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Friday 28 September 2012

Ethnic politics: Baloch, Sindhi and Mohajir movements Ishtiaq Ahmed

Sunday, September 23, 2012
Ethnic politics: Baloch, Sindhi and Mohajir movements
Ishtiaq Ahmed

Post-colonial states are susceptible to ethnic conflict because the `nationalism' that bound their disparate ethnic groups together to establish the state proves brittle after independence as they assert their specific sectional interests vis--vis the central government. In the case of Pakistan, its identity crisis has compounded such tensions and in the absence of an agreed federal structure and rules of the game, such tensions have exacerbated over time. Thus ethnicity, rather than class, has served as the basis for the re-alignment of forces in the independent Pakistan.

Farhan Hanif Siddiqi's book, The Politics of Ethnicity in Pakistan: The Baloch, Sindhi and Mohajir ethnic movements (Routledge, 2011), based on his doctoral dissertation, is a timely contribution. The author argues that the Punjabis represent majoritarian centripetal forces, the Baloch and Sindhi centrifugal forces, and the Mohajir both, depending on the situation and context. He correctly emphasises that ethnicity is not something fixed; rather, it is situational and contextual and therefore, amenable to manoeuvre externally and internally. Typically, Pakistani central governments have been successful in exploiting the differences within these groups as the shared ethnicity of such groups itself is a construction rather than a given. He traces chronologically the conflict between the central government and the Baloch, Sindhi and Mohajir ethno-nationalists. Each case study culminates with military interventions in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s respectively.

The most interesting is the Balochistan case study. Balochistan is Pakistan's largest province but with the smallest population, comprising only about five percent of Pakistan's total population. Since 1970, Balochistan includes the Kalat State and other princely states and British Balochistan. Roughly three ethno-linguistic groups are `indigenous' to Balochistan, the Baloch and the Brahui, who speak a Dravidian tongue, and the Pukhtuns. The Baloch and Brahui are politically considered as one ethnic group: the Baloch. Alliances with the Pukhtuns have come and gone.

The Khanate of Kalat was founded in 1666 by Mir Ahmad (Brahui-speaking). The British sent Captain Sandeman to that region, who used his influence to establish an hierarchical structure among the various tribes, which previously did not have all-powerful sardars at the helm of their affairs. When the freedom struggle started in the subcontinent, the Khan of Kalat preferred the Muslim League and funded it. Some educated middle class Baloch were sympathetic to the Congress Party while some others harboured pro-Soviet sympathies. Mohammad Ali Jinnah was hired by the Khan of Kalat `in his quest to achieve independence for his princely state' (page 58), says the author. Jinnah argued before the Cabinet Mission that, "With the termination of the treaty with the British Government, the Kalat State will revert to its pre-treaty position of complete independence, and will be free to choose its own course in future" (Ibid).

However, "This courtship between Jinnah and the Khan of Kalat was bound to be paradoxical for Jinnah, the Legal Adviser to Kalat, was advocating independence for the princely state while Jinnah, the future head of the Pakistani state, would not agree to anything less than the integration of Kalat within the territorial confines of the future Pakistani state (Ibid)," observes Siddiqi.

After independence, the central government from the outset employed highhanded tactics with the Baloch. From the forced annexation of Kalat, which had declared itself independent on August 15 (August 11 according to some sources) to the amalgamation of Kalat and minor states such as Lasbela, Makran and Kharan in 1952 into the Balochistan States Union, and then the amalgamation of the former British Balochistan and the princely states through One Unit, all contributed to the alienation of the Baloch from the Centre. Armed conflicts between the Baloch and Pakistani forces occurred many times. The author especially mentions Z A Bhutto's confrontational approach in the 1970s, which made a mockery of the federal system that had been agreed in the 1973 constitution. He writes, "In fact, Bhutto was responsible for the civil war in Balochistan, which lasted four years" (Ibid: 64). The notorious arms cache that the Pakistan government detected in the Iraqi embassy in Islamabad was meant for Iranian Balochistan and not Pakistani Balochistan, argues the author. At that time, Akbar Bugti was not part of the Baloch nationalist struggle, having sided with Bhutto during that conflict and even the Khan of Kalat was supportive of Bhutto. Such evidence suggests the shifting nature of internal Baloch politics.

The coverage of the Sindhi and Mohajir ethnic movements is useful, though the story Siddiqi tells is a familiar one and several scholars have shed light on it. I was surprised that he did not consult some relevant literature that both theoretically and empirically covers the same issues and problems. He, however, makes useful additions with regard to differences between G M Syed (separatist) and Rasool Bux Palejo (emphasising autonomy). What is missing in the story is the role that the Pakistan People's Party played in modifying Sindhi nationalism. It is noted but not elaborated. With regard to the Mohajir ethnic movement, we learn more about the violent conflict between the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and MQM (Haqiqi). The military was able to exploit dissensions within the Urdu-speaking community.

I would like to encourage the author to focus in his future research just on the Baloch case. From the vantage point of having traced the origins of that conflict, he is in a privileged position to shed light on its contemporaneous dynamics. A leftist friend of mine who recently attended a wedding in Balochistan came back wringing his hands at the absolute power and authority the sardars enjoys over ordinary members of their tribes. What goes on within Baloch society is also worth probing.

The writer has a PhD from Stockholm University. He is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University. He is also Honorary Senior Fellow of the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. His latest publication is The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed: Unravelling the 1947 Tragedy through Secret British Reports and First-Person Accounts (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2012; New Delhi: Rupa Books, 2011). He can be reached at

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