'National Identity' in Balcohistan?
Balochistan is an arid mountainous region located in Southern Asia, rich in natural resources such as iron, coal, and copper. To the north lies the Pushtun region and to the east the Sindhi and Panjabi regions. Today, much of Balochistan lies within the borders of Pakistan, constituting around 40% of Pakistan’s total land mass.
Under the Islamic Empire between the 7th and 17th centuries, nomadic lifestyles were the norm and without the restrictions of nation-state borders, migration to and from this region was common. This freedom of movement meant that no real ‘Baloch’ identity existed – Balochistan was simply a mountainous landscape inhabited by numerous tribes and devoid of centralised control.
British Colonial rule, beginning in 1839, saw this way of life uprooted. Britain’s interest in the region stemmed from its geographical location – Britain wanted its troops to be granted safe passage through the region into Afghanistan. The invasion of Afghanistan failed; however, this marked the beginning of Britain’s detrimental influence over not only Balochistan but much of the eastern hemisphere.
In the subsequent years, under British authority, the Westphalian structure of state soverignty (central government holds power over specified territory) was introduced to the continent. This involved state borders being drawn on a map of the area, which corresponded to intangible borders across the physical land. Independent governing bodies were appointed to each state, who were from this point forward granted administrative power over the area of land contained within their borders. This meant that people once free to migrate across borderless landscapes, were now forced to live within the confined space of borders and collective control. The Baloch people are no exception to this – the majority of who now live within the curated borders of Pakistan.
The consequences of this for the Baloch people extend far further than simply restricting their ability to migrate freely. Once Balochistan was ‘given’ to the newly established state of Pakistan in 1948, the people inhabiting this landscape were given a new identity, a national identity. The Pakistan borders enclosed the Baloch people within not just a geographical space, but a political space, whereby they were expected to form a connection with the millions of other people also within the borders – people they had never, and likely will never meet. At the same time, these intangible borders created a physical barrier between the Baloch people within Pakistan and the Baloch people now within states of Iran and Afghanistan. All of this occurred whilst the Baloch people remained in the same geographical space they have inhabited throughout the Islamic Empire.
In attempt to cement this newly constructed national Pakistani identity, it was declared that all those within the borders of Pakistan – including the Panjabis, Bengalis, and many other ethno-linguistic groups within the region - should be ‘proud to be known as Pakistanis and nothing else’. This marked the beginning of many state intiatives which have attempted to supress the Baloch identity in the name of a centralised, unified, ‘national’ Pakistani identity.
In response to the loss of independence experienced by Balochistan and the violent oppression that followed, the Baloch Nationalist Movement (BNM) formed. Its aims were clear: regain regional autonomy, prevent economic exploitation, and retain the Baloch identity. In attempting to reach these aims, the BNM and the wider Baloch population has faced considerable retaliation from the state. This has included constant military presence, arbitrary detention and torture, and execution.
Despite this relentless and violent oppression, the BNM has continued to push back, leading to the abolishment of Pakistans’ 1954 ‘One-unit’ policy – a policy which attempted to supress the heterogeneity of ethno-linguistic identity within Pakistan, through strategies such as the establishment of a compulsory national language (Urdu) – in 1970. The same year saw the recognition of Balochistan as the 4th province of Pakistan, enabling Balochistan to be represented in government for the first time.
This win for Balochistan is by no means the end of the struggle towards regional autonomy and end to the oppression of the Baloch people. State sanctioned violence and exploitation of the regions natural resources continued throughout the 1970s. Tensions escalated in 1973, when the National Awami Party (NAP), which advocated for greater autonomy for the four provinces of Pakistan, was dismissed after a fabricated arms incident. Intensified violence followed as the military used bombs to target individuals who were believed to be more loyal to the NAP than the central Pakistan government, an attack which lasted four years.
What has become clear from this conflict is that the centralised government is not only using physical violence, but also political tactics to diminish the credibility of Balochistan as an autonomous region. The human impact is profound and should not be taken lightly – spanning from high death tolls and destruction of landscape to economic and political instability – inciting a degree of fear which is difficult to comprehend.
The latest conflict which began in 2006 after the assassination of Akbar Khan Bugti (the governor of Balochistan), is still ongoing. Perhaps one of the most disheartening characteristics of this latest conflict, is that the new generation of BNM members are calling for the same changes as their predecessors: regional autonomy, recognition of their Baloch identity over Pakistani identity, and an end to economic exploitation.
The Partition of India in 1947 marked the beginning of the last 74 years of continued oppression in Balochistan. However, the effects of the Partition are by no means isolated to Balochistan, but rather are experienced by many geographical regions situated close to state borders. For example, the regions of Kashmir and Panjab, located across the state borders of Pakistan and India, have also been in a situation of protracted violence since 1948. Like the people of Balochistan, their inhabitants have been subjected to their linguistic and tribal identities being supressed in the name of state nationalism, caught in the crossfire of Pakistan and India’s dispute over territorial ownership.
What is important to remember is that concepts such as ‘border’, ‘nation’ and ‘sovereignty’ have been imagined. The cartography through which they have been constructed, binds the inhabitants of a geographical region into a singular political space. The devastating impact that has ensued from this colonial practice is experienced by millions across the sub-continent.
Shah, K. M. "The Baloch And Pashtun nationalist movement in Pakistan: Colonial Legacy and The Failure of State Policy." Quetta: Observer Research Foundation (2019).
Speeches as Governor General of Pakistan 1947-1948, Islamabad, GoP 1976, p 158-59
Gattani, Yogesh. "The Resilience of Baloch Insurgencies: Understanding the Fifth Period." (2021).
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. Verso books, 2006.