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OPINION / ANALYSIS

The Balochis of Balochistan

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AMRISH SAHGAL
June 1, 2006

Of late, the Balochi tribesmen of Makkaran have been in the news because of their resentment and armed conflict against the Pakistani government. In India, not much is remembered about these people any more, particularly by the post-partition generation. In view of the security implications in our neighbourhood, it might be of interest to many to learn a little about the Balochis.

Scholars now accept that the Baloch are of Aryan descent and belong to the same stock as the Kurds. They migrated southwards from their common Caspian Sea homeland, somewhat later than the Kurds, and instead of joining their cultural and ethnic brethren, drifted further east towards northern Persia and then eventually to the Makkaran region of what is now Pakistan. The Balochi language belongs to the Pehlavi language group of Indo-Persian languages that owe their origin to Sanskrit. Till today, despite the proximity to Iran and the strong Semitic influence from west Asia, the Balochi language has innumerable words in common with Sanskrit.

The origin of the word Baloch is shrouded in mystery. According to some scholars, it is derived from two Sanskrit words, Bal and Och. The former meaning ‘strength’ and the latter ‘high’. Another version has it that during crucial battles during 585-550 BC, against Astyages, the Baloch decorated their helmets with a cockscomb and hence was nicknamed Baloch, as per the local dialect for a cockscomb. 

In the last few decades, many attempts have been made to wrongfully ascribe Semitic origins to the Baloch for reasons of political expediency. This has been on par with the efforts by Pakistani fundamentalist clergy to try and assume for the Pakistani people a closer affinity with the Arabs and to distance themselves from the rest of the Indian sub-continent. As a matter of fact, such efforts are perceived by the Baloch as a threat to their racial and cultural integrity and traditions, which they have zealously preserved over the centuries, despite enormous co-mingling with and pressures from non Balochi nations, and are one more irritant in Islamabad – Quetta relations. 

A striking fact of the history of Balochistan is that it has been a major gateway for innumerable ancient invaders of the Indian subcontinent. It also served as a buffer zone between pre-partition India, Bactria and Iran as also the Arab world. It is, therefore, surprising that the Baloch have managed to retain their cultural identity to such a considerable extent.

The Baloch never easily accepted alien manners. Even after accepting Islam, they usually preferred their own way of life, and its customs always proved stronger than the laws of Islam. Known for their penetrating sense of national justice, they have never accepted any subservient position or insulting domination. They always opposed the forces of exploitation, regardless of the consequences.

The Baloch are also celebrated in folklore for being very adamant in seeking revenge. To avenge one’s blood (bier) was considered the foremost duty of all true-blood Balochis. Sometimes, an unusual number of people were killed to avenge only one or just a few persons. Blood feud once created could turn into a tribal conflict, which could continue for decades. Revenge, thus becomes a strong element in Baloch culture.

Another distinguishing characteristic of the Baloch was their lifelong devotion and loyalty towards those who helped them. “You should love a person who once offered you a glass of water for a hundred years” goes an old Balochi saying. 

In recent years this strong culture of tribal pride, filial ties, loyalty and unquenchable revenge, has come into strong confrontation with the arrogance and ‘grab all you can’ attitude of the Punjabi Mussalman and the Rawalpindi regime. Balochistan is Pakistan’s largest and poorest province and the Balochis accuse Rawalpindi of plundering its hidden riches of natural gas in return for a miniscule royalty.

The Pakistani Army launched a major offensive in Balochistan, particularly against the Bugti and Marri tribes, whose leaders control large swaths of Balochistan like feudal lords with militias numbering thousands. “The government wants to take complete control of the gas fields for future digging and drilling. Their policy is to exterminate the Baloch,” said Nawab Akbar Bugti on satellite phone from his mountain hideout. Nawab Bugti claimed that hundreds of civilians had been killed and thousands displaced from around Dera Bugti, his erstwhile stronghold, some 300 km southeast of Quetta. The Balochis are also suspicious of Islamabad’s intentions in building the deep sea port at Gwadar as they feel this could lead to encouraging people from other parts of Pakistan to settle around it, thus permanently changing the ethnic mix in the region.

Unlike in 1974, when the Pakistani Army put down a tribal rebellion in this region, the Balochistan Liberation Army is putting up a tough fight. According to Asma Jehangir, chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, “It’s not just a few tribal chiefs against the government. There’s a genuine movement of Baloch nationalists. There are people enlisting every day and picking up arms.” The Balochistan Liberation Army has been attacking gas pipelines and electricity pylons and police establishments on an almost daily basis. Even they have attacked a Pakistani nuclear establishment near Dera Ghazi Khan recently.

Amrish Sahgal is a New Delhi based security analyst