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

Submitted by on May 24, 2011 – 5:44 pm 14 Comments |  
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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  • Baloch

    @Martin Sardarwatch is a website run by Pakistani ISI stooges to defame Baloch liberation leaders. those people running this sardarwatch has been collaborating with Pakistani ISI and MI and are against the indepenedent Balochistan. Jumma Marri and Wahid Baloch behind this website and has no any role in Balochistan struggle for freedom. Jumma Marri’s father is sitting in the lap of ISI and selling Baloch wealth. so please take this picture out. this picture is of father of Baloch Nation who is a idealogy. Baloch sardarwatch is run by Pakistani stooges so before writting and refering sardarwatch you should first look at ground realities

    • Dr. Wahid Baloch

      I’m not behind this website called Sardarwatch. I strongly reject and condom’s Baloch’s baseless and false allegations. Before blaming some one Mr. Baloch needs to come up with some proof to back up his baseless claims.
      Dr. Wahid Baloch

  • Many thanks to to Mr. Baloch for the information. I will take out the image.

  • Mr Martin W Lewis, I have been regularly reading your articles about Balochistan but this time I am a bit disappoint to see someone well educated and well-informed like you to not only quote an unauthentic blog like, Baloch Sardarwatch but also put a very offensive cartoon of the man who has millions of followers in Balochistan.

    It is true that we Baloch do not blindly follow Sardars and when we follow them not because they Sardars but we follow them after observing their work of Baloch and Balochistan. The blog you quoted in your article is created by those Baloch who are working for Pakistani ISI and they are writing against only one Sardar and his family – where quite contrary to what the blog writes Nawab Marri and his family has been at the forefront of struggle for freedom of Balochistan. In this struggle they suffered enormously including being imprisoned, exiled, deprived of their land and even one the talented son of Nawab Khair Marri, Mir Balaach Marri, was killed by Pakistani forces.

    I request you to please avoiding this blog again because quoting this blog will hurt the sentiments of Baloch Nation and might damage your credibility.

    Aslam Baloch

  • @Martin W. Lewis: You wrote lots of article but unfortunately many anti-Baloch websites misguided you. I am thanks full to you that you understood our feelings and removed that Picture.

    These are some Baloch websites, who represent the cause: (freedom fighters website) (News from Occupied Balochistan) (Baloch Student Organization Azaad) (International Voice for Baloch Missing Person) (News from Occupied Balochistan)


  • @Martin W Lewis, Sir i have a great respect for your contribution writing on Balochistan issues.Sir what are your sources that Sardarwatch is running by the Middle class educated Baloch??? Secondly the contents of the website is purely against the single Sardar who is the real leader of the Baloch nation with millions of followers,He is the one who is leading the Balochistan’s independence movement, while the other greedy ”Sardars” who are colloborating with Pakistani state in genociding and plundering Balochistan resources are not mentioned in this blog(Sardar Watch).It is very clear that ISI/ Pakistani paid agents like Jumma,Wahid are behind this blog.Its an humble request to you please remove the refrence of the Sardarwatch.

    Ali Baluch

  • I will edit the post to reflect the concerns raised by Ali Baluch and Aslam Baloch — thanks for bringing these issues to my attention.

  • Thank you very much Martin.

  • Jim Wilson

    The British discomfort with Pashtun localism and support of larger Baloch units reminds me of current discussions of the Germanic kingdoms of the Middle Ages. Many scholars currently studying the late Roman limes see the cores of later ethnic identities–e.g. Franks, Visigoths, Lombards, etc.–as groups formed around leaders who were able to consolidate their power with Roman support, so that the Romans would have a more stable, less chaotic neighbor along their border.

    Incidentally, I have no idea whether I did that italicization right.

  • Jim Wilson

    No, I didn’t. I intended to italicize only the word limes.

  • Interesting comment from Jim Wilson. The Romans devoted much of their attention to the Rhine Frontier and to manipulating the politics of the Germanic tribes that lived beyond it. In the end, it was the tribes that had been most influenced by the Romans that finished off the Western portion of the empire.

  • Tariq Baluch

    Wester power act according to their long term interest, they really do not care what kind of ideology exist in a particular region a good example has been the middle east. The problem for the west in the region is china. It was british who crated Pakistan but it is the American dollar which keeps it alive. The reason America has been investing in Pakistan in the hope that will put a dent between Pakistan and China relationship. China has given Pakistan everything even the nuclear technology. The choice for America today is Baluchistan, Afghanistan or both. It is unto Baluch leadership to take advantage of the situation, we missed an opportunity in 90s, let’s hope this time the make the decision wisely.
    Remember the traditional Baluchi Sardari system is based up election, it is the tribe member who elect a Sardar to represent them for one year. It was the British who corrupted the system, it is the British who suggested Sardar must be given a minimum tax and the son will inherit the father’s throne. Naturally sardars and nawabs would do anything to maintain their status quo. The reality is the time of Sardar, Nawab and khan is over, they are a extinct breed. They only choice left for them is to disappear with honor or be disgraced. The honorable way is to be part of the liberation movement. In a modern state there is no room for khan, nawab and sardars. Leader such as nawab khair bux marri and Sardar attaullah mengal have made great sacrifice, but their inherited position is in the corrupt system, system which was corrupted by the British. We must go back to the baluch system if we are nationalists. Sardar and nawab who believ they are Marxist should really ask themselves a question, being a Nawb and Sardar is compatible with their socialist values?

  • Mr Lewis

    Very informative article. While it is good that you have been open to views from many dissenting voices about Balochistan (esp. independence seekers) it is important to mention that they do not give the whole picture on Balochistan.

    Sure, Sardar Watch is a questionable website, but so are Balochwarna etc. One propaganda against another. These separatist websites have a habit of exaggerating claims, present shoddy unverifiable evidence, and generally troll on twitter.

    No one really knows the full details of the crisis in Balochistan. Skepticism towards ‘radical’ and ‘state’ points of view is pertinent.

  • Amin Sumalani

    Nice information, to the world to see. But we must avoid blogs like Sardarwatch.