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.

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

The Iran-Pakistan Border Barrier

Google Earth Image of Iran-Pakistan Barrier

Google Earth Image of Iran-Pakistan BarrierOne of the world’s most heavily fortified borders stretches between Iran and Pakistan. The Iran-Pakistan Barrier, currently under construction by the Iranian government, features a three-foot thick (.91 meters), ten-foot high (3.05 meter) concrete wall extending across 700 kilometers of forbidding desert terrain. The actual wall, however, is merely one part of an elaborate system of barriers. Exploration via Google Earth reveals several parallel structures running along much of the border, which evidently consist of linked embankments and ditches. Fortress-like structures are also visible in several areas, as are extensive road and track networks. As the walls, berms, dry moats, and other fortifications are all built on the Iranian side of the border, Pakistan has voiced no objections to the project. Tracing the barrier on Google Earth, however, shows several places in which it seemingly crosses the divide between the two countries. Either Iran has encroached on Pakistani territory or—as is vastly more likely—Google Earth does not accurately depict the actual boundary between the two states.

The official purpose of the Iran-Pakistan Barrier is two-fold: to stop illegal border crossings and to reduce the flow of illegal drugs into Iran. The latter issue is certainly serious. According to a 2005 United Nations report, Iran has the world’s highest rate of opiate addiction by a substantial margin, with an estimated four million regular users in a population of roughly seventy-three million. Afghanistan is the ultimate source of narcotics entering Iran, but Afghan opium is often processed in, and exported from, Pakistan. As there is only one legal crossing between the two countries, at the small oasis town of Taftan, the Iranian government hopes to gain control over the flow of goods by hardening the frontier. But despite both the barricades and the elaborate Taftan portal, a large amount of contraband evidently gets through; the two-sentence Wikipedia article on Taftan claims that it is “famed by locals as the ‘road to London’ because it is a famous smuggling route.”*

Taftan Border Crossing between Iran and PakistanThe issue of illegal border-crossing by Pakistanis is more complicated. Iran is a much more prosperous and less densely populated country than Pakistan, circumstances that often result in a large flow of surreptitious immigrants. And indeed, the westward movement of undocumented migrants is substantial. It is also apparently increasing, despite the barrier. But most of the people illegally crossing the border evidently aim to pass through Iran on their way to Europe, a region with substantially higher wages and benefits. As recently reported in Pakistan’s Express Tribune:

Iranian border security forces have handed over 2,666 illegal immigrants to Pakistani officials during the past four months. More than a thousand of these however are Afghan nationals. These fresh figures point out the worsening situation with regards to human trafficking. Last year, Iranian forces handed over 8,732 illegal immigrants to Pakistani officials at the Taftan border, a township on the Pakistan-Iran border. “High-profile people are involved in this lucrative business. Agents backed by powerful elements make false claims about economic opportunities in Europe in order to attract the youth,” Balochistan Home Secretary Akbar Hussain Durrani said.

Map of Baloch People and the Iran-Pakistan Border
Map of Baloch People and the Iran-Pakistan Border

The illegal movement of drugs and people, however, does not seem to be the main reason for the construction of the extraordinarily expensive barrier by the cash-strapped Iranian state. More important is the desire to quell the Baloch rebellion. As can be seen on the map, the boundary between Iran and Pakistan also divides the land of the Baloch people, a distinct ethno-linguistic group some nine million strong. The bulk of the Baloch, a Sunni Muslim people, live in Pakistan, but as many as a million and a half reside in southeastern Iran, with another half million or so in southwestern Afghanistan. The Baloch in Pakistan have been engaged in a low-intensity insurgency for decades, while those of Iran have become increasingly restive in recent years. In 2003, Iranian Baloch militants formed a violent organization called Jundullah (“Soldiers of God”), dedicated to fighting on behalf of Sunni Muslims against the Shi’ite regime of Iran. Iran has long classified Jundullah as a terrorist group; in October 2010 the United States agreed, adding the organization to its official list of foreign terrorist organizations.

Considering the fact that the governments of both Iran and Pakistan are threatened by Baloch insurgents, it is hardly surprising that Pakistan has voiced no objections to the barrier. Prohibiting the free movement of militants may benefit both countries, but it also harms local civilians. In 2007, a prominent Baloch leader denounced the wall “as a blatant endeavor to divide the Baloch nation on either side of Pak-Iran border.” Local economic consequences could also be severe, as many Baloch are nomadic pastoralists, roving over large distances with flocks of sheep, goats, and other animals. The barricade prevents such movement along its extent, placing additional pressures on the hard-pressed people of the region.

The Baluchistan dispute is a complex, multi-sided issue that deserves more extensive consideration. Before delving further, however, it would be worthwhile to examine the most recent change in international borders. As we shall see in tomorrow’s post, Denmark has just announced that it will reestablish border controls, thus threatening the Schengen area of free travel among most European countries. As a result, the GeoCurrents map published just two days ago is already becoming obsolete.

* Pakistan, by the way, is concerned about drug-smuggling from Iran, but of a different kind: alcohol. On April 26, 2011, Pakistani agents seized 2,586 bottles of liquor and beer in “the Kumb area of Balochistan near the Pak-Iran Border.”

The Iran-Pakistan Border Barrier Read More »