Cohesive Bases of Baloch Nationalism

It has been taken from the book “Baloch Nationalism its origin and development”, written by Taj Mohammad Breseeg. .                 Part-III


With demography being one of the most powerful forces in politics, the Baloch nationalists claim that the Pakistani and Iranian authorities have deliberately underestimated their population. There is a great discrepancy between the nationalists’ estimates and the official census of the Baloch population. The former rage from 30 million, by the last ruler of Kalat, Ahmed Yar Khan Baloch (1975), to 15 million by Mir Khuda Bakhsh Marri Baloch (1985). By contrast, the official Pakistani census of 1981 only showed a total Baloch population of 3.5 million. Thus, it is difficult to estimate the total number of the Baloch population, partly because official statistics often ignore ethnic affiliation and mother tongue, since it is generally not in the interest of the governments in the countries where Balochi is spoken to focus on the ethnic differences that exist within their broders.

It should be noted that the census issue in Pakistan is a politicized one, given the dynamics of ethnic politics in that country. Khuda Bakhsh Marri, a former Chief Justice of Balochistan, while criticizing the 1961 census, discusses in detail the inconsistencies in the census figures and maintains that the Baloch Population in Sindh by 1961 was over three million. He considers that most probably the Baloch and Brahuis were jumbled together with the general Sindhi-speaking people without making proper inquiries about their language or community. He estimates that the Baloch population in Punjab stood at around six million out of a total population thirty million, according to the 1972 census figures. He calculates the total Baloch population in the three countries, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, at between fifteen to sixteen million people. Speaking with Selig Harrison, the defense minister in the Zia regime, Mir Ali Ahmed Talpur criticized Marri’s figure for Sindh and said that it might well be too low. However, he distinguished between 1.4 million Baloch who spoke Balochi, more than half of them in Karachi, and some 2 million more who were Baloch by ethnic origin but no longer spoke the language. He supported his estimates by pointing to the fact that thirteen of the twenty-seven members elected to the Sindh Provincial Assembly in 1970 were Baloch.

The percentage of Baloch population in Sindh, that is “Sindhi Baloch” is sometimes put as high as 50 percent, and there is evidence to support this. For example, the 1961 census reported that Balochi was spoken by only 34 percent of the population of Jacobabad district, one of four Sindhi districts adjoining Balochistan, but acknowledged that the Baloch constituted 60 percent of the population. The situation of Punjab is similar to Sindh. For instance, it was reported in the 1961 census that in Dera Ghazi Khan, district of Punjab bordering directly on Balochistan, Balochi was spoken by less than 6 percent of the population. But the same census report acknowledged that the inhabitants of the district, which includes a large census was taken, were “predominantly” Baloch.

In 1980, the Baloch population of Afghanistan was estimated at around 300,000. The Baloch nationalist in Afghanistan, however, like the Eastern and Western Baloch nationalists claim that their population is much higher than officially acknowledged. In early 1980, according to the exiled Baloch Nationalist leader, Syed Mohammad Shiranzai, the total population of the Baloch in Afghanistan was approximately 500,000. The main settlement area of the Baloch is Valayat-e-Nimruz (Nimruz province). Other Baloch groups of some numerical significance live in the neighboring Helmand province and in the western Afgan province of Heart and Badghiz; scattered groups are also found in other provinces, namely Farah, Faryab, Samngan, Takhar, Kunduz, Badakhshan, Jauzjan, and Kandahar, as well as in the capital Kabul. In Badghiz and Heart the Baloch population in 1975 was 30,000-40,000 people. According to official statistics the population of Valayat-e Nimruz, the majority Baloch populated province, was 122,000 in 1975. There are also scattered Baloch tribes and settlement along Afghanistan’s border with Iran extending from south to north where the boundaries of Iran, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan meet. Like Iran and Afghanistan, there is no official figure about the Baloch population in the Arabian Peninsula (mainly in Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait). However, Elfenbein refers to “various estimates from 1979” and estimates a figure of 500,000.

