As the saying goes, “nations are built when diversity is accepted, just as communities are built when individuals can be themselves and yet work for and with each other.” In order to understand the pluralistic structure of the Baloch society, this paper begins with a critical study of the Baloch’s sense of identity, by discarding idealist views of national identity that overemphasize similarities. From this perspective, identity refers to the sharing of essential elements that define the character and orientation of people and affirm their common needs, interests, and goals with reference to joint action. At the same time it recognizes the importance of differences. Simply put, a nuanced view of national identity does not exclude heterogeneity and plurality. This is not an idealized view, but one rooted in sociological inquiry, in which heterogeneity and shared identity together help form potential building blocks of a positive future for the Baloch.
Yet the dilemma of reconciling plurality and unity constitutes an integral part of the definition of the Baloch identity. In fact, one flaw in the thinking by the Baloch about themselves is the tendency toward an idealized concept of identity as something that is already completely formed, rather than as something to be achieved. Hence, there is a lack of thinking about the conditions that contribute to the making and unmaking of the Baloch national identity. The belief that unity is inevitable, a foregone conclusion, flows from this idealized view of it.
Another equally serious flaw is the tendency among some of the Baloch nationalists to think in terms of separate and independent forces of unity and forces of divisiveness, ignoring the dialectical relationship between these forces. Thus, we have been told repeatedly that there are certain elements of unity (such as language, common culture, geography, or shared history) as well as certain elements of fragmentation (such as communalism, tribalism, localism, or regionalism). If, instead, we view these forces from the vantage point of dialectical relations, the definition of Baloch identity involves a simultaneous and systematic examination of both the processes of unification and fragmentation. This very point makes it possible to argue that the Baloch can belong together without being the same; similarly, it can be seen that they may have antagonistic relations without being different.
The Sense of Belonging
The specificity of Balochistan geography and geopolitics has affected and shaped the character of the Baloch, their vision of the world and the way they have continued to reproduce and reinterpret their cultural elements and traditions. The Baloch myths and memories persist over generations and centuries, forming contents and contexts for collective self-definition and affirmation of collective identities in the face of the other.
Located on the south-eastern Iranian plateau, with an approximately 600,000 sq. km., an area rich with diversity, that also incorporates within it a wide social variety, Balochistan is larger than France (551,500 sq. km.). It is an austere land of steppe and desert intersected by numerous mountain chains. Naturally, the climate of such a vast territory has extraordinary varieties. In the northern and interior highlands, the temperature often drops to 400 F in winter, while the summers are temperate. The coastal region is extremely hot, with temperature soaring between 1000 to 1300 F in summers, while winters provide a more favourable climate. In spite of its position on the direction of southwest monsoon winds from Indian Ocean, Balochistan seldom receives more than 5 to 12 inches of rainfall per year due to the low altitude of Makkoran’s coastal ranges. The ecological factors have, however, been responsible for the fragmentation of agricultural centres and pasturelands, thus shaping the formation of the traditional tribal economy and its corresponding socio-political institutions.
Balochistan’s geographical location between India and the Mesopotamian civilization had given it a unique position as cross roads between earlier civilizations. Some of the earliest human civilizations emerged in Balochistan, Mehrgar the earliest civilization known to man kind yet, is located in eastern Balochistan, the Kech civilization in central Makkuran date back to 4000 BC, Burned city near Zahidan, the provincial capital in western Balochistan date back to 3000 BC. Thus, by the course of time, a cluster of different religions, languages and cultures coexisted side by side. Similarly in the Islamic era we see the flourishing of different sects of Islam (Sunni, Zikri and Shia), remarkable marriage of tribal and semi-tribal society enriched with colourful cultural and traditional heritage.
The Baloch, probably numbering close to 15 million, are one of the largest trans-state nations in southwest Asia. The question of Baloch origins, i.e., who the Baloch are and where they come from, has for too long remained an enigma. Doubtless in a few words one can respond, for example, that Baloch are the end-product of numerous layers of cultural and genetic material superimposed over thousands of years of internal migrations, immigrations, cultural innovations and importations.Balochistan, the cradle of ancient civilizations, has seen many races, people, religions and cultures during the past few thousand years. From the beginning of classical history three old-world civilizations, Dravidian, Semitic and Aryan, met, formed bonds, and were mutually influenced on the soil of Balochistan. To a lesser or greater extent, they left their marks on this soil, particularly in the religious beliefs and the ethnic composition of the country.
