Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier

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BALUCHISTAN AND THE NORTH-WEST FRONTIER When Abdul "Badshah" Ghaffar Khan's son Wali Khan, one of the best-known leaders of the North-West Frontier province, was asked to define his identity, he replied: "I am first a Pukhtun tribesman, then a Muslim, and finally a Pakistani." He explained that the Pukhtun tribe was several thousand years old, while Islam was just fourteen hundred years old, and Pakistan a mere half century in age. The tensions between ethnicity, religion, and state create tensions in the tribal groups of this area and have never really been resolved.

Historical Background

The tribal groups who inhabit the Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier provinces are largely Baluch and Pukhtun, or Pushtun (the southern tribes pronounce "kh" as "sh"). They have rightly gained a reputation for being fiercely independent people. At the height of the British Empire, Rudyard Kipling wrote his famous poem "The Ballad of East and West" in which he pointed out "the twain shall never meet." Yet Kipling made an exception to his own imperial rule in the people of this area:

But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,

When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth.

Baluch and Pukhtun tribes have resisted the authority of central governments from the time history was first written. Delhi, before the creation of Pakistan, and Islamabad afterward have had to face the reality of turbulent tribes along a largely undefined international border. Some of the world's most renowned historical figures have therefore played their part on this stage—Alexander the Great, Timur, Babur, Aurangzeb, Lord George Curzon, Sir Winston Churchill, Mahatma M.K. Gandhi, and Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

Pukhtun tribes in the Khyber Pass shattered the imperial army of Aurangzeb, the great Mughal emperor, in 1672. Ten thousand Mughals were killed and twenty thousand captured. Across the border in Afghanistan, Pukhtun tribesmen decimated an entire British army called the Grand Army of the Indus. One sole survivor, half-demented and half-dead, appeared on a cold January morning at the Jalalabad garrison.

Treaties and Agreements

By the end of the nineteenth century, the British had enough experience of the tribes of this area to introduce significant administrative changes. Treaties and agreements, which guaranteed a large degree of autonomy, were signed with Baluch and Pukhtun tribes in order to pacify them. The Durand Boundary Commission was formed in 1894 to demarcate the borders between Afghanistan and British India. It came to be called the Durand Line after the British officer who was responsible for its demarcation. As the boundary passed through tribes, often cutting them in half, Afghanistan has disputed the Durand Line. The North-West Frontier province was created in 1901. Within the province there would be a special administrative category called the Tribal Areas. The civil and criminal procedure codes of British India would not apply to the Tribal Areas. The government's writ extended to a hundred yards on either side of the main road. Tribesmen could live their lives according to their own custom and tradition, or riwaj.

The Tribal Areas helped to contain but could not eliminate the problem of recalcitrant tribesmen for the British. A policy of "carrot and stick" was administered by some of the finest political officers drawn from the elite Indian Civil Service. Nonetheless, the tribes were inclined to launch a tribal or religious war at the slightest provocation. During the 1930s there were twenty-eight British battalions in Waziristan—more troops than on the rest of the subcontinent.

In contrast to the Tribal Areas in the new province, there were also settled districts with regular laws and administration. New districts were created such as Hazara. The people of Hazara were a mixture of Pukhtun and Punjabis. In time the district of Hazara created a distinct ethnicity called after the district itself—Hazarawal. The creation of a wholly new ethnicity is a phenomenon, suggesting the need for study by social scientists.

A certain romance developed in British literature regarding these tribesmen. They were seen as independent, courageous, and even honorable. While the British treated other Indians as little more than subjugated natives, the tribesmen along the Durand border were cast in a different light; indeed, they were considered the nearest thing to the "noble savage."

British officers grew to respect these tribes. John Masters, who served in Waziristan and later became a well-known novelist—his Bhowani Junction was made into a film with Stewart Granger and Ava Gardner—described these tribes as "physically the hardest people on earth" (Masters, p. 161). The following note, written as a confidential memorandum by a senior political officer, illustrates this respect:

I spoke above of political officers as the custodians of civilization dealing with barbarians. Against this definition, if he were to hear it, I am sure that Mehr Dar, or any other intelligent Mahsud Malik, would emphatically protest. Their argument, which is not altogether in a subconscious plane, may be stated thus—"A civilization has no other end than to produce a fine type of man. Judged by this standard the social system in which the Mahsud has been evolved must be allowed immeasurably to surpass all others. Therefore let us keep our independence and have none of your qanun [law] and your other institutions which have wrought such havoc in British India, but stick to our own riwaj [custom] and be men like our fathers before us." After prolonged and intimate dealings with the Mahsuds I am not at all sure that, with reservations, I do not subscribe to their plea. (Howell, p. xii)

The jostling for power between imperial Britain, Russia, and China naturally involved the tribes of this area because of the undefined nature of the international border, the toughness of the terrain, and the fierceness of the tribes. Besides, Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier province contained the two important passes into India: the Bolan Pass in the former province and the Khyber Pass in the latter. The government in Delhi based its military and political policy on the assumption that Russia would be tempted to drive through these passes in its search for the warm water ports of the Indian Ocean.

