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Baloch Separatist Movement

‘A Self-fulfilling Prophecy for Pakistan’

Meena Menon ( is an independent journalist and author based  in Mumbai.

The Genesis of Baloch Nationalism: Politics and Ethnicity in Pakistan, 1947–1977 by Salman Rafi Sheikh, Routledge India, 2019; pp 254, 895.


In his book, The Genesis of Baloch Nationalism: Politics and Ethnicity in Pakistan, 1947–1977, Pakistani scholar Salman Rafi Sheikh attempts to explain what he calls the “least understood political problem of Pakistan.” Puncturing several myths and falsehoods in the official narrative about the insurgency in Balochistan and using archival material and secret documents, including bulletins from the Baloch insurgent groups, he proceeds to give readers a fairly sound understanding of the nature of the problem. Chief among the myths promoted by the state of Pakistan is that this is a rebellion fomented by India and other powers. Sheikh’s analysis demolishes this myth, along with the other one that secessionist sentiments are fuelled by the “stubborn sardars” of Balochistan. The movement in Balochistan is not only an old one but also began with the aim of getting full recognition under a federated system of government. The demand for secession from Pakistan only grew with the increasing and multiple military interventions and actions to repress the movement and sideline the region which was not given full provincial status till 1970.

Root of the Conflict

The author believes that the overwhelming emphasis on projecting the problem as simply being an Indian-funded conspiracy against Pakistan has sent into oblivion the fundamental reasons that have been the driving force behind Balochistan’s plunge into ethno-nationalism since the creation of Pakistan in 1947. In a systematic manner, he proceeds to unravel the Baloch question using archival material that was difficult to access, and goes back to its roots and progression, and its trajectory into secessionism by the 1970s. Quoting Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s book Rumour and Reality, Sheikh refers to how the military had started to operate independently of the civilian government and how it was involved (as alleged by Bhutto) in the murder of Asadullah Mengal, though Bhutto himself cannot boast of a clean slate in the province.

The author locates the struggle in the context of colonial times and post-independence Pakistan’s unchanging highhandedness in dealing with it right up to 1977, where the Baloch movement has as he says “degenerated from a progressive movement for national emancipation within Pakistan to a retrogressive and reactionary nationalist cusp” (p 186). While the later lack of coherence of the movement is not the thrust of the book, its historical inception, evolution, and current dynamics, apart from the role of the Pakistani state in the movement, are the subjects of study. It also closely examines the reasons for the changing focus from provincial autonomy to separatism.

Since the annexation of Balochistan from the erstwhile Kalat state, there has been unrest and turmoil in this large province, the most impoverished and the most troubled region of Pakistan. The author places the root of the conflict in the postcolonial state’s official nationalism and its penchant for suppressing social and ethnic diversity.

And the parallels to Bangladesh could not help but be drawn when Baloch leader Sardar Akhtar Mengal presented six points to the Supreme Court in 2012, bringing back memories of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman’s six points and the eventual secession of East Pakistan. The momentum for the current phase of the Baloch struggle came after the killing of Akbar Bugti, the head of the Bugti tribe, in a military operation in 2006. Sheikh concludes that the movement has grown steadily in response to the increasing military interventions. The situation in the province has continued to deteriorate from 1976 when Asadullah Mengal became the first Baloch to be kidnapped and killed. Since then, there are thousands gone missing or in detention camps.

Question of Identity

An important point Sheikh makes is that the Baloch question is neither an exception nor altogether a recent phenomenon as the Baloch were the first to resist the Pakistani state after the merger of Kalat state into Pakistan. Aspirations of the Baloch people have been consistently crushed and along with that there is a systematic construction of the official discourse of secession and conspiracy. It was used to deny them their rightful status as a province and finally when it was granted, it was taken away on often- cited pretexts, giving them only a glimpse of decentralised power.

