extremist; as the French saying puts it, “les extremes se touchent” (“the extremes meet”).

A seemingly more conventional left-wing take on Balochistan is found in a recent Michael Hughes essay in the Huffington Post. Hughes comes down on the United States almost as hard as Cartalucci does, finding it complicit in the slaughter of 10,000 Pakistanis. His premises, however, are effectively the opposite of Cartalucci’s. In his perspective, the US has unconscionably sided with the vile Pakistani government against the “brave and noble” freedom fighters of Baluchistan. As Hughes puts it:

The Pakistani state has misused billions in U.S. military aid (belied by its harboring of the world’s most wanted terrorist) and has used U.S. military hardware—including F-16s, Cobra helicopters and CIA listening devices—to oppress the Baloch people on a daily basis, an oppression that features emotionally torturous tactics such as what the Baloch refer to by the literal euphemism “kill and dump” along with enforced disappearances at a clip that rivals Pinochet’s Chile…

Yet Michael Hughes presents his own admixture of left and right; he not only advocates the independence of Baluchistan, but calls openly for the “Balkanization” of Pakistan. He would like to see Sindh and Punjab become independent countries and the Pashtun areas of Pakistan appended to Afghanistan. Proposing such a division of a sovereign state is by no means common on the left. Most advocates of Pakistani partition are conservative, and most leftists would probably regard the idea as a “divide and rule” neo-imperial ploy.

Hughes begins his article with a nod toward seasoned journalist/scholar/ statesman Selig Harrison, who has been writing on Balochistan since the 1970s. Harrison is not easy to peg, either. Most of his positions, such as favoring normalization with North Korea, would be considered left-of-center. He does seek to enhance U.S. security, however, and one of his recent articles on Balochistan appears in a conservative journal, The National Interest. Yet even here his arguments begin on the left. In regard to Pakistan, he wants to end drone attacks and military subsidies while maintaining development support and the flow of IMF funds. Harrison would also like to increase market access in the US for Pakistani exporters. But in the end, Harrison too calls for the division of the country. His reasoning here hinges on US national security:

Most important, [the United States] should aid the 6 million Baluch insurgents fighting for independence from Pakistan in the face of growing ISI repression. Pakistan has given China a base at Gwadar in the heart of Baluch territory. So an independent Baluchistan would serve U.S. strategic interests in addition to the immediate goal of countering Islamist forces.

Such a position is difficult to square with Harrison’s other recommendations, which focus on calming the relationship between the Washington and Islamabad. From the Pakistani perspective, drone strikes are minor irritants compared to the possible secession of Baluchistan.

By advocating the break-up of Pakistan, Harrison and especially Hughes move into the territory of the right-wing strategist Ralph Peters, whose 2006 article “Blood Borders: How a Better Middle East Would Look” contemplates the wholesale rearrangement of the region’s geopolitical order. (I have reproduced Peters’ map here, adding the outline of Pakistan; see the previous GeoCurrents post for a longer discussion.) The publication of “Blood Borders” provoked outrage from Pakistan to Turkey, as many local commentators assumed that it represented a secret US plan for dismembering their countries to enhance American and Israeli power.

Regardless of Harrison and Hughes’ ideological proclivities and political bedfellows, their portrayal of the Baloch insurgency should be taken on its own terms. Both authors find the rebellion essentially secular, arguing that its success would help counter radical Islamism. Such a depiction may fit the Pakistani side of the border, but not the Iranian side. And even in Pakistan, some skepticism is warranted. Hughes views the Baloch people uncritically, claiming that they form “a society that believes in a traditional nonviolent version of Islam” and that “respect[s] the natural rights of each individual.” Such an appraisal may be a tad naïve. Baloch culture is usually described as deeply hierarchical, highly conservative, and suspicious of individual rights, especially where women are concerned. So-called honor killings are relatively common. In a particularly infamous 2008 case, five Baloch women—including three teenagers—were tortured and then buried alive for the “crime” of attempting to marry men of their own choosing.

Map of a Partitioned PakistanThe desire to dissect Pakistan, by the way, is not limited to Baluchi insurgents and American political writers. The view is probably most widespread in India. The most extreme partition scheme is the one seen on this map, which also divides Afghanistan. I have not traced the map’s provenance, but I can only assume that it is Indian. Note that the author’s rump Pakistan would not even include south Punjab.

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