Understanding the Pakhtun Question in Balochistan

Published: June 5, 2015
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The writer is a Rhodes Scholar and is pursuing his MSc in Global Governance and Diplomacy at Green Templeton College, University of Oxford

The writer is a Rhodes Scholar and is pursuing his MSc in Global Governance and Diplomacy at Green Templeton College, University of Oxford

The gruesome killing of at least 20 people in Balochistan’s Mastung district marked yet another dark day for the troubled province. While Hazaras and non-Baloch have been targeted in the past, this is perhaps the single biggest incident in which local Pakhtuns were singled out and killed. The incident has set the rumour mills churning, with people spewing different conspiracy theories about the perpetrators. Just two days before the incident, the Pakhtun nationalist leader Mahmood Khan Achakzai had reportedly got involved in an altercation with the Baloch nationalist leader Senator Hasil Bizenjo over the issue of Afghan refugees. While the Mastung massacre has no conceivable connection with the Achakzai-Bizenjo tiff, both incidents, nevertheless, point attention to the unresolved Pakhtun question.

The roots of the Pakhtun question can be traced back to the colonial era. During the colonial period, contemporary Balochistan was divided into a complex mix of administrative units: British Balochistan, Kalat state and its dependencies (Kharan, Makran and Lasbela) and the Marri-Bugti tribal areas. British Balochistan was a chief commissioner province that primarily comprised the Afghan territories that were occupied by the British during the second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-80). The name “British Balochistan” was a misnomer given that the Pakhtun Afghans constituted the majority in the province. In the wake of Pakistan’s creation, the chief commissioner province was renamed Balochistan whereas the Kalat state and its principalities were merged to form the Balochistan States Union. Both units lost their distinct identity with the formation of the One Unit. In the days preceding the dissolution of One Unit, Pakhtun nationalists, led by Abdul Samad Khan Achakzai, accelerated efforts for the merger of the Pakhtun territories of former British Balochistan with those of the then-NWFP to create a united Pakhtun province. The Balochistan Muslim League chapter led by Qazi Isa and Nawab Jogezai wanted the reconstitution of former British Balochistan and the Kalat state as separate provinces. However, the then National Awami Party leadership was in favour of merging the two units into a single province. Consequently, in March 1970, the boundaries of contemporary Balochistan were announced. Pakhtun nationalists were annoyed with the decision as the new arrangement deprived them of identity and relegated them to a minority status.

Since 1970, the Baloch-Pakhtun divide has remained a defining feature of the politics of Balochistan. The Pakhtun question has both an identity element and a power-sharing aspect. Pakhtuns complain that very few people outside Balochistan, including their ethnic brethren in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, recognise them as Pakhtuns. Most people call them Baloch. Even the very learned lot get it wrong. At best, they manage the bizarre category ‘Balochi Pathan’. Additionally, Pakhtuns seek either a separate province or an equal share in the distribution of resources and powers under the current administrative regime, arguing that they are a distinct national unit and should, therefore, be treated on an equal basis irrespective of population. Over the past three decades, the issue has been further compounded by the influx of Afghan refugees into Balochistan. Baloch nationalists allege that a conspiracy is being hatched to convert the Baloch majority into a minority. Pakhtun nationalists maintain that there were very minor differences between the Pakhtun and Baloch population originally but these increased over the course of time, largely through engineering in Baloch areas. On the issue of Afghan refugees, Pakhtun nationalists contend that the Afghans have shifted location within their own homeland. As long as they populate the Pakhtun region and don’t settle in the Baloch areas, the Baloch should have no problem.

