In defence of the Baloch sardar

Published: November 24, 2010

Can doing away with the Baloch sardar system help resolve anything?

The unrest in Balochistan is fast becoming taboo in our public discourse. While the issue is granted much less than its due airtime in electronic media, even whatever lately has been written in print also often tends to conform to the national security narrative. Considering how large an impact media can have in forming opinions, it’s a pity that prime time pundits have failed to break free of the establishment’s shackles.

A prime example is Mr Ejaz Haider’s op-ed piece on Balochistan published in The Express Tribune on November 6. When I read e piece I disagreed with his reasoning but did not feel a need to write about it until a couple of weeks ago when I had a discussion with several friends.

There were several similarities in the argument put forth by Mr Haider and the urbanised elite of the Punjab. Both denounced the sardari system and insisted that any solution to the issue needed to be sought within the framework of the Pakistani federation.

What they despised about the sardari system was that it did not recognise the rights of ordinary folk and granted near infinite authority to the sardar.

But while they defend the common good they assert that the Baloch should dare not think about seceding from the federation.

Their ‘within the federal framework’ argument ignores the Baloch’s right to self determination – a right the state champions for  Kashmiris. The ideologues of two-nation theory were also hell bent upon obtaining a separate state for Muslims in the pre-partition India.

Is it just the sardar?

As a matter of principle the exploitation of humans at the hands of other humans is condemnable. But we ought to give Baloch sardars some leeway in after all, he isn’t the only one who is not conforming to the urbanite’s liberal democratic ideals. We have witnessed some of the most cruel and bare negations of human rights in very urban regions where the critics of the sardari system hail from.

Recall Advocate Naeem, who allegedly killed his minor maid Shazia after torturing her in Lahore’s Defence Housing Authority; the lynch mob of Sialkot; the religious bigots of Gojra; the plethora of cases filed against oppressed groups under blasphemy and hudood laws; the never-ending sequel of target killings in Karachi and the inhumane working conditions of industrial labourers; brick kiln workers; daily-wagers and most domestic servants.

A Pakistani perspective on a Baloch issue

Blame it on ethnic or linguistic differences, religious or feudal bigotry, elitism or worse on man’s competitive nature but the bottom line is that Pakistan’s educated urban elite stands shoulder to shoulder with the Baloch sardar when it comes to their track record on human rights.

Sections of the elite have accrued numerous socio-economic benefits during their 63 years of dominance within the state-structure and the marketplace.

Their interests are now entrenched interests in the national project and can never view Balochistan’s problems from a Baloch person’s perspective.

One Baloch point of view

A few weeks ago, while I was covering the Punjab convention of the Workers Party Pakistan, I met Yousaf Masti Khan, a Baloch politician who provided several useful insights into the issue.

Khan is by no stretch of the imagination the prototypical sardar my urban, liberal, democratic friends are so keen to blame for all of Balochistan’s grievances.

He is a Baloch by birth who now lives in Karachi and is a member of the central executive committee of the WPP, a union of several left-wing parties.

For him, the problem is not the sardari system, which he said was embedded in the social fabric and could only be fad away through an evolutionary process. Such a transformation of the Baloch society, Khan contended, would do little good if imposed by outsiders (note: one of the central tenets of the European colonialism was to ‘civilize’ the so-called barbarians, yet post-colonial world is hardly a more civil place to live in).

Social change, he maintained, could only be set forth in Balochistan through true self-government. For this to happen, he said, the authoritarian state machinery needed to stop playing its dirty game of co-opting and pitching sardars against one another. His within-the-federal-framework-solution came with the following conditionalities:

1)   Recognising the armed struggle as homegrown instead of linking it to Indian support

2)   Releasing missing persons and political prisoners

3)   The military’s withdrawal from civilian areas – and –

4)   Autonomy to the people of Balochistan over themselves and their resources

A federation first needs to provide representation to all people falling within its borders, only then can it claim sovereignty over them and their territory.


Umair Rasheed

Works at the Lahore desk of The Express Tribune and tweets @umairrasheed1

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Farooq Aziz

    Hi umair I’ve always enjoyed reading your blog posts. thought provoking and insightful.Recommend

  • Sana Saleem

    I agree with you ! This is really serious about Pakistan. But when the controlling entities are not either interested or giving it way because of their personal concerns, we can’t do any thing. What happened in Karachi few days back was just because of the personal concerns of the political parties ruling there. This is so shocking because this is controllable by the Government who seems least interested.Recommend

  • Waqqas Iftikhar

    nicely put…..everybody talks about the sardari system there which indeed is very inequitable by its nature but feudal systems are widespread throughout pakistan, the waderas of sindh, the chaudhrys of punjab and maliks in NWFP so why is it that only balochistan comes out as a significantly underdeveloped region within pakistan?

    if one takes a look at the history of pakistani balochistan, it is quite evident that the region just ‘happened’ to have integrated with pakistan – the baloch separatist movement has a long history right up from mir gul khan naseer, it would serve us all better if we took some time to think about the problems in this province that provide the fuel for the separatist fireRecommend

  • Sheraz Ahmed

    But we ought to give Baloch sardars some leeway in after all, he isn’t the only one who is not conforming to the urbanite’s liberal democratic ideals. We have witnessed some of the most cruel and bare negations of human rights in very urban regions where the critics of the sardari system hail from.