The author emphasises the fact that Baloch nationalism is not an exception by giving examples of other communities like the Pashtun, Sindhi and Bengalis when they came up against a powerful and interventionist state. Also the idea of Baloch and the nationalism of other communities goes against the very grain of the idea of Pakistan—which envisaged room only for religion but not ethnic diversity as a unifying factor.

The Baloch nation itself is not a homogeneous linguistic identity and there are many tribes which speak Brauhi, though the author points out that differences between the two languages mitigated somewhat due to Pakistan’s refusal to recognise its own diverse ethnic composition. The struggle itself was not based on a linguistic demand. The primary conflict was centred on the question of Pakistan’s “intransigence” in not allowing “political accommodation on a democratic basis” and throughout the book, the arguments support this premise that the conflict was shaped around the ideas of Pakistiniyat and Balochness.

In order to consolidate power centrally, the One Unit scheme was formulated which divided Pakistan into East and West Pakistan in 1955. Sheikh says that scheme was not only meant to create a larger West Pakistan identity but to also bring the resources of Sindh’s land, electricity from the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and natural resources of Balochistan under the domination of Punjab.

The One Unit scheme denied not only cultural diversity, as the author establishes, but also any separate identity of other ethnic communities. Unlike other ethnic groups, what also sets apart the Baloch is that they were not given their own province till 1970 on flimsy excuses, such as lack of capacity or trained personnel to administer the province, as mentioned earlier, and there was no Baloch leadership in the National Assembly till 1962. This tussle also exploded the myth of cultural unity put out by Pakistan’s establishment and went against the core theory of the Muslim League’s propagation of religion as the only enduring force that could wield Muslims together, according to Sheikh.

The conflict in Balochistan is largely shaped on the question of identity, and Pakistan’s insistence on a common identity could be counterproductive as Sheikh demonstrates in the book. Pakistan’s political system denied its diverse socio-political composition in the name of uniting under one religion and even after losing Bangladesh, the country seems not to have learnt any lesson on power sharing and recognising ethnic and linguistic diversity. Baloch leader Ghaus Baksh Bizenjo articulated these aspirations in the National Assembly—of the need to recognise the fact that Pakistan is a multinational state and it should set up a federal parliamentary state and give the federating units their due rights. There was no attempt to formulate a political system based on the consensus of all ethnic or subnational groups.

Monolith of Nation–Religion

Pakistan infused the idea of one nation based on an Islamic religious identity in all walks of life, including in its textbooks, and the case for one unified nation was made to counter “the ills of provincialism” which was referred to as being narrow and pernicious by the first education minister Fazlur Rehman. He also glossed over the need to respect and accept multiple ethnic identities and felt that Islamic ideology was enough to sustain a Muslim nation. This question of identity was to remain a thorn in the framework of the new state which has not been resolved till now. As a result, demands for rights by subnational groups would be equated to provincialism or not being patriotic and lead to the state confronting these groups with all forms of repression. Sheikh argues that all this set the tone for the establishment of an interventionist state which would create conditions to the building of a truly Islamic society. Along with the Unit scheme, the Objectives Resolution too reinforced this rhetoric of a unified nation.

The book delves into the early post- partition history of Balochistan and the attempts to appropriate its tribal leaders or sardars. Even the British excluded the Baloch from the army and it was only in 1929 when they decided to recruit them in a bid to co-opt them and “convert their enmity into an alliance of interests.” Talking of different nationalities was tantamount to being a traitor and indeed many Baloch leaders were accused of this signal crime. The question of secession came up in 1980 when Baloch leaders like Ataullah Mengal became aware of their “third class” situation and felt that they could not break through the state’s denial of their rights and exclusion from political and economic structures.

The author traces many of the problems facing Pakistan not only to the first decade after independence but earlier to the colonial rule. The continuing opposition of the Baloch people to joining Pakistan was used to make out that they were not patriotic and secessionist and were conspiring to disintegrate Pakistan. And he explains how the loss of political power, combined with organised exclusion from the structures of economic and political power, precipitated the national movement in Balochistan.

