Resurgence of Baluch Nationalism in Pakistan: How can it be explained

Resurgence of Baluch Nationalism in Pakistan: How can it be explained

The subject of Baluch nationalism is a matter of major contention. Calls for Baluch independence far preceded the demands for a Pakistani state, yet they still remain unanswered. When examining the issue, often the very concept of “nationalism” is severely distorted and misunderstood. For instance, movements for independence are not always nationalist struggles. However, as I aim to show through the course of this piece, Baluch movements for independence post-1947 have evolved and progressed into a struggle for nationalism, particularly following the most recent uprising of 2004.

The changes taking place within the structures of society and the geopolitical situation add a new dimension to the dynamics of Baluch nationalism. Initially, Baluch independence movements had very weak aims and it was by no means a unified “nationalist” project. While the nationalist conscious lingered latent in the minds of Baluchis, the movement for independence only became a “nationalist” struggle under the Pervez Musharraf regime. Ultimately, the current surge in feelings of Baluch nationalism can be accounted for by a combination of the following factors: detribalization and politicization of society, and an inability to inculcate a sense of united “Pakistaniat” within the Baluchi people, which is made worse by the discriminatory policies employed by the state.


There are many varying definitions of the term nationalism, but in the case of this piece I will contextualize my argument within the framework of Benedict Anderson’s concept of “imagined communities”. According to Anderson, a nation is “an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign” (Anderson, 2006; 6). Communities are to be distinguished, by the style in which they are constructed in the minds of the individuals comprising these communities. Nationalism is thus a communal feeling amongst a people, connected by a belief in oneness, regardless of whether they ever meet in person (Anderson, 2006; 224).

It is debatable whether the Baluch struggle began as a “nationalist” movement. Firstly, “the national question of the Baluchis is further complicated by the fact of inner divisions and exclusivities” that were prominent during the early stages of independence (Ahmad, 1973; 5). Moreover, since the 1960s, Baluchis living outside of the region outnumber native Baluchis, and there are more Pathans in Quetta, the provincial capital, than ethnic Baluchis (Ahmad, 1973; 5). “Though the seeds of ethno-nationalism were sown in Baluchistan in the colonial era, its full flowering took place as a result of uneven post-colonial modernization” (Titus and Swidler, 1998).

Baluchi tribes “are by far not strictly endogamous units but most often emerge from social-economic and territorial relationships” (Boyajian, 2000; 3900. For instance, the Qalat Khanate constructed on the common efforts of the Brahui-speaking and Baluch people. Having persistently denied their right to self-rule, the Punjabi-dominated Pakistani establishment argues that the Baluch are not a nation, but a tribal society with traditional tribal characteristics, thus lacking legitimacy for the right to self-rule and self-determination (Harrison, 1996; 298). A latent “myth of common origin” has always existed within the conscience of the diverse Baluch clans and tribes (Rahman, 1996; 88). It is only once this national conscience is effectively politicized, can it then be fortified and developed into a nationalist movement through modernization (Smith, 1971; 175). As such, only once the Baluchi cultural myths and memories have been harnessed, can the “imagined community” emerge.

Historical Background

Baluch demands for independence have varied across time, and historical trends indicate that the project has not been firmly “nationalistic” in the sense explained above. While many factions of the movement towards Baluch independence drew inspiration from Marxist philosophy, the region has failed to establish an indigenous bourgeoisie.

However, with greater modernization, post-2004, we see the situation to have alleviated, allowing for the emergence of nationalist sentiments. Previous Baluch struggles have been “segregative and separative” processes, not integrative in terms of language and ethnicity, which has had severely negative connotations for the aspirations of the Baluch people (Ahmad, 1973). Furthermore, this lack of nationalistic feeling has dampened the struggles for autonomy and independence.

The Khanate of Qalat

The initial 1948 conflict emerged with the declaration of an independent Kalat State and it ended with the accession of Kalat to Pakistan and the imprisonment of Kalat family members (Ali, 2005; 45). At the time it was more likely, rather than tribalism, a sort of semi-feudal rural elite dominating stratified communities of landowners and landless peasants in the region, later followed by “segmentary lineage” i.e. a tribalized society (Fabietti, 1992; 89). “While there were great reasons to resist the dependent, neocolonialist military-bureaucratic dictatorship of Ayub, resistance in Baluchistan was organized largely around the issue of restoration of the feudal, corrupt, backward, altogether redundant state of Kalat” (Ahmad, 1973; 13).