In 1981, Selid Harrison estimated the total population of the Baloch speakers in the three countries of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan at around five million. This figure, however, excludes the Brahuis who are ethnically Baloch, but speak Brahui. If his estimation was based on ethnie, rather than language, it could conceivably double or triple the number, as Mir Khuda Bakhsh Marri Baloch did. In Pakistan’s population census of 1981, Balochi was given as the mother tongue of 379, 148 households in Pakistan’s a figure that was 3% of the total. Brahui was given as the mother tongue of an additional 151,958 households (1.2%). Together the Balochi – and Brahui speaking groups thus accounted for approximately 4.2% of Pakistan’s households. Extrapolating from that figure, Pakistan with a 1981 population officially placed at 84.3 million had a Baloch population of 3.5 million. In the early 1981, an estimate of the number of the Iranian Baloch was 750,000. Meanwhile, according to the Iranian official census, provided in 1976, the population of Sistan Balochistan was 659,297. These figures also include the non-Baloch population outside the province. Harrison’s estimate leaves us with a figure of about 5 million Balochi-speakers in 1981. As indicated earlier, there was also a similar figure of Baloch who spoke languages other than Balochi, mainly in Sindh and Punjab in 1981. Thus a total Baloch population of 10 million for 1981, in all the three countries of Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan, looks more reasonable to the author.

Language and religion

“I am proud to address you in Balochi today”, declared the Khan, Ahmed Yar Khan, on 15th August 1947, the day of Independence. “Insha Allah, whenever I will address you in future, it will be in Balochi because it is the language of the Baloch Nation”, he continued. The Balochs’ consciousness of their common language and cultural heritage constitutes another significant foundation of their nationalism. As manifested in a set of shared social norms, value systems, traditions, and folklore, the Balochi cultural values, together with their cultural environment, is the focus of the nationalist appeals for broader popular support for their overall demands of which cultural autonomy is only one. The Baloch see themselves as the heirs to an ancient culture, which has served as a strong unifying force, giving them the sense of a distinctive identity and enabling them to counter the ever present threat of absorption and assimilation into the surrounding culture. So they have successfully preserved their cultural traditions throughout recorded history. “To a great extent”, Selig Harrison wrote, “It is the vitality of this ancient cultural heritage that explains the tenacity of the present demand for the political recognition of Baloch identity”.

Language, culture, and perception are intimately intertwined. It is thus not surprising that language has been as key element contributing to a sense of national identity. Spooner points to the importance of the Balochi langue as a unifying factor between the numerous groups nowadays identifying themselves as “Baloch”. He wrote, “Baloch identity in Balochistan has been closely tied to the use of the Balochi language in inter-tribal relations”. In spite of almost half a century of brutal assimilation policy, both in Iran and Pakistan, the Baloch people have managed to retain their culture and their oral tradition of story telling. The harsh oppression of the Iranian and Pakistani states has strengthened the Balochs’ will to pass on their heritage to coming generations. Lanauge plays a powerful role in the struggle of Baloch people for their right to self-determination. The Balochi language is both proof and symbol of the separate identity of the Baloch, and impressive efforts are made to preserve and develop it. Thus, having realized the significane of the language (Balochi) as the most determinant factor for the Baloch identity, the Persian and Punjabi dominated states of Iran and Pakistan have sought o “assimilate” the Baloch by all possible means.