    THAT is your argument in defense of the Baloch sardar? That we ought to not condemn the Sardari system because exploitation exists elsewhere? Bravo. Of course, exploitation exists elsewhere, but I don’t think any sensible “urbanized liberal elite” (why does the looney left constantly peddle these terms as pejoratives, like Fox News does “liberal mainstream media”? heh) would say human rights violations in Multan or Lahore Cantonment or Clifton, Karachi are okay.

    Your conclusion: because it’s embedded in Baloch society, if left on its own, the sardari system will simply fade away. Like slavery.

    Oh wait…Recommend

  • Umair

    @Sana Saleem: you’re right we cant do much concrete, I’d say its best that we don’t and leave it to the people of Balochistan to decide their fate, but ya we can and should at least accept and reflect that the state-of-affairs in the province owe more to the Pakistani state’s authoritarian presence than to the much maligned sardari system

    @Sheraz Ahmed: I made it clear on the outset that I’m not defending the sardari system, but we can at least make sense of the bigger evil that is the state of Pakistan ( both its civil and military arms), which has been playing havoc with the province and its people. The sardars are nothing without state support (remember how Akbar Bugti was killed), besides, the baloch separatist movement is not limited to a couple of sardars only, a very large section of Baloch youth represented by the Balochistan Students Organsiation is actively supporting the movement. So secession or rapprochement should be a decision best left with the Baloch people.Recommend

  • Shemrez Nauman Afzal

    Very insightful and analytically thorough.
    However, I would only agree with part 4 of your proposed Social Change, on the basis that it was supposed to be that way from day one.
    Part 1 is ipso facto redundant if you link it to Musharraf’s statements or to the Sharm-el-Shaikh communique, because a lot of evidence regarding “foreign involvement in Balochistan” has yet to be made public (depending on yet some more issues and considerations). Whether or not a handful of tribal sardars unwillingly play into the hands of external debilitators, or whether they function as willing proxies thereof, is a strategically tertiary matter.
    Part 2 is difficult because (a) what do you do with missing persons who are also missing when it comes to the State (i.e. the State actually does not know where they are and has actually not kidnapped them or made them subject to unlawful detention) and (b) is it not an NRO-type amnesty if you release prisoners (political or otherwise) without justiciably following due process of law (which, of course, the State had overlooked in the initial instance – but two wrongs do NOT make a right)
    Part 3 is also redundant, since civil security apparatus has to be bolstered, strengthened, modernized and made more effective in light of the current security situation. Unless and until civilians can adequately and professionally secure the settled areas of Pakistan, the military can not be redeployed from cities, districts, villages, or any settled area where there is a sizable amount of civilian population and where there may be threats of militancy and extremist violence.Recommend

  • Gurchani

    Can some one ask Punjab’s elite and Islamabad’s security establishment that if Sardars in Balochistan are so powerful that they can stop social, economic and human developmentt then how come Army, NAVY, FC and Airforce was able to construct six large cantonments, fourty threee massive FC garrisons, Six Navel base, Missile testing sites and Nuclear testing site ?

    No Sardars are not able to stop development, Islamabad is unwilling to develop Balochistan for several stratagic reasons.

    PAF Recommend

  • Nasreen Shah

    As a civil society activists, I use to travel Balochistan with frequency. I was inspired this young energatic Baloch Senator, who resigned from his possition in 2008. While discussing situation in Balochistan Mr. Sana Baloch very logicaly replied.

    “How establishment holds the Baloch people and their leadership responsible for the current state of affairs ? Yet how can a region develop when it has more soldiers than teachers, more garrisons then universities, more naval bases than science and research centres? In Balochistan today, Frontier Corps (FC) cantonments outnumber colleges, there are more police stations than vocational training centres and more check-posts than government girls’ schools”.


  • Amer

    Nasreen, your statement from Mr. Sana Baloch is eye opening and very true. Development of the province is the only way forward otherwise we can cry wolf all we want about foreign involvement, it won’t do anyone any good. Recommend

  • Ali Tahir

    What you have written is very immature, Two wrongs do not make One right, please go to Baluchistan sometime and see that the people are against the Nawabs and Sardars, its only the power of the Sardar that forces them to keep quiet, the separatist movement is indeed an intelligence game of 3 countries, and the miliatry power comes from their resources.Recommend