Book Review | Balochistan in the Crosshairs of History

Authored by: Sandhya Jain | Publisher: KW Publishers | Year of Publication: 2021
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In a compact 322 page volume Sandhya Jain has encapsulated a vast amount of information on Balochistan. Organized into six large chapters the book covers every major aspect of the land’s ancient and modern history, political and cultural circumstances, natural resources, geographical features and economic situation. The bibliography is comprehensive and helps to make this book a reference work on a region and its people which have for long been neglected at the dusty margins of the Indian and Iranian empires.

Yet Balochistan’s area accounts for nearly half of Pakistan’s total size and for a very substantial proportion of the country’s mineral wealth even though its population amounts to a relatively small percentage of the 200 million-plus Pakistanis and is given a step-motherly treatment by Islamabad. The economically and educationally backward province also overlooks the strategically critical strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf and it abuts landlocked Afghanistan to which it is a natural maritime outlet. Indeed the north-western border between the two has always been ill-defined and porous. The South of Afghanistan has a large ethnically Baloch population and conversely, many Afghan Pashtuns fleeing decades of incessant war and foreign occupation have taken refuge in Pakistani Balochistan which has also been negatively affected by the turmoil across the border.

A study of Baloch history and geography summons a comparison with another divided ‘nation’, the Kurdish one with which the Baloch share ethnic affinities and a long record of frustrated attempts at winning independence and unity. Like the Kurds, the Baloch have to deal with more powerful states that surround and control them. However, Baloch identity is territorial and cultural rather than ethnic since the origins of that loose confederation of tribes are mixed. Some, including the erstwhile royal family of Kalat, the principal indigenous political state in modern times, trace their ancestry to Arabic Oman while many Baloch remember an ancient migration across Iran from their distant cradle in the region of Aleppo in Syria. The distinct Brahui component seems to be linked to tribal populations of Northern Western India. An Indo-Iranian people, the Baloch are very attached to their distinct identity and have consistently resisted assimilation into the larger Persian, Pashto and Punjabi cultures though they tend to speak one or more of those languages as well as Sindhi. The Baloch version of Islam is rather open and moderate and retains traces of age-old syncretism with pre-Islamic beliefs that go back as far as the Harappan civilizational age. They place their community above their confession as an identity marker and while they never regarded themselves as subjects of the British Indian Empire but only as its allies under an accord of protectorate they also stayed outside the Persian state until Reza Shah annexed the western Baloch lands to the new Pahlavi empire in the nineteen-thirties.

Sandhya Jain gives a detailed account of the politics of the state of Kalat and its feudatory principalities vis-à-vis the British Indian Government in the decades that preceded the unwinding of the Raj and the partition of India. The last ruler of Kalat tried to stay independent, alleging that his status was akin to those of other frontier ‘treaty’ states such as Nepal and Bhutan but there was little doubt about the final outcome. Britain put its weight behind Jinnah’s Pakistan and knew that the Khan of Kalat stood no chance against the new state and its army, given his limited means and its own precarious sway over endemically rebellious Baloch tribes. ‘Qaid I Azam’ Jinnah had long paid lip service to Kalat’s sovereignty but was not about to let the vast and rich, sparsely populated province out of his clutches. Eventually, Kalat acceded to Pakistan and was merged with formerly British administered Balochistan (Quetta) against the granting of privy purses to the Khan and to other Baloch lesser princes. The rest is history.

Among the many sources that the book refers to, the late Ambassador Narendra Singh Sarila’s Shadow of the Great Game is a seminal one as it describes very well the long-term strategy of the British colonizers, since the late 19th century at least, to build buffers against the Russian Empire’s feared expansion into South Asia and into the Persian Gulf. Afghanistan was the main buffer and future Pakistan, like the Shah’s Iran, was seen in London and Washington as a prospective anti-Soviet ally between the oil-rich Gulf region and  ‘Communist’ Central Asia.

The book thus leads us to the present juncture in which Balochistan has acquired a higher profile in global affairs in the wake of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, as a limb of Beijing’s Belt & Road Project and of the long lease on Gwadar port acquired by the PRC, significantly close to the Iranian border. Suddenly the still simmering yearning for the independence of the Baloch which erupted into various long and bloody insurrections ruthlessly put down by Pakistan’s military is attracting international attention whereas New Delhi is highlighting the Pakistani oppression of the Baloch minority in order to counter Islamabad’s propaganda campaign against India with regard to Jammu and Kashmir.

The author does not attempt to predict the future fate of the Baloch in the regional geopolitical context. The book only lays out the facts and lets the reader draw his own conclusions. On the face of it, it appears that Baloch independence is an unlikely prospect given the sheer power of the Pakistani army and the support it is likely to receive from China in fighting local separatism. On the other side of the border, Iran has no reason to consent to the creation of a sovereign Balochistan which would be a major threat to its own ‘Seistan and Balochistan’ where the local population remains restive and influenced by anti-Iranian Sunni radicalism fanned by Saudi Arabia. India has no direct physical access to Balochistan and it is only in the context of the breakup of Pakistan into its five constituent provinces that the Baloch would be able to regain self-rule. 

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Côme Carpentier de Gourdon

Côme Carpentier de Gourdon is Distinguished Fellow with India Foundation and is also the Convener of the Editorial Board of the WORLD AFFAIRS JOURNAL. He is an associate of the International Institute for Social and Economic Studies (IISES), Vienna, Austria. Côme Carpentier is an author of various books and several articles, essays and papers

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