The Balochi is generally classified as a northwestern Iranian language. It can be divided into two major dialect groups, namely Eastern Balochi and Western Balochi. Eastern Balochi is spoken mainly in the northeastern areas of the province of Balochistan in Pakistan and in neighboring areas of the province of Punjab and Sindh. Western Balochi is spoken in the western and southern areas of the Pakistani province of Balochistan as well as in Karachi and other parts of Sindh, the Arabian Gulf States, Iran, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan. There are an estimated six to seen million speakers of Balochi, most of whom speak Western Balochi, which is also the dialect that has been mostly used in Balochi literature. Since there are fewer speakers of Eastern Balochi than of Western Balochi, Jsef Elferbein has suggested that the eastern dialect speakers “form a very small and isolated group”. Calculations based on figures from the 1981 cnsus of Pakistan suggest, however that about one-third of all Balochi speakers use Eastern Balochi. Furthermore, to the socio-economic division of Iranian Balochistan into a northern versus a central and southern part corresponds the main dialect division within western Balochistan, namely between the northern (Rakhshani) versus the southern (Makkorani). There are however, as noted both by Elfenbein and Spooner, some dialects that have their own very distinct features and do not readily fit into one of the two groups mentioned above. One such dialect is that of Sarawani.

As discussed in chapter 3, in the course of history, the Baloch country has been attacked, occupied and populated from West and North by, Persians, Greeks, Parthian, Arabs, Turks and Mughals. They had their own languages but the Balochi language and culture was so rich and deep rooted that it absorbed all the languages and cultures of invaders and developed itself into a unique language and culture. The Balochi language has its own grammar, and it is rich in vocabulary and contains many words for different objects like different words for domestic animals according to their age and conditions, which cannot be alternatively used. Balochi is also rich in idioms, idiomatic phrases, lullabies, folk stories, fold songs, and fold literature.

However, the Brahui Baloch, and many other Balochs in Sindh and Punjab speak languages other than Balochi. Emphasizing on the common cultural heritage (except language), the former defense minister of Pakistan, Mir Hazar Khan, pointed out in an interview with the author, that except their language, they (the Sindhi speaking Baloch) have fully maintained their Balochi customs, traditions and culture. He said, “We have different ceremonies about our forefathers, songs of Chakar and Gwahram, Shaih Morid and Hani, Duda and Balach and many other such traditional songs are common among us. We still have our own traditional clothes, which is called Balochi douch. We have many things which really separate us from other Sindhis”.

The Baloch have many interesting characteristics in their culture. They have a different perception about religion than other nations in Middle East. They are not fundamentalist and do not believe in mixing religion with politics. The overwhelming majority of the Baloch adhere to the Sunni branch of Islam of the Hanafite rite. It is important to note that that before succumbing to Islam the Baloch were mostly Zoroastrians. The remnants of some Zoroastrian tradition are still evident among some Baloch tribes. The conversion of the Baloch to Islam had a sterilizing effect on their sense of nationhood.

However, the Islamic laws (Sharia), institutions, and culture play a very significant role in the daily lives of the people as well as the overall aspect of their society. In the early 19th century, Henry Pottinger wrote, “With regards to religion, they are, with a very few exceptions to the westward, Soonee (Sunni) Moosulmans (Muslims), and inveterate in their hatred enmity against the Sheeas (Shiites), under which persuasion, I am convinced, it would be more dangerous to appear in Beloochistan (Balochis-tan), than even as a Christian”. According to the Sunni-Baloch the Shiites abuse three of the four Caliphs who followed the Prophet Mohammad and who are held in great veneration by Sunni Muslims. It should be noted that the antagonism between the Sunnis and the Shiites, for example, sometimes manifesting itself in violent clashes between the two sects, is about thirteen-and-a-half centuries old. Moreover, in western Balochistan Sunnism has taken on a political significance as well in the snse that it has always served as major rallying point against the ruling Persians whose overwhelming majority follows Shiism.

While most Baloch are Sunni Muslims, there are two non-Hanafite communities among them. The Bameri community centred on Dalgan west of Bampur and Shiite, and a relatively large community in Makkoran who called themselves “Zigri” (Zikri). The exact figures of this breakdown are not available, as the countries in which Balochistan is located either do not classify individuals by religious community in their censuses, or they do not classify the Baloch separately.