Although the Pakhtun-Baloch political differences have sharpened over time, they have rarely escalated into violent conflict. The Baloch and Pakhtuns have coexisted peacefully and waged joint political struggles on various occasions. The following factors explain why cooperation and competition, rather than conflict, have been the defining features of their relationship. First, the Pakhtun and Baloch populations are regionally segregated. Except Quetta, Sibi and parts of Loralai, they live in mutually exclusive territories and recognise each other’s entitlements. Secondly, they have common ideological precepts and largely non-conflicting political objectives. Ideologically, both Pakhtun and Baloch nationalist movements have a shared history of engagement with left-wing politics and pro-democracy movements. Thirdly, the Pakhtun ethnic group is sufficiently large and is not a ‘minority’ in the strict sense of the word. In addition to having a significant population, Pakhtuns also fare well in terms of socioeconomic conditions and have a predominant presence in the provincial capital. These factors, combined with the relative peace in Pakhtun areas, have augmented their bargaining position vis-a-vis the Baloch, so much so that some representatives of the latter claim to be at a disadvantage vis-a-vis the Pakhtuns.

Currently, the Baloch and Pakhtun nationalist elites are coalition partners in the provincial government. They have agreed upon an informal consociational power-sharing arrangement. Nevertheless, the simmering dispute over population is rearing its ugly head and threatening the existing cooperation. Ever since the federal government announced the holding of the population census in 2016, the Baloch ethno-nationalists have upped the ante and vowed to prevent the holding of the census in the presence of Afghan refugees. Pakhtun nationalists fear that local Pakhtuns are being targeted in the name of Afghan refugees. On the Baloch side, a process of ‘outbidding’ seems to have started between the two major ethno-nationalist parties — the BNP and the NP. The former has taken an increasingly hardline vis-a-vis the Pakhtuns and has criticised the NP for yielding to them and compromising on Baloch interests. The 2016 census is likely to be testing times for Baloch-Pakhtun cooperation. Given the multitude of other challenges that confront the restive province, it cannot afford a confrontation between its two major ethnic groups. The political leadership of both groups, therefore, should act proactively to amicably resolve their disputes.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 5th, 2015.

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Reader Comments (17)

  • Pashtun Yousafzai
    Jun 5, 2015 - 9:48AM

    A well balanced article.Kudos! You should write more about your province..Recommend

  • Jun 5, 2015 - 10:10AM

    Good piece especially for those who don’t know Pashtun Baloch in the province the history of the province and see everyone as BalochRecommend

  • Pakistani
    Jun 5, 2015 - 11:37AM

    So you are in favour of Afghan refugees to be included in census process?Recommend

  • Muhammad Khan
    Jun 5, 2015 - 12:34PM

    It is fact, you may be dont know the baloch is targeting as well, and the number of killing of baloch is high then other brother tribes. the baloch are fighting for rights of balochistan not baloch. the other tribes are not joining even opposing them. when achievement has been done the brother tribes claim the equal fair share. as the example a husband earn wife spend.Recommend

  • Fact Check
    Jun 5, 2015 - 3:26PM

    There is no conspiracy theory, the United Baloch Army run by Mehran Marri claimed responsibility(though he himself is in denial), any effort to shift the blame from them to other forces is a malicious campaign to absolve their role, which is what their PR wing is trying to do on social media.

    Ethnofascists in Balochistan had earlier massacred Punjabi,Sindhi,Seraiki,Hindkowan and Urdu-speaking settlers and laborers as well as their own Baloch, so it was only a matter of time until they turned against the most dominant ethnicity in the province, an ethnicity with a large presence in the Frontier Corps -who are responsible for the counter-insurgency operations, the Pashtuns.Recommend

  • Jamot
    Jun 5, 2015 - 3:35PM

    It isn’t true that Baloch and Pashtuns have always co existed peacefully in history, just read about the numerous wars and invasions between Mir Chakar and Ahmed Shah Abdali or with Noori Khan Nasser, there have been constant conflicts in the border regions, the Baloch were a vessel state of the Afghans but were always rebellious just like they were under the British and now under Pakistan.