It was mainly an insurgency based on the self-interested, landed elite princes and not a result of some deep-seated, nationalist fervor. As such, the calls for independence were founded not upon heritage but rather for the sake of recognition of the ruling elite of the Princedom of Qalat. It was only with the death of Nasir Khan, ruler of Kalat, in 1975 did the uprising take a different turn in ideology. However, the later uprisings of the 1960s and ’70s were not entirely premised on the basis of an “imagined community” feeling either.

Tribalized society

In the years following the Qalat uprising, we see the development of the sardari system. The four most prominent Baluch tribes are: Bugti, Bizenjo, Marri and Menghal. A sardar (leader) headed each division, and competition for this position fuelled inter-tribal rivalries. Pressure was heightened following the introduction of the One Unit system in 1955, which involved the creation of a single provincial entity that subsumed all administrative units of West Pakistan and East Pakistan, respectively, leading to violent resistance especially in Baluchistan. Undoubtedly, the One Unit scheme was a huge disaster.

According to Norris, it was inevitable that under such a system, one region is predominant and others are “particularly vulnerable to collapse” (Norris, 2008; 163). It was seen as a “colonizing mission on the part of the state, taking land away from local leaders who cannot prove their claim over it” (Fair, 2012; 6). As such, it fuelled violent retaliation from the tribal sardars as it took control out of their hands. Ordinary Baluchis complained that this further weakened regional based control of their own province, forcing the provincial government to push for a socio-economic program akin to the “sons of the soil,” which entailed the removal of “outsiders” (Punjabi migrant workers) from jobs.

The hostility reached a tipping point in 1973 with the eruption of clashes between the Pakistan army and Baluch tribesmen who had been complaining about the rise of Punjabi farmers within the province. Helicopters were supplied by the Shah of Iran to carry out attacks within the region, leading to the exodus of 7,000 families to Afghanistan (Ali, 2005; 186).

Furthermore, the various tribes were divided amongst themselves regarding their approach to the state establishment. For instance, unlike the Mengal and Marri tribes, the Bugtis refused to join the socialist-leaning National Awami Party (NAP). The key tribes joined the revolts in 1973, and in August of that year, the PAF arrested three major sardars, Mir Ghaus Bakhsh Bizenjo, Khair Bakhsh Marri and Attaullah Mengal, who had been instrumental in forging the military struggle against the PAF. Distinct from the above, the Achakzai clan called upon the central government to declare “presidential rule” over the province (Siddiqi, 2012; 72).

Essentially, the initial rebellions had quite narrow aims; the release of the imprisoned NAP sardars, and greater autonomy for the tribalized Baluchistan province as well as more secure socio-economic provisions for native Baluchis. They were by no means seeking a dramatic reconstruction of society for nationhood (Siddiqi, 2012; 62). Some scholars suggest that “when they started their poorly prepared insurgency in 1973, the Pakistani Baluch were not fighting for independence but rather for regional autonomy within a radically restructured, confederal Pakistani constitutional framework”, having been forced to accept it as their nation (Harrison, 1981; 154).


In the initial uprisings, there was no overarching cause uniting the Baluch people. However, following the Zia-era we see the seeds of nationalism being planted, and the growth of these nationalist feelings are illustrated in the uprising of 2004.

i) Detribalization

In theory, the tribal structure of the sardari system had been outlawed in Pakistan since April 8, 1976. However, in reality, the detribalization of Baluch society had only begun to take shape. As such, preceding the 2004 Baluchi nationalist uprising, we find that the detribalization of society takes its origin in the Zia-era. General Zia’s regional policies laid the foundation for the current situation of the Baluch sardari system and the repercussions of it we can see unfolding post-2004. Tribal divisions were exacerbated during the Ayub era, but it was under Zia and Bhutto that the PAF and Baluch tribes faced one another.