Great Game

The British called the political contest between the imperial powers the Great Game. The Game became an analogy and even extension of the public school ethos that dominated the elite ruling class of Victorian England. Every government in the region in one way or the other was involved in playing the Game. Even the boy Kim in one of Kipling's most famous novels becomes a player. The tribesmen too maneuvered within the Great Game. It was not difficult for them to play off Delhi, later Islamabad, against Kabul. A tribal leader summed it up thus: "We are like men with two jealous wives—both pulling us in their direction. Sometime we prefer one, sometimes the other."

Their participation in the Great Game allowed the tribesmen to continue political maneuvering after the creation of Pakistan in 1947. The Baluch have never quite given up the dream of an independent Greater Baluchistan, nor have the Pukhtun abandoned that of Pukhtunistan. Baluch leaders like the Khan of Kalat claim that Baluchis live in an area of over 3 million square miles (7.8 sq. km), the core of which is the province of Baluchistan itself, and total about 30 million people in number. Although the idea of creating a new state based on ethnicity remains a powerful one, the states from which it would be carved—Pakistan Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran—have vigorously opposed it.

The British, on the basis of trial and error, had several policies toward these two provinces and what lay beyond. At first, the British more or less left the tribesmen to their own devices. They called this policy one of "masterly inactivity." This was followed by greater involvement, and the policy was named "conciliatory intervention." A more aggressive "close border policy" followed. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the British were implementing what came to be called the "forward policy." Some of these policies created a straightforward clash between two different civilizations. Villages, water tanks, and grain stores were destroyed in what came to be known as "butcher and bolt" raids. The tribesmen therefore rejected modernization—schools, electricity, and roads—as they associated it with the imperial British.

The reluctance to accept modern development schemes did not change once the political dynamic was revamped after the creation of Pakistan in 1947. But the fact that Pakistan was a self-consciously Muslim country helped to ease the tension in the relationship between the state and the tribes. Thousands drifted to the cities. In time, Karachi would become the largest Pukhtun city in the world in terms of population. Pakistan's policy toward Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier province has alternated between benign neglect and crude aggressiveness. In the 1970s the Tribal Areas of Baluchistan saw a particularly brutal military adventure. This has not prevented Baluch and Pukhtuns from emerging as prominent figures in Pakistan itself. Indeed, at least two heads of state have come from the North-West Frontier province. Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali, from Baluchistan, was elected prime minister in 2002.

Economy and Society

Both Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier province are sparsely populated. Temperatures can go beyond 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49°C) in the summer and below freezing in the winter. It is a land of high mountains and deep ravines. Although there are valleys with limited agricultural land, the terrain is usually harsh and rainfall is limited to a few inches. Settlements are few and far between. The geography of these areas cannot sustain standing armies or feudal social structures headed by affluent leaders. Taxes are neither demanded nor given. An egalitarian ethos is therefore prevalent among the tribes.

A developed code of behavior, sometimes called the code of honor, pervades Baluch and Pukhtun society. Among the Baluch this code is called the Baluchiat and among the Pukhtun it is called Pukhtunwali, or "the way of the Baluch" and "the way of the Pukhtun," respectively. The idea and practice of hospitality, revenge, and upholding the honor of the tribe are important elements in these codes. Folk literature is replete with references to these codes. There is a Baluch war ballad going back to the sixteenth century that sums up the sense of tribal independence backed by formidable terrain: "The lofty heights are our comrades and the pathless gorges our friends."

Baluchistan harbors a sense of grievance against Islamabad. In size Baluchistan is about 44 percent of the total area of Pakistan. Its population, however, is only 5 percent of the entire population of Pakistan. Islamabad bureaucrats, quick to seize an advantage, have tended to ignore the first fact and concentrate on the second when allocating funds to the province. In addition, the dominating province of Punjab, which has about 60 percent of Pakistan's population but only 26 percent of the area, has tended to send people to settle in and administer Baluchistan, causing further resentment.