    The rebellious nature of the Baloch stems from their history of being a confederation of a diverse bunch of people who never really belonged anywhere, so they joined forces and formed an ethnicity.Recommend

  • Yar M Yar
    Jun 5, 2015 - 3:40PM

    very nice and a factual piece it let know the peopl of the country and also out side it that the province is shared by Pashtun and baloch tribes but unfortunatily it only recognizes the baloch identity hence justifies the political struggl of pashtuns for both their identity and equal rights.Recommend

  • Mohammad Ali Rai
    Jun 5, 2015 - 7:13PM

    Excellent piece! Superb analysis. Recommend

  • usman kakar
    Jun 5, 2015 - 8:40PM

    you have done well to show some basic historical landlines. the federation still is not seeming to be serious about these incidents happening every now and then. we support the baloch cause but not the way they are struggling.. we have to stay with in the federation and fight for our rights democractically.Recommend

  • Ameer Ali
    Jun 5, 2015 - 9:43PM

    Dividing Balochistan in two separate provinces or three or four shall not be a problem, but sadly the Pakistani establishment would not be able to understand it, as for them they would see these divisions on ethnic and linguistic basis a matter of prejudice. Though administrative division of Baluchistan or any provinces based on ethnic and linguistic lines would be only beneficial for the people living in these areas, but it would cloud the judgment of the deep state as it would be only proving it self wrong why Pakistan was created at the first place. Recommend

  • Faheem Ahmad
    Jun 5, 2015 - 10:14PM

    Baloch has never claimed Pashtoon Land, in Baloch total district are 30 and out of it 8 district are Pashtoon district and kindly before writing something do some research, 2nd I agree with Mr Jiand Khan Jamaldini comments

    A misleading article to smash the historical facts. After one unit the The than Khan of Kalat Mir Ahmed Yar Khan in a press conference has demanded tHe Pashtun territory may be merged into NWFP and the first Assembly of Balochistan also have a result ion on it. chief Commissioner Provence never exercised in history of Balochistan nor it has any historical documentation which any one can present nor it’s have any map. It is a baseless and biased assumption towards Baloch territory claimed bay Pashtun while it was part of the Baloch land historically and land owned by Baloch tribesRecommend

  • amin marwat
    Jun 6, 2015 - 12:15AM

    excellent piece of writting,but i have still few reservation regarding Baloch and pashtuns unity that u have mentioned in ur article.And it is obvious from the depiction of your pashtuns brothers attitude towards Baloch and vice versa in GC university lahore…Recommend

  • Baloch
    Jun 6, 2015 - 1:47AM

    Both the baloch and pukhtoons understand as to who would benefit from a rift between the two ethnic groups. Baloch don’t oppose the idea of a single province for the pukhtoon brothers. Sanity should prevail and One should not paint a picture that fuels conspiracies. I don’t think there’s any justification for not sending the afghan refugees back to their country. Recommend

  • Col Gondal
    Jun 6, 2015 - 2:43AM

    @Faheem Ahmad:
    You are certifiably insane. The Sulaiman Mountains forms a natural border between Pashtun and Baloch territories. The Baloch hide behind the refugee excuse simply because their numbers have dwindled in the face of growing number of Pashtuns. They should let it combine with KP and FATA so at the very least we can have a balance between punjab and KP.Recommend

  • Col Gondal
    Jun 6, 2015 - 3:03AM

    @Fact Check:
    The overwhelming majority of Pashtuns in the Frontier Corps in Balochistan are from KP and parts of the FATA, mostly Mohmand, Bajaur and Khyber. Commanding officers are almost entirely from KP and the odd few who speak Pashto, such as myself, from Punjab and other areas. The Baloch separatists have great respite towards Pakistan and if this latest conflagration ignites some sort of ethnic tussle it will risk Pakistans existense.Recommend

  • Jun 6, 2015 - 8:48PM

    It is untrue that there is any rift between baloch and Pashtoon. Both pashtoon and baloch are living on their aborignal lands.It is very myopic aporoach to say that there is divide between baloch and pashtoon.if there is any divide it is amongst nationalists parties who are always ready to expliot the minor diffrences and to continue their rule on the poor people of the province by flaring up the diffrences.The author should have gone deep rather just pointing the minor diffrences which are quite normal in a mix society.Now again a stage has been prepared to make them fight on census 2016.Recommend

  • Jai
    Jun 29, 2015 - 8:07PM

    @Pakistani: Your question is irrelevant , they want to evacuate the area from the afghan refugees which is unacceptable according to Pashtun leadership Stance. And IF the answer to your question is a big YES , would you recommend killing ?Recommend

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