The geolocation of Afghanistan is unrivalled. It’s a nation which is at war with itself and everyone around. The country is yet to come to terms with challenges posed by its location and its ethnic composition. The only thing that brings the warring ethnic groups together is war against invading empires.
Afghanistan, since the days of Ahmed Shah Abdali (1722-72) – considered as the father of Modern Afghanistan, is the land between the Indian subcontinent, Iran and Central Asia. The landlocked nation encompasses the trade routes connecting Europe, Central Asia, South Asia, China and the Caspian Sea.
Afghanistan, as we know, was created as a buffer region between Tsarist Russia and the British Empire in the late nineteenth century. The possibility of Russian invasion posed the single biggest threat to the English in the Indian subcontinent. To stop Russians from reaching the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, Britain fought a series of wars with Sikhs, Afghans and Iran. The goal was to control every possible land route to India.
As Britain was working out strategies to stop Russian expansion in Afghanistan, on the other side it was creating boundary lines along northern Ladakh so as to defend Indian territories from Russian expansion in the North of the subcontinent. While making these geopolitical maneuvers, the British Empire didn’t pay any heed to the possible long term fallout for the inhabitants of the region. The people of South Asia are still struggling to undo the British mischief.
After the Second World War, the British were preparing to leave India; they were worried about the possibility of Communist Russia entering South Asia through Afghanistan. As we know from the seminal work of Narendra Singh Sarila – Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition, the idea behind partitioning India was to create a Muslim majority nation to stop the expansion of the godless soviets.
Thus, Pakistan was created two years after the Second World War. Today one can say with surety that Pakistan is a special purpose vehicle created for managing the affairs of Post WWII Central and South Asia. This explains Pakistan’s role as an ally of the Western block during the cold war when it was one of the crucial member of the Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO), the South East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) and played a key role in bringing China closer to the West. Pakistan’s role in Afghan Jihad and Post 9/11 war on terror needs no elucidation.
Balochistan is the piece of land between Afghanistan and the Indian Ocean. It was Balochistan and its inhabitants (Baloch) whose fate was being decided by the strategists without any concern for their aspiration and desires. They were mere pawn in this great game.
No recognition was given by the world to the unfortunate inhabitants of Balochistan. Strangely, Balochistan never received much mention in the academic and political discourse of the Great Game. Indians who are generally obsessed with everything related to Pakistan were hardly aware of Balochistan or the Baloch as ancient inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent.
One of the most ignored parts of the subcontinent – politically, economically and historically – in 2016, Balochistan was reinstated in Indian consciousness when Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his Independence Day address mentioned the sufferings of the Baloch in Pakistan. The public discussion that followed exposed how little Indians know about the subject.
In her tenure as Senior Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Sandhya Jain tries to fill this knowledge void (Balochistan: In the Crosshairs of History, KW, 2021). Previously, in an edited volume on Jammu and Kashmir (J&K: Invisible Faultlines, Pentagon Press, 2019), she decimated the Nehruvian narrative by uncovering the hidden history of the State. From Jammu and Kashmir to Balochistan, Jain appears to be on a mission to uncover the ugly underbelly of the sub-continent’s historiography.
Through the six cogent chapters of its 332 pages the book succeeds in providing a complete understanding of the Baloch nation.
LAND OF BALOCH
The historical land of the Baloch is today divided between Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. The geopolitical significance of Balochistan lies in its location, from the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz to Sindh in the east, and north up to southern Afghanistan to Dera Ghazi Khan in the northeastern corner. This massive landmass connects three macro-regions: Asia, Africa and the Mediterranean basin. It forms the hinge between the Indian subcontinent, Central Asia and the Euro-Asiatic steppes and Iranian plateau; between those regions which open to – or gravitate towards – the Indian Ocean and its two western “sea routes”, namely, the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea.
Balochistan’s wide Makran coast further connects the sea routes of East Asia, the Persian Gulf, and the Red Sea. The province constitutes 44 per cent of Pakistan’s territory. This vast expanse of dry arid hilly land, full of mineral resources was strategically desired by contesting empire over centuries. Its current status derives from the colonial contest between Britain and Russia, with Persia (Iran) playing both sides and nibbling territory whenever it could.