The exact meaning and origin of the term Baloch is somewhat cloudy. Its designation may have a geographical origin, as is the case of many nations in the world. Etymological view supported by some scholars is that the name Baloch probably derives from Gedrozia or “Kedrozia” the name of the Baloch country in the time of Alexander the Great (356-323 BC)”. The term Gedrozia with the suffix of “ia” seems to be a Greek or Latin construction, like Pers-ia , Ind -ia, Kurdia, etc. Gedrozia, the land of the rising sun, was the eastern most Satrapy (province) of the Median Empire. Probably, its location was the main source of its designation as “Gedroz or Gedrozia”. It should be noted that there are two other eastern countries in the Iranian plateau, namely Khoran and Nimroz, both have their designation originated from the same source, the sun. They are known as the lands of rising sun. Like the suffix “istan”, Roz (Roch) is also a suffix for various place and family names construction in Iranian languages.
Having studied the etymology of the term “Kurd”, the Kurdish scholar Mohammad Amin Seraji believes that the term “Baloch” is the corrupted form of the term Baroch or Baroz. Arguing on the origin and the meaning of the term, Seraji says, the Baroz has a common meaning both in Kurdish and Balochi, which means the land of the rising sun (ba-roch or “toward sun”). Locating at the eastern most corner of the Median Empire, the county probably got the designation “Baroch or baroz” during the Median or early Achaemenid era, believes Seraji. According to him, there are several tribes living in Eastern Kurdistan, who are called Barozi (because of their eastward location in the region). Based on an ancient Mesopotamian text, some scholars, however, opine that the word “Baloch” is a corrupted form of Melukhkha, Meluccha or Mleccha, which was the designation of the modern eastern Makkoran during the third and the second millennia B.C.
Historically, defeating the Median Empire in 549 BC, the mightiest Persian King, Darius (522-485), subjugated Balochistan at around 540 B.C. He declared the Baloch country as one of his walayat(province) and appointed a satrap (governor) to it. Probably it was during this era, the Madian and the later Persian domination era, the Baloch tribes were gradually Aryanised, and their language and the national characteristics formed. If that is the case, the formation of the Baloch ethno-linguistic identity should be traced back to the early centuries of the first millennium BC.
Etymologically speaking, there are many territorial or regional names, which are derived after the four cardinal points (East, West, North and South). For example, the English word Japan is not the name used for their country by the Japanese while speaking the Japanese language: it is an exonym.The Japanese names for Japan are Nippon and Nihon. Both Nippon and Nihon literally mean “the sun’s origin”, that is, where the sun originates, and are often translated as the Land of the Rising Sun. This nomenclature comes from Imperial correspondence with Chinese Sui Dynasty and refers to Japan’s eastward position relative to China.
Being a Balochi endonym, the origin of the word “Balochistan” can be identified with more precision and certainty. The term constitutes of two parts, “Baloch” and “–stan”. The last part of the name “-stan” is an Indo-Iranian suffix for “place”, prominent in many languages of the region. The name Balochistan quite simply means “the land of the Baloch”, which bears in itself a significant national connotation identifying the country with the Baloch. Gankovsky, a Soviet scholar on the subject, has attributed the appearance of the name to the “formation of Baloch feudal nationality” and the spread of the Baloch over the territory bearing their name to this day during the period between the 12th and the 15th century. The Baloch may be divided into two major groups. The largest and the most extensive of these are the Baloch who speak Balochi or any of its related dialects. This group represents the Baloch “par excellence”. The second group consists of the various non-Balochi speaking groups, among them are the Baloch of Sindh and Punjab and the Brahuis of eastern Balochistan who speak Sindhi, Seraiki and Brahui respectively. Despite the fact that the latter group differs linguistically, they believe themselves to be Baloch, and this belief is not contested by their Balochi-speaking neighbours. Moreover, many prominent Baloch leaders have come from this second group. Thus, language has never been a hurdle for Balochs’ religious and cultural unity. Even before the improvement of roads, communication, printing, “Doda-o Balach and Shaymorid-o Hani” stories were popular throughout the length and breadth of Balochistan.
Despite the heterogeneous composition of the Baloch, however, in some cases attested in traditions preserved by the tribes, they believe themselves to have a common ancestry. Some scholars have claimed a Semitic ancestry for the Baloch, a claim which is also supported by the Baloch genealogy and traditions, and has found wide acceptance among the Baloch writers. Even though this belief may not necessarily agree with the facts (