A key question in recent historiography of South Asia has been the production of people and production of space-time through the apparatuses of colonial rule and their persistence in the post-colonial period of nationalist rule (Chatterjee 2006; Goswami 2004). However, most of these studies have focused on ‘regulation’ or ‘settled’ districts of India where British control was relatively uniform and the administrative machinery sufficiently well-oiled to introduce projects of ‘improvement’. One the one hand, where the British did encounter adivasi or indigenous peoples of India as in Jharkhand, their presence or activities did not impinge on strategic imperial interests and the problem of their regulation was subsumed within the broader question of district management. On the other hand, in the frontier territories of Balochistan and the Tribal Areas of North West Frontier Province, colonial authorities had to operate in an environment over which they had less than full control. Moreover, in these territories, at the edge of the empire, the question of protecting imperial interests from the unhealthy influence of rival European powers such as Russia and France and the defense of British India haunted the imperial self much more. Thus, colonial authorities were faced with the problem of securing the attachment to their cause of reluctant tribesmen who had historically shown only nominal allegiance to any central authority and defied it openly whenever the opportunity was offered. My archival research in the British library suggests that in the case of colonial Balochistan (or Kalat Khanate), a frontier state, the exercise of rule was based on a mix of relations of force (sovereignty) and methods of rule (consent).
The method of indirect rule inaugurated by Robert Sandeman, Agent to the Governor General and first Chief Commissioner of Balochistan, is understood both by colonial writers as well as contemporary historians/ analysts/ opinion-makers of Balochistan (Nicolini, Redaelli, etc.) to have solved the problem of subduing the Baluch frontier1. It is popularly believed to have been an exercise in empire-light or a form of rule which\ involved a minimal expenditure of force and depended, for the most part, on the consent of the governed. However, a closer scrutiny of the archive – including comments by Sandeman’s contemporaries and successors on his administrative methods- suggests that it was far more intrusive and relied much more on the strategic use of military force than has been made out so far. More importantly, it brought together or fused disparate Baloch territories and tribes (and cut-out/separated others) to engender or produce a territory “Balochistan” and a particular subject of colonial rule, the ‘Baloch tribal’ with specific characteristics which required particular administrative methods of dealing i.e. through ‘tribal jirgas’ or councils of elders. Ostensibly, the ‘tribal jirgas’ were native institutions through which the colonial state gave Baloch people a certain degree of autonomy in resolving their differences and managing their internal affairs. However, in actual practice the Jirgas were supervised by British officers or their native assistants (like Rai Bahadur Hittu Ram, Sandeman’s Assistant) and served to integrate the Baloch tribesmen, especially the tribal elite, into the structures of empire through which they learned to submit to colonial rule2. Over time, these arrangements led to the near total dismantling of the pre-colonial relations between the Khan of Kalat, his Sardars and ordinary Baloch tribesmen and by the end of colonial period the Khan had become a mere figure-head with no real power and the fulcrum of power in Balochistan shifted from the Khan’s headquarters at Kalat to the British Agent’s headquarters at Quetta.
The fault-lines of Sandeman’s method of rule become particularly evident in the case of colonial governance in Mekran region of Balochistan. The anthropological knowledge that Sandeman and his contemporaries had acquired about Baloch people through their encounters with Marri and Bugti tribes on Sind-Punjab frontier and with Brahui tribes of central Balochistan became questionable in managing the affairs of Mekran. Unlike the rest of Kalat, which was a Khanate, Mekran was a Hakomate although it was formally under Kalat jurisdiction. It had a clearly delineated class/status structure with a fractious elite or Hakum class at the top, independent Baloch landowners and herdsmen in the middle, and agricultural tenants/cultivars, fishermen, servants and slaves at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Tribal affiliation did not carry the kind of force or weight in dealings of people in Mekran which it did elsewhere in Balochistan. As a result, the British Political Agents’ attempts at resolving issues through tribal Jirgas and soliciting bonds of good behavior were repeatedly frustrated by non-compliance on behalf of the local actors. So the archival evidence pertaining to Mekran is particularly useful in studying colonial rule in Balochistan. Moreover, since the British perception of a Russian attack or advance from Persia/Iran was less alarming than was the case in Afghanistan, colonial rule in Mekran is marked by a certain lack of coherence and disunity of purpose and method. The affairs of Mekran were managed by multiple authorities based in Karachi (Sindh), Muscat (Persian Gulf) and Quetta (Balochistan)3.
