Sunday, March 05, 2006

Baluchistan — The Struggle for Identity

Baluchistan is often described as a barren land where a rag-tag tribal population is fighting for its rights against the state of Pakistan, of which it is a part. This is a very simplistic and extremely inaccurate description of the long-running national struggle in that province. In 1998 the Government of Pakistan tested nuclear weapons in the Chagai district of Baluchistan. The educated middle-class, and most notably students in the cities and towns of the province, publicly protested against this misuse of their land. On the first anniversary of the Chagai tests, while India and Pakistan were fighting a war in the heights of Kargil, the protests were even better organized and cut across ethnic and party lines.

Just as India and Pakistan have fought such wars in the past the Baloch nationalists too have risen several times against the Pakistanis in the last half-century. In 1973, while India was still celebrating its victory over Pakistan two years earlier and while the new nation of Bangladesh was struggling to stand on its feet, the Pakistan Army was fighting another all-out war against the people of Baluchistan. The war lasted four years and the Pakistan Army used massive and indiscriminate firepower to crush the Baloch nationalists. The leaders of this revolt, young and old, were tortured in jail or hanged outright—entire tribes were driven out of their homes and deprived of their livelihood.

But their forefathers had also seen such dark days. In 1948, while a ceasefire between the Indian and Pakistani armies was being implemented in the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, units of the Pakistan Army invaded and forcibly annexed the former princely state of Kalat in Baluchistan. It was defiantly declared on the floor of the Kalat assembly that, "we have a distinct civilization and a separate culture like that of Iran and Afghanistan. We are Muslims but it is not necessary that by virtue of being Muslims we should loose our freedom and merge with others. If the mere fact that we are Muslims requires us to join Pakistan, then Afghanistan and Iran, both Muslim countries, should also amalgamate with Pakistan."[1]

The righteous indignation of these people stemmed from the little-known history and unique geography of Baluchistan[2].

The Land and the People
Fight against those who fight against you in the way of Allah,
but do not transgress, for Allah does not love transgressors
(the Holy Quran)

Millions of years ago as the Indian geological plate shifted north-east into the Asian plate the Himalayan mountain range was formed—in the west this friction separated the Indian plains from the mountain-ringed plateau of West Asia. The mountain ranges that separate the south-eastern portion of this dry plateau from the hot plains of the Indus River System are the Kirthar and the Suleiman. The low hills of the Kirthar rise up from the Arabian Sea coast and mark the border of the Pakistani province of Sindh from Baluchistan while further east the Suleiman range stands like a wall against Pakistani Punjab and the Pashtun tribal areas.

Unfortunately these same mountains keep the plateau dry and desolate. The life-giving monsoon showers that drench the Indian continent for three months lose much of their moisture by the time they hit these mountain ranges. Moreover the summer sun is so strong and the wind so dry that only the hardiest plants can survive sheltered near rocks. Such a land can only sustain a limited population—but people in fact are Baluchistan’s greatest assets.

The human population of Baluchistan seems to have evolved from cave-dwelling Stone Age man in the mountain valleys and from fishing communities along the rocky coastline—important segments of that populace came from migrations over the centuries. However Baluchistan’s oldest living link to the ancient past is not some ethnic group but a language—the Brahui language spoken around the highlands of Kalat in the heart of the province. Alternately spelt Brahvi or Brohi this language has some similarities to the Dravidian languages of Central and Southern India but the people who speak it today do not have the Dravidian physiognomy. While retaining their linguistic identity the Brahui tribes today are indistinguishable from their Baloch neighbours.

The Balochi language is a major branch of the Indo-Iranian linguistic group and its speakers seemed to have drifted from northern Iran under pressure from the Islamic Arab and Turk invaders. Alternatively known as Baluch or Balouch the new arrivals were warlike and brave and they carved out their homes in the harsh and inhospitable terrain. This movement did not disturb the small pockets of the older inhabitants but completely altered their customs, language, and way of life—the various geographic sub-regions were now united under the new name of Baluchistan or land of the Baluch.

The Pashtuns inhabit a solid block of land north and east of the provincial capital Quetta and have close relations with their ethnic brethren in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s north-west frontier. In the late 19th Century Quetta became part of the British Indian Empire and was turned into a large army cantonment—later becoming the capital of British Baluchistan. The British marked out the boundaries of the province and brought the nearby Pashtun tribes under the Quetta administration. Unlike the other linguistic groups the Pashtuns, alternatively called Pakhtuns or Pathans, have not had the time to mingle with the other peoples of Baluchistan and they thus form a distinct identity of their own.

Migrations to Baluchistan are not from one direction only. Communities from the east move into the Makran coastal region or north into the foothills of the Kirthar and Suleiman Ranges. The most prominent of these are the Jamoot, a Jat-Baloch community of Sindh, and Hindu fishermen from that same province. Similarly the Baloch have migrated to both Punjab and Sindh in search of jobs and livelihood—it is said that the Baloch population outside Baluchistan is more numerous than that inside the province. The Jamoot and the Hindu fishermen are also integrated into the society of Baluchistan but what is most striking is the complete intermingling between the Baloch and the Brahui. Their relations are said to be that of the fingernail to the finger—one is incomplete without the other.

[1] Cited in “Balochistan: How it all began” By Sabihuddin Ghausi. The Dawn, Jan 30, 2005
[2] Author’s note: A variety of spellings are used for the name of the people and for their province. In this blog Baloch will indicate the people and Baluchistan the province.

Baluchistan ancient sites
from Map showing the ancient settlements in Baluchistan. The Kirthar Range separates Sindh from Baluchistan and rises to meet the Brahui Range. The outcrops of the Suleiman Range can be seen in the upper right corner.