The author explains the historical development of Baloch identity in detail, from their origins in Aleppo in northern Syria. Ethnically related to the Kurds, the Baloch diverged between the 4th and 7th centuries to escape constant strife in the region and in search of pastures for their animals. Thus, the Kurds went to Iraq, Turkey and northern Persia; the Baloch to Persia and the southern Caspian region and further on. Over time, they settled across the coast of Bandar Abbas and ChahBahar, all the way to Karachi. They also settled in the southern part of present day Afghanistan. Interestingly, the book notes the presence of an ethnic Baloch-speaking population in Turkmenistan. The book discusses the language, literature, religion, music and demography thoroughly, giving a complete account of Baloch culture.
Unsurprisingly, Balochi, the language of the Baloch, strongly resembles the Kurdish language, Kurdgáli. As the people moved across West Asia they picked up words from Persian, Dravidian, Urdu, Pashtu and other dialects. Though the two communities separated centuries ago, they share a tragic political destiny: both the Balochs and Kurds meet the criteria of a nation – common ancestry, language, culture, and desire to live together – but lack their own country.
Balochistan has been inhabited by Balochs since the 7th century at least. They are mentioned in Ferdowsi’s Shahnamah as inhabitants of the northern Iranian plateau. Though mainly Hanafi Sunni Muslims, the Baloch revere the fourth Caliph Ali, father of Imam Hossein, whose followers formed Shia Islam. In fact, Baloch migration from Aleppo was triggered by their war with Yazid I, the Umayyad ruler of Damascus, who ordered the massacre of Caliph Ali’s family.
During the medieval era, the Baloch managed to remain independent from Safavid Persia and the Indian Mughal dynasty; this disconnected them from the rest of the Muslim world. The colonial era intensified their isolation. Their plight worsened when the British retreated from the region, denying the Kalat State (core of Balochistan) the independence guaranteed by the 1876 Treaty, and urging it to merge with Pakistan. Jinnah’s annexation of Kalat in 1948 was a natural climax to the dialogue begun by Viceroy Louis Mountbatten.
Jain discusses Kalat’s brief independence (August 4, 1947 to March 27, 1948) exhaustively. This is a very significant chapter as it explains the colonial perspective behind the partition of India, the denial of independence to the Baloch, and their exploitation in Pakistan. The British approach towards their northern frontiers was guided by Russian moves in Central Asia, towards the Persian Gulf. The same fear pushed the United States and its allies to declare war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Pakistan played the role of frontline soldier, the very role assigned to it by Britain at the time of Partition of India.
Balochistan’s geo-strategic value rose immensely between the First and Second World Wars on account of the discovery of oil in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran. Oil emerged as a critical resource in modern warfare and a cleaner, more efficient source of energy than coal in fuelling industrial growth. The Khan of Kalat and the emerging young nationalists could not understand the emerging geopolitical landscape and were out-manoeuvred by Louis Mountbatten and Mohammad Ali Jinnah.
Their task was made easier by the Khan of Kalat’s personal admiration for Jinnah, whom he recruited to represent his case to the Cabinet Mission, while he also funded the Muslim League, blissfully unaware that it would gobble up his kingdom and his dreams.
Kalat’s annexation was a painful saga of conspiracy, lies, and betrayal. After Narendra Singh Sarila’s book, this is probably the best record of the lesser-known events leading to the Partition and the end of Kalat State. Jain’s use of Pakistani official sources, Jinnah Papers, rings the annexation alive.
Sandhya Jain succinctly explains Russian expansion into Central Asia, Iran and Afghanistan, thus providing historical context to the events that are a prelude to the present and the future, as colonial constructs bedevil the lives of former colonies. London not only divided Baloch but also the Pashtuns who are still struggling with the curse of the Durand Line between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The account of intermittent Baloch insurgencies against Pakistan make compelling reading, and include the now well-known saga of disappeared persons, targeted assassinations, and gross human rights violations. The Baloch struggle has intensified as China builds the China Pakistan Economic Corridor through their land, taking over the Gwadar port, and expropriating the Baloch while extracting their mineral resources.
China’s arrival in the region has boosted Pakistan’s militarisation of Balochistan and its conflicts with Baloch guerrilla groups. Across the border, a war-weary America gave the Taliban hope of recapturing power in Afghanistan, which would seriously impact Pakistan and Balochistan as well. This will be a protracted struggle, which may be further complicated by the new administration in Washington. The author was wise to refrain from predicting the outcome.
World Affairs, Spring 2021, January-March, Vol. 25, No. 1. Pp. 158-162
BALOCHISTAN: IN THE CROSSHAIRS OF HISTORY
Knowledge World, Delhi, 2021, pp: 332.