A new book on Sardars of Baluchistan

Dawn, April
EXCERPTS: The sardars of Balochistan
By Taj Mohammad Breseeg

James Bill wrote that in the Middle East "the politics of development and modernization is profoundly influenced by the patterns and process that mark group and class relationships". Even in the late 19th century when modernization and urbanization had reduced the importance of tribes and tribal organizations, the influence of tribal patterns was not destroyed. The existing tribal patterns and processes continued to influence development and modernization in the rural areas in the Middle East. The same has been the case with Balochistan where the informal, paternalistic patterns of control through family networks (the tribes) have continued to have relevance - particularly since tribal support or lack of it has been crucial to the success or failure of nationalist movements.

Dr Nek Buzdar, a specialist in international economic development, is of the view that the Baloch society, by and large, adheres to a traditional way of life. He believes that despite the emergence of political parties in Balochistan, tribal organization and political leadership still play a dominant role in the local and provincial administration. The tribes in Balochistan are divided into the shahri (sedentary) and the nomadic. The shahris have been the backbone of the feudal order predominant in central and southern Balochistan (Makran), while the nomads have been the cornerstones of the tribal order in the northern tribal areas.

Both groups, however, were bound together by a set of historically evolved relationships based on economic, social, political, military and lingual interactions. Possibly, this separation of the tribes between the nomad (warrior nobility) and the sedentary shahris (peasants) had led many to conclude that the sedentary population may have been the original inhabitants of the land who were conquered by nomads who arrived later.

The Baloch tribal system is segmentary. Describing this system, Salzman wrote, "By the 'segmentary system' we mean a set of equal lineages allied relatively and contingently for political action, decisions being made by assemblies and councils, with no offices and hierarchy of authority, and thus no top."

Thus a centralized authority is absent in such a system. The tribes are constituted from a number of kindred groups. There are many sub-divisions or clans who claim to have blood relations with one another through common ancestors. Kinship, which has its characteristic form in clan and family structure, provides the basic ordering mechanism for society. Thus it is a major factor in regulating and systemizing individual behaviour, which in turn influences the formation and sustenance of the socio-political organization of the entire tribe.

While the colonial government exercised control over the Baloch tribes, the British themselves were light on the ground, and in return for the chieftains' loyalty gave them a free hand to keep the tribal way of life largely unchanged. But the position began to change in the last decades of the Raj. The creation of Pakistan and the annexation of the western part of Balochistan by Iran changed the situation. Furthermore, the growth of education, market forces and electoral politics drew the Baloch into regional and national networks both in Iran and in Pakistan. However, the tribal power structure is still very important in Baloch rural society. Selig Harrison counted 17 major tribal groupings in Balochistan in 1981. Each of them was headed by a sardar (chieftain), selected usually from the male lineage of the ruling clan in each tribe. Harrison mentions some 400 tribal sub-groupings headed by lesser sardars.

Probably the most widely known and generally loathed features of Baloch society are the sardari and the jirga institutions of tribal organization and leadership. Under the traditional administrative set-up of Baloch tribes, every tribe had its separate jirga (council of elders), which acted as a court of law. Then this system presented itself at all the administrative tiers of the tribe. The jirga at the tribe's level operated under the leadership of the sardar.

All other personalities of the tribe's administration like muqaddam, wadera and motaber were its members. Besides, at all the administrative tiers of the tribe, the jirga functioned above the tribal head. The jirga dealt with important matters concerning the tribes and disputes arising among them, the election of a new khan or the inevitable external threats. The head of the confederacy himself was the head of this jirga.

Providing the Baloch society a historical, social and political structure, the jirga remained intact for a long period and helped the Baloch cope with anarchy, chaos and an emergency situation. However, under the British rule in the 19th century, the traditional pattern of the Baloch jirga began to change. Having masterminded the political set-up of the Baloch country, Sir Robert Sandeman introduced a new kind of jirga, the "shahi jirga" (Grand Council or the council of the main tribal sardars) where only sardars and aristocrats could sit. The shahi jirga was held at Quetta, Sibi and Fort Munro once or twice a year. The new jirga could impose taxes on property and labour; while only the Political Agent could review its decisions. As described by Janmahmad, the shahi jirga was a shrewd mechanism of indirect rule with powers vested in a few carefully selected tribal elders loyal to the British and ready to act against their own people.

The other well-established and widely known institution in Baloch society is the sardari system. This system appears to have had its origins in the Mughal period of Indian history, but is believed to have assumed its present shape rather late, during the period of British colonial rule. In contrast to the marked egalitarianism that pervades tribal organizations among the neighbouring Pakhtoons, the sardari system is highly centralized and hierarchical. At the apex of the system is the sardar, the hereditary central chief from whom power flows downward to waderas, the section chiefs, and beyond them to the subordinate clan and sub-clan leaders of the lesser tribal units. The sardar's extraordinary authority within this structure probably stems from the essentially military character of early Baloch tribal society. This authority may also have originated in the requirements of the Baloch pastoral economy. The tribesmen's seasonal migrations and isolation in scattered small camps would seem to have justified the emergence of a powerful and respected central figure who could obtain pasture lands and water, arrange safe passage through hostile territory for herdsmen and their flocks, and in other ways provide a shield against an unusually harsh environment.