There are, however, differences between Baluch and Pukhtun social structure. The chief, called the sirdar, dominates the Baluch tribes. Although he has little economic power to back him, tribal tradition ensures his status and authority. He provides a rudimentary form of justice in disputes. He provides leadership against the enemy and protection in challenging times. In time the sirdar became identified with the tribe itself. Some, like the khan of Kalat, were able to convert a tribal base into a full-fledged state recognized by the British. Some sirdars are called after the tribe itself, like the Marri and the Bugti in the Tribal Areas of Baluchistan.

Among the Pukhtun, leadership is quite different. There is a stronger tradition of individual independence. While certain elders may emerge through their wisdom or bravery, their authority still remains restricted. Decisions are made on the basis of the Jirga, or the council of elders. This makes for independent tribesmen who fiercely guard their independence but also for a perpetual state of anarchy. Anthropologists have referred to this kind of society as "ordered anarchy."

There are non-Muslim groups living in both Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier province. Hindu groups have lived in Baluchistan for a long time, even in the Tribal Areas. The tribe protects these groups, and their honor is identified with the honor of the tribe. The Bugti tribe has a prominent Hindu group attached to it, which has adopted the dress and code of the tribe. At one stage, the tribe successfully fielded a Hindu for the provincial assembly seat. He was known by his Hindu name, with his tribal affiliation as an honorary Bugti attached to it.

In the North-West Frontier province, the Kalash, usually called the Kafirs or unbelievers, have not been so fortunate. A small group who according to legend are descended from Alexander's troops, they are constantly subject to attempts at conversion to Islam. Earlier Amir Abdur Rahman, the "Iron Amir" of Afghanistan, converted the Kafir living on the Afghan side of the border by the sword. He renamed their land from Kafiristan, the land of the Kafirs, to Nooristan, the land of light. Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King, which was made into a film starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine, is set among the Kalash. The group faces an uncertain future in a region which itself is on the threshold of major change.

The Future of Tribal Society

In the early part of the twenty-first century, the tribal societies of Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier provinces are facing serious challenges to their identity. These challenges are both external and internal. Modern technological developments have succeeded in penetrating even the most inaccessible areas. Many of the bigger settlements now have generators for electricity and therefore access to television, computers, and the Internet. Thus modern images, alien and often disturbing, are now available locally. These images clash with traditional ideas of behavior and attitudes toward social life.

The war in Afghanistan in the 1980s against the Soviets and the ongoing war of the United States against the Taliban, which began in 2001, have affected these areas. The Baluch generally and the Pukhtun in particular are sympathetic to the local tribesmen and are opposed to any foreign intervention. There are strong rumors of American incursions in the Tribal Areas, which has caused deep unrest. The Pakistan army, aiding the Americans, has set up posts in large numbers for the first time in history along the international border in the Tribal Areas. This intrusion has caused deep resentment and heated discussion in the areas.

One result of the unhappiness with Pakistan's alliance with America was the vote given to the religious parties in the two provinces in the elections held in 2002. Religious parties have never made significant inroads traditionally because of the nature of the social structure of the tribes. This time, however, religious parties swept the polls, particularly in the North-West Frontier province. Religious leaders have once again gained ascendancy over the traditional tribal elders by talking of a holy war against the infidel. This has encouraged the mood of defiance against America—and by extension, anything associated with Westernization, such as films and videos.

Internally, members of the young generation want more change and more authority. Many would like to benefit from the educational system of the rest of the country. Some would like to be involved in the mainstream politics of the nation. In particular, the role of women will act as a catalyst in the future. Most women would like to preserve their traditions but want to assert their right to be educated and participate in social and even political life.

Tribalism in these areas appears to be a blessing and an affliction. While it has provided stability through unstable times, it has also created dilemmas and sometimes impossible challenges. Now that the twenty-first century is poised to penetrate one of the most closed societies of the world, it is to be seen whether the tribesmen can remain "men like our fathers before us."

Akbar Ahmed

See alsoIslam's Impact on India ; Pakistan


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Howell, Evelyn. Mizh: A Monograph on Government's Relations with the Mahsud Tribe. 1931. Reprint, Karachi and New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Kipling, Rudyard. Kim. 1901. Reprint, New York: Heritage Press, 1962.

Masters, John. Bugles and a Tiger. London: M. Joseph, 1956.