The gathering poignancy of the ongoing unrest in Balochistan, which has recently begun to demonstrate a strident foreign dimension, has riveted the national attention on bringing peace and stability to this strategically located province of Pakistan. The major drivers of the simmering discontent, which essentially remain political in nature, have been slowly gathering momentum over decades; feeding upon an entrenched perception of neglect by the federation, despite the province being outstandingly rich with wealth of natural resources. A few renegade scions belonging to Bugti, Marri and Mengal houses of sardars, on payroll of foreign powers and stationed abroad, are trying to become the face of Baloch nationalism. This reeks of crass opportunism because these very sardars demanding greater political rights, autonomy and control over their natural resources remain in themselves the main stumbling block to preventing the benefits of progress and the fruits of royalty of the natural resources from trickling to the masses.

The sardari system in Balochistan was abolished in the early sixties, but successive governments failed to translate it into reality due to entrenched resistance by the Baloch sardars. It is a manifestation of their unbridled power that sardars, blatantly and brazenly, maintain personal militias equipped with modern weapons and challenge the writ of the state with impunity. It is heartrending as to how they can trod upon, most inhumanely, on the fundamental rights of their followers, claiming authority drawn from traditions and custom of the Baloch. It may sound unbelievable but while dispensing justice, they can still order people to walk on fire to prove innocence, grant hand of women as compensation in feuds and levy fines amounting to lakhs on perceived misdemeanour at personal discretion. They, manifestly, are a tyrannical relic of an oppressive past, which needs to accommodate change or become extinct in the process.

The British treated Balochistan markedly different than Punjab or Sindh, whereby their interest here, primarily, was not economic, but rather of a military and geopolitical in nature. They were interested in defining the Western frontiers of their empire, station garrisons to defend these frontiers and find a safe passage through the area in case of military expeditions to Afghanistan. By 1854, the Khan of Kalat had accepted the British suzerainty for an annual salary of Rs50,000. In 1876, the Khan and all his sardars signed a treaty paving the way for the implementation of the sandeman system of administration. This system changed the status of the Khan and the Baloch sardars to that of the paid agents of the British Crown.

In return for this cessation of sovereignty, the sardars were provided with privy purses covering all their expenses, family needs, personal staff, body guards, tours, hospitality, maintenance of their residences, marriages and all family ceremonies etc. Under the new system, the sardars were now empowered to organise Levies Corps by recruiting tribal personnel and receiving their pays from the British, exercising the discretion of paying whatever salary they deemed necessary or none at all to their tribal members, if they so wished.

As the sardars were the extension of the British authority, the system bestowed unlimited powers concerning their ability to impose whatever revenue they deemed appropriate in their tribal area. Assisted by Levies, paid for by the British, the sardars perfected a system of total submission of their tribal members, causing grave economic exploitation and political degeneration of the Baloch society.

Since the British had no economic interest tied in Balochistan, they promoted the most repressive form of the jagirdari system to consolidate the authority of sardars. The land was collectively given to a tribe, as a whole in which the sardar established an intricate hierarchy of revenue collection and his own law enforcement apparatus constituting the tumandars, the muqaddams, the naibs and the maliks. These intermediaries freed the sardar from the worries of day-to-day administration and concentrate on his leisure seeking inclinations outside the Spartan environments of the harsh Baloch landscape.

In economic terms, the system led to the stagnation of agriculture growth, since the surpluses produced by the system were not recycled to improve the infrastructure, methods or the environment. The result was that the institution of sardar, detached from the cycle of production, became a mere parasite whose splurging of the profits inhibited the flow of benefits to the peasants who till the soil with their sweat and blood.

It is apparent that the sardars’ supreme interest is to consolidate their stranglehold over the agricultural land and the mining resources of Balochistan without sharing it with the Baloch people. To this end, they would not refrain from even using the Baloch nationalism card to create unrest; even to the extent of promoting insurgency. To further their class interests, the sardars want to freeze their communities into a time warp in the name of defending the ‘true Balochi ethos’.

According to them, the Baloch do not need schools because reading is in contradiction to the sacred tribal custom of illiteracy; besides, it is argued, schools are being constructed so that the Punjabi army might use them, for accommodation. They don’t need hospitals and dispensaries, since it would expose their womenfolk to unscrupulous practices of seeing a doctor and would usher in the foreign influence. Besides, if their forefathers had lived without such encumbrances so could they! The roads are an affront to the nomadic traditions of the Baloch and would facilitate the outsiders’ ingress into their safe havens. The establishment of cantonments in the province, like in the rest of the country, is to consolidate the hold of Punjabis over the natural resources of the Baloch. In short, the Balochis have to revel in their ignorance, poverty, pestilence and disease just to sustain the ethnocentric the sardari system.

The sardari system is a legacy of the sandeman system of British subjugation of Balochistan and even as the times have drastically changed, the Baloch sardars are desperately trying to cling to this ancient relic for the sake of their personal gains and relevance. Notwithstanding that the case for Baloch nationalism is built around economic deprivation and exploitation of the Baloch masses, they themselves constitute the major stumbling block to the forces of change and progress; hijacking the direction of the legitimate Baloch aspirations and using it for securing sardars’ class interests. A new great game has begun in the region and Baloch nationalism should not become a vehicle for realising the designs of outside forces, who are intent upon exploiting the institution of Baloch sardars to accomplish their own vested interests.

    The writer is a freelance columnist.