Modernization has changed much of the tribal system. It was first challenged by the demarcation of international boundaries at the end of the 19th century. The new frontiers partitioned Balochistan between three states, dividing some of the large tribes between countries and prohibiting the traditional summer and winter migrations of nomads and semi-nomads. The Naruis, the Sanjaranis, the Rikis and the Brahuis were divided among Iran, Afghanistan and British Balochistan. The second challenge occurred between the world wars, when the British and the Persians largely pacified Balochistan. From 1928, Tehran used its army to forcibly subdue the Baloch, often exterminating whole tribes in the process.

The termination of the traditional nomadic economic system devastated the tribes. In the case of Iranian Balochistan, to force sedentarization, Reza Shah introduced land registration. Land which had previously been considered the property of the tribe as a whole, became the sole property of the tribal chief in whose name the land was registered. The chiefs, with income from rents, could now move into cities and towns. This increased their distance from the tribe.

The sedentary farmers, tied to the land through debts and contracts, could no longer align themselves with rival chieftains. This increased the landlord's control over the peasant, but the peasant's loyalty to the landlord decreased as monetary ties replaced ties of sanguinity or of mutual self-interest. Baloch society lost its cohesiveness, and both landlord and rentier turned to the central government for protection of their "rights".

Simultaneously with the decline and disintegration of tribalism in Iranian Balochistan, the sardars also lost their base of power and influence there. This has been the case particularly during the 1960s and the 1970s, as the rapid growth in urbanization, expansion of modern means of communications, spread of modern education, and economic modernization in the province began to drastically undermine the tribal socioeconomic structure. These changes in turn brought with them a new Baloch elite identified with the middle class. It must be borne in mind that the cooperation of the sardars with the Shah's regime representing "Shiite Gajars", also served to undermine their traditional legitimacy among their peasant and nomadic followers politically.

Over the course of time, therefore, the traditional social organization of the Baloch to a great extent has changed. There is now a widespread Baloch national consciousness that cuts across tribal divisions. Islamabad and Tehran, however, ignoring this emergence of nationalism, tend to think of Baloch society solely in terms of its traditional tribal character and organizational patterns. Most sardars have attempted to safeguard their privileges by avoiding direct identification with the nationalist movement, while keeping the door open for supporting the nationalist cause in times of confrontation between the Baloch and the central government, as in the case of the 1973-7 insurgency. Similarly, the Iranian revolution of 1979 inflicted the most significant blow to the influence of the sardars in western Balochistan.

However, in a traditional tribal society a political ideology such as Baloch nationalism would be unable to gain support, because loyalties of tribal members do not extend to entities rather than individual tribes. The failure of the tribes to unite for the cause of Baloch nationalism is a replay of tribal behaviour in both the Pakistani and Iranian Baloch revolts. Within the tribes, an individual's identity is based on his belonging to a larger group. This larger group is not the nation but the tribe. However, the importance of the rise of a non-tribal movement over more tribal structures should not be underestimated. In this respect the Baloch movements of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s provide us a good example.

In the post-colonial period a visible change in Baloch society was the rise of the urban population mainly due to the detribalization and to some extent the land reforms under Ayub Khan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The differentiation and specialization in urban economies introduced new social strata. A small Baloch working class formed in the mine industry, construction, and a few factories. Small workshops required auto mechanics, electricians, mechanics, plumbers and painters, while services and transport employed many others. A modern bourgeoisie emerged, comprising mainly professionals rather than entrepreneurs - doctors, nurses, engineers, teachers, bank managers, lawyers and journalists. Migrant labour travelled as far as the Gulf States.

Thus, with the appearance of the Baloch middle class, even though small, and the decrease of the traditional role of the sardars, the modern Baloch intelligentsia seems to be more eager to assume a political role of its own. Highlighting the new changes in Baloch society, in 1993, Mahmud Ali, a specialist on South Asian politics, wrote, "In the absence of traditional leaders, the dynamic of socio-economic change has precipitated a new kind of leader - younger men of 'common', i.e. non-sardari, descent". The Baloch have devised a nationalist ideology, but realize that tribal support remains a crucial ingredient to any potential success of a national movement. By accepting the support of the tribes, the nationalists fall vulnerable to tribal rivalries.

Economic development

In 1892, Lord Curzon stated that in the greater part of Balochistan, the Baloch were sedentary and pastoral. Despite the passage of almost one hundred years and the increase in urbanization, Curzon's view is still fairly accurate (although there are more farmers and fewer shepherds). Describing the Baloch economy in the early 1980s, a prominent authority on the subject of Baloch nationalism, Selig S. Harrison wrote, "Instead of relying solely on either nomadic pastoralism or on settled agriculture, most Baloch practise a mixture of the two in order to survive."

The economic grievances of the Baloch are dated from the British era. As the British developed industries and agriculture in Sindh, Punjab, and the NWFP, they ignored Balochistan. Thus there is a widely held view that the British rulers neglected the economic development of Balochistan. Perhaps it was not merely a case of neglect, but what might be called purposeful sidetracking, even suppression. Of course the British had their own imperial interests to protect.

This is a case study in nationalism which focuses on the Baloch. It probes into the question of whether the Baloch have a national consciousness and if it is expressed as their will to maintain their national identity.

Excerpted with permission from Baloch Nationalism: its Origin and Development
By Taj Mohammad Breseeg
Royal Book Company, Karachi, Pakistan


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