When the Bameris became Shiite in Iranian Balochistan, it is not known. Sir Henry Pottinger records how some of the Baloch tribes living in the central Perso-baloch border regions in Kerman were converted by Persian authorities to Shiism and settled there during the first decade of the 19th Century. Writing in 1872, Henry Bellew also testifies that the ruling clan of the Narui tribe in Sistan was converted to Shiism after the region feel to Persia in 1865. In a conversation on this subject with Dr. Danish Narui, the former Governor of Balochistan, he also himself from Sistan, he said that there are a few Narui Baloch in Sistan who are Shiite.

It should be noted that Shiite communities can be found among the Baloch in Sindh and Punjab. How might this have happened? It is still a matter of discussion among the scholars. Most probably it was in Sindh that the Baloch were converted to Shiims. As the Baloch tribes were settled in Sindh in 15th century, the country was already a centre for Shiite activities. Historically the Shiite influence in Sindh started with the arrival of Ismaili missionaries during the 10th century. Since then the Ismailis (Shiites) dominated religious development in the country until the late 15th century. As observed by Khuda Bakhsh Marri, Mir Shahdad, son of legendary Baloch hero, Mir Chakar Rind is said to have introduced Shiism among the Baloch during the first half of the 16th century. However, the Balochi ballads from 12th century, claim that Baloch were followers of Caliph Ali.

Discussing on the role of Sunni Islam in the Iranian Balochistan, Dr. Inyatullah Baloch states, “Sunni Islam forms an important factor in preserving Baloch identity against Iranian nationalism, which is expressly Shia and Persian”. By contrast, however, in Pakistani Balochistan, the Baloch face no such threat Shiites and, as a result, secular forces have historically dominated the Baloch national movement in that country. Thus, in Pakistan, as observed by Nina Swidler, “religion does not distinguish Baloch identity”.

Contemporary to the rise of Shiism in Persia, a new religion, Zikriism, emerged in Balochistan in the mid 16th century. As the Safavid rulers of Persia adopted Shiism, so the Boleidai rulers of Makkoran adopted Zikriism as their state religion. Under Zigri (Zikri) rule, according to Dr. Inayatullah Baloch, the Balochi culture flourished due to the patronage of the ruling elite. Consequently, Zigri poets and religious scholars have enriched Balochi literature. In fact, because they attach religious significance to sites there, the Zigri have developed a special reverence for the land of Balochistan. For them Balochistan, and especially Turbat, was the “Gul-e-Zamin” (Flower of the earth). This patriotic attitude on the part of the Zigri Baloch according to Dr. Baloch is the forerunner of modern Baloch nationalism.

Historically, it is believed that the Zigris are the followers of Syed Mohammad (c. 1442-1505 AD) originally from Jaunpur, India, who is considered to be the Mehdi. According to Zigri tradition, he came to Makkoran and took abode at “Koh-e-Morad” a holy place in the suburb of Turbat, preached his doctrine, converted the whole of Makkoran, and then disappeared. Zigri doctrine deviates from orthodox Muslim belief, but Zigris consider themselves to be true Muslims. Despite their doctrinal difference there are many Sunni influences on Zigri religious beliefs and practices, and on their socio-political life. Both sects regard the Koran as their holy book and as the final wahy (revelation) and actual Kalam (words) of Allah. In addition, the day-to-day life of Zigris, their names and their culture are a part and parcel of Baloch Sunni tradition. As estimated by Selig Harrison, in 1980 the Zigri Baloch population was estimated at 500,000 to 700,000, living in the coastal Makkoran area and in Karachi. Moreover Harrison believes that the Zigris of Balochistan are allied with the Baloch national cause.

While many countries have attempted to use religion to legitimate their rule (e.g., Divine Right of Kings in medieval France and Spain, Valayat-e Faqih in Iran), forms of worship in Balochistan are so diverse that a nationalist leader or movement cannot use religion as a unifying factor, despite the renewal of the importance of religion in Baloch self-identification (especially in Iranian Balochistan). In addition to the Sunni-Zigri split and the small minority of Shiites, there are also smaller minorities of Hindus, Khojas (Ismailis), and Sikhs in Balochistan.


Posted on June 16, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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