Another important consideration here is the emergent grammars of citizenship, sovereignty and territoriality in Balochistan / Mekran at the moment of the colonial encounter. The pre-colonial relations were expressed in terms of matrimonial alliances between ruling families, payment of annual tribute, reception at the Durbar, conferring of Khillats/ titles, reading of the Friday sermon (Khutba) in the name of the ruler, etc. It was a discontinuous body-politic animated by relations of in/fidelity, genealogical affinity, etc. as opposed to strictly delimited/mapped territory and uniform extension of sovereign authority. Matrimonial alliances and kinship relations did not necessarily span geographically contiguous areas/territories or correspond neatly to distinct/exclusive spheres of influence of various sovereigns to whom the local chiefs professed or owed allegiance4. Moreover, while Persia and Muscat had recorded documents, treaties, etc. to show for their claims over territory, Baloch claims over territory were argued in the form of genealogical and rhizomic maps that were recorded in popular memory and supported by limited documentation in the form of Sanads.
It appears that the colonial encounter transformed these relations in two important respects in Mekran region. On the Persian side of Mekran there was a more rapid assimilation of and a greater willingness to adopt the trappings of modernity and its territorial imagination due to Persia’s long encounter with French and British empires and a relatively stable historical/cultural past or memory of statehood. From the beginning of 19th century onwards, Qajar monarchs of Persia were steadily modernizing their army andre-asserting their claims on Afghan and Baloch territories eastward of the Persian heartland5. They sent regular military expeditions to discipline the recalcitrant Baloch Sardars of Mekran, exact tribute, and force them to declare allegiance to the Persian monarch6. Persian authorities’ ultimate (although rather ambitious) object was to bring the entire intervening Baloch territories between British India and Persia under their control (Shahvar 2006; Hopkins 2007)7.
In the Baloch Khanate of Kalat, on the other hand, contradictory forces were at play. Initially (i.e. 1839-76) British policymakers sought to treat the Khan of Kalat as a sovereign ruler of all Baloch territories and to this end gave him a generous subsidy, encouraged him to keep a standing army comprised of mercenary soldiers, and discouraged Baloch Sardars (chiefs of individual tribes) from dealing directly with colonial authorities or soliciting British intervention against the Khan. This policy failed spectacularly as the Sardars felt that the British government was curbing their independence by making them bear the Khan of Kalat’s heavy yoke. Subsequently (1876- 1948), however, British policymakers took a U-turn in the face of growing Russian threat in Central Asia (so-called Great Game). They intervened directly and decisively in the affairs of Balochistan by declaring the Khanate as a confederate structure where the Khan of Kalat was merely ‘first among equals’ viz a viz his Sardars.
In sum, the British sought to uphold the stability or maintain the status-quo of the indigenous political arrangements (system of rule) in Balochistan (rather than attempt to modernize it) based on their own anthropological understandings of Baloch society8. These understanding tended to vary over time based on the influence of ambitious frontier officers like John Jacob and Robert Sandeman and the changing perception of threat from Russia in London. Through these categories, colonial authorities sought to ‘locate’ and ‘fix’ the fluid dynamics of inter-tribal relations and the complex skein of alliances and multiple allegiances in Balochistan in imperial space-time. The acceptance of the British offer of ‘mediation’ by Baloch Sardars and the Khan of Kalat in 1876 appended them formally and irreversibly into the orbit of British rule in India (Redaelli 1997)9. This process enabled British administrators like Sandeman to inscribe an imperial margin or frontier in the ‘savage’ space of Balochistan where careers could be made and honors won10 (Dutta 2003).