“In 1978, Zia released 6,000 Baloch prisoners and offered amnesty for the guerrilla fighters but failed to address or resolve the underlying causes of the Baloch separatist movement, repeating the cycle which was established during the earlier uprisings” (Heeg, 2012; 14). Zia’s appeasement of the tribal leaders, ironically, led to the steady disintegration of tribal divisions, as in the years following this an amalgamation of various sardar-led groups joined forces under the banner of the Baluch Liberation Army (BLA) in opposition to the PAF (Harrison, 1981; 40).

ii) Politicization

  1. Tribes

While in 1962 the lack of political consciousness, due to low level of education among the ordinary Baluchis, the elections were fought on the basis of tribal affinities and financial inducements (Titus & Swidler, 1998; 55). However, we now see politicization of Baluch society, and in particular, the tribal leaders themselves were forced to engage within the nominally democratic political processes in order to instigate change. This had been happening since the 1980s, but the effects have finally become apparent following the most recent Baluch uprising. After Zia’s outlawing of “tribalism”, the major sardari factions formed active political coalition groups (Grare, 2006; 10). However, Zia allowed Baluch nationalists to contest in the elections throughout the 1980s on the condition that they were not affiliated with a party; partially as a result, “provincial assemblies formed by the winners of these elections had little actual power or autonomy” (Kupecz, 2012; 102).

This agitated the tribal groups as the National Awami Party (NAP) was hugely popular among the Baluch leaders, as a sort of political alliance with tribal leaders being elected as its MNAs (Titus & Swidler, 1998). Furthermore, the Baluch People’s Liberation Front (BPLF) espouses a Marxist-Leninist philosophy, under Mir Hazar Khan of Ramkani, with the grand aim of establishing a socialist state to govern Pakistan (Entessar, 1979; 100).

The not-so-mainstream approach of guerrilla groups also arose. Leaders of the Zarkzai and Salaman tribes, Zafar Khan Zarakzai and Agha Salaman, were so staunchly nationalist that their ultimate goal was to establish indigenous control over Baluchistan.  Attaullah Mengal, leader of the Baluch National Movement (BNM) instigated the 1973 revolt, then later retreated into self-imposed exile in London where he set up the Sind-Baluch-Pashtun Front (SBPF) (Grare, 2006; 8). This politicization led to the development of nationalist feelings.

  1. Youth

Probably the most important factor in the emergence of present-day Baluch nationalism is the rapid development of a politically conscious youth. In 1967 the Baluchistan Students Organization (BSO) was set up initially with the demand of better educational facilities but later broadened its program by incorporating the aims of the NAP (Titus & Swidler ,1998). The BSO comprised of various factions and despite their difference in party following, they banded together, showing the nationalistic feelings amongst the Baluch youth (Grare, 2012).

In more recent times, their reason for not being easily silenced is that the disaffected youth unlike in the past are highly educated and equally unemployed. Their disillusionment and increasing aggravation with the Pakistani central state establishment in terms of providing them with jobs and welfare is coupled with the increase in alleged human rights violations on the part of the state. According to Fair, “8,000-12,000 youths forcefully disappeared without criminal offence record” (Fair, 2012). Such discrimination against the Baluchi people has only served to exacerbate the already tense anti-state sentiments of the Baluch youth, in turn strengthening their feelings of Baluch nationalism.

iii) Injustice

While the Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchistan might have a detribalized and heavily politicized society, there are two reasons why there has never been a significant nationalist movement to emerge from this region. Firstly, Paniranism has been promoted effectively, through the success of the 1928-35 “pacification” program, as a result of which “traditional tribal rulers, whose leadership had been essential in directing and channeling nationalist sentiment among the Baluchis lost most of their freedom of action” (Entessar, 1979; 100). Serfs were given freedom from patronage in this process, making them less dependent on their tribal chiefs (Entessar, 1979; 100).

The Baluchis of Iran do not merely pride themselves on their Persian heritage, “They consider themselves first and foremost Iranians, citizens of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and thereafter, Baluchis” (Boyajian, 2000; 391). Such nationalist fervor is absent in Pakistan, where even pseudo-nationalistic feelings have failed to develop effectively, thus strengthening the numerous ethnic and regional nationalist identities, which serve the basis for independence movements.

Secondly, Iranian rulers have concentrated on alleviating the “economic status, creating social infrastructures, broadening the educational network (including universities) in national provinces”, bringing “minorities into common social-political and national processes, thus promoting their integration into the wider Iranian society” (Boyajian, 2000; 391).

Whilst some politically active anti-state organizations such as the Saudi backed Mojaheddin-e-Khalq and the Fedayyan-e-Khalq operate and there is indeed a suppression of certain tribes, such as the Barakzai and Saradarzai, on the whole, Baluchis still remain loyal to the Iranian government. In contrast, the Pakistani government has never adequately addressed the underlying grievances of the Baluch and the concessions they make simply appear to be short-term pandering to stifle criticism against the state.