The One Unit programme seemed to be an extension of a colonial mindset where planning and policy were meant to keep the Baloch out of any meaningful role in their governance. He states that the accession of Kalat state to Pakistan was by no means voluntary nor due to the overarching belief in Muslim unity as school textbooks make it out to be. Kalat had already witnessed a nationalist movement since the 1930s when the Quit Balochistan movement was launched and the forcible accession after the army was called in, also resulted in the arrest of many of the leaders. The author criticises the referendum held in Balochistan in 1947 and quotes several documents and notes from the Shahi Jirga to prove that it was not in any way unanimous or consensual as popularly projected, and also touches upon the divide and rule policy in the region. There is a detailed analysis based on official documents of the deliberate exclusion of Balochistan from power structures using various excuses, including lack of finance and how unrealistic it was to give the Baloch autonomy due to their lack of experience in governing.

Baloch leaders spoke of concentration camps right from President Ayub Khan’s time where the torture was compared to that found in Auschwitz and the pernicious role of the Pakistan army in supressing their rebellion. The region was excluded in Ayub Khan’s famous decade of development and people were harassed and arrested for their perceived crime of articulating democratic aspirations. Even Zulfikar Bhutto’s “democratic” era did not change the situation for the Baloch people as it was under him that the first elected government was dismissed in 1973. The 1971 war and the eventual formation of Bangladesh taught Pakistan little about ideology and power sharing in Pakistan. The attempts of the Baloch to demand provincial autonomy was called out as an attempt to disintegrate Pakistan and behind this rhetoric was a thinly veiled attempt to squeeze the region dry of its resources and give little in return. A resource-rich region was reduced to one that was dependent on aid and that too, a pittance compared to what was being taken out.

Armed Resistance and Secession

Finally, the resort to armed resistance is set out in a 1974 bulletin from the Popular Front of Armed Resistance (PFAR)—“All talks of a political settlement in Baluchistan are destined to end up nowhere as the primary issue is not identified and recognised. And the primary issue is that whatever the future set-up, the people of Baluchistan want to be masters in their own province” (p 123). Sheikh adds that the insurgency did not immediately begin after the dismissal of the provincial government in 1973. It began after the military operation against the National Awami Party, whose members were dubbed as traitors. He concludes that armed resistance was, therefore, a direct aftermath of ideological and political interventions.

By logically setting out the trajectory of Balochistan’s annexure to Pakistan, its deliberate exclusion from power, and the extraction of resources that did not benefit the people of the region, the author makes a case for the Baloch insurgency. But the change to an armed secessionist movement as a logical fallout of that complex narrative does not hold up. The Pakistan state eventually became “an implacable enemy of the entire Baloch nation,” says Jabal, a bulletin of the Baluchistan People’s Liberation Front in 1977 (p 136). It is the fourth chapter on military intervention that illustrates the transition to violence and the conclusion that it was military action that led to armed resistance.

Balochistan is part of a strategic route to Iran and Afghanistan and also an area rich in natural resources. The military budget for the province exceeded the development allocation as a 1975 report quoted from the Guardian indicates. According to the evidence presented, the insurgency grew from defending tribal independence and honour initially, to opposing the One Unit scheme and the army action, and finally culminated in a nationalist secessionist movement since 1977. The Baloch are now proposing a systemic change and the movement remains Pakistan’s biggest challenge as it questions the country’s democratic transition of recent years, when such a large province is roiled in ethnic conflict.

The book is an invaluable addition to the literature on Balochistan and its movements, and clearly enunciates the role of the state in the insurgency and the demand for separation. The future of the movement seems fraught with ideological and leadership issues but the goal of separatism seems clear enough. As for the state of Pakistan, its role has been oppressive throughout and it seems to have learnt nothing from the far-reaching events of 1971. Further research could well bear in mind the detailed archival material discussed in this book which is timely and destroys many popular perceptions about the struggle and its evolution.



Updated On : 18th Jun, 2019


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