At times the Pakistani Baluch uprisings might not appear to be nationalist movements for independence. This is because their struggle against injustices and demands seeking provisions has detracted from this. “The Baloch, upon reaching the extent of their ability to fight, negotiate from a position of weakness and seem to set aside their ultimate goal of an independent nation-state… although they want an independent state, they do not have the requisite military force to reach this goal and always settle for whatever concessions the government gives them” (Heeg, 2012; 11).

As such, the Pakistani Oppressed Nations Movement (PONM) working within Baluchistan does not demand even “maximum provincial autonomy”. Instead, they were increasingly focusing attention on gaining proper allocation in the National Finance Commission (NFC) in order to first strengthen the economically weak province.

According to Grare, the resurgence of Baluch nationalism is a result of extreme injustices of state policies. For example, Sui gas was discovered in Baluchistan in 1953, however, Quetta was not supplied with fuel from Sui until 1986, and until the mid-1990s only “4 out of the 26 districts constituting Baluchistan were supplied by Sui” (Grare, 2006; 5). Strikingly, the Baluch province produces 40% of Pakistan’s gas, yet receives only 12.4% of the royalties (Grare, 2006; 5). Moreover, till today, there exists only one major road linking the Baluchi port-city of Gwadar to Karachi (Grare, 2006; 6).

Whilst official calls have been made to address the issue, the Parliamentary Committee of 3 May 2005 where PM Shujaat Hussain issued 32 recommendations for larger shares of gas revenues, more jobs in gas exploration under Gwadar, no efforts were made to train local Baluchis (Ali, 2005; 61). Moreover, Acts such as the Aghaz-e-Haqooq-Baluchistan envisioned in 1947 was implemented in 2009.

Baluch nationalism hijacked?

In addition to the socio-economic injustices, Baluchi nationalists feel wary of becoming a minority in their own province, and this increasing threat has caused Baluchis, despite their internal differences, to band together (Ali, 2005; 56). Especially under the Musharraf government and its plans for the development of Gwadar bay, many military cantonments and demographic changes (influx of non-Baluch migrant workers) in the provinces has caused the indigenous population to feel under constant threat. More recently, this has led to a formation of a “nexus between the BLA, Jandola and the Taliban”, which have hijacked what was previously considered to be a relatively secular, Marxist influenced, nationalist struggle (The News, Nov 2, 2012).

As a result, ethnic tension and sectarian violence have been exacerbated following the most recent Baluch resurgence (Fair, 2012; 8). Groups such as Jandola and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi have begun targeted killing of Hazara Shias in the Baluch provinces, declaring them to be apostates and thus, “wajibul-qatal” (deserving of death) in the eyes of Sunni extremist outfits (Ghafarri, 2009; 41). Similarly, the Pathan refugees have developed strong links with the Afghan Taliban, bolstering the Quetta Shura. This has led to an emphasis on religious over ethnic identity as the basis for an ever-evolving struggle for independence and, as a consequence, moldings the dynamics of the already complicated struggle, perhaps rebranding it in years to come (Ghafarri, 2009; 41).

While the feelings of anti-Pakistaniat may have existed in Baluchistan, many Pakistani analysts have suggested that the actual mobilization of the struggle is down to foreign (mainly Indian) hands. For instance, strong speculations exist to suggest that Indian outfits are behind the financing of Baluch and Pushtunistan movement and publication of Jumhuriyat Zagh (Titus & Swidler, 1998; 54). While accusations of foreign intervention in fanning the flames of radical Baluch nationalism cannot be authenticated, the intent and implications of its possibility also cannot be ignored (Wirsing, 1994; 76).


Ultimately, the recent surge in Baluch nationalism is a development rather than resurgence of an independence movement established upon nationalist aims. The trajectory of the causes for struggle for independence has changed over time and will continue to evolve. In future, following the alleged Taliban-Jandola-BLA nexus takeover of the issue of Baluch independence, which initiated the ethnic cleansing of Baluchi Hazara Shias, we can see the trend shifting from nationalistic to ethnic and religion-based calls for independence. This has added a new dimension to the dynamics of the debate of Baluch independence and the future of nationalist struggles within the region.

Maryyum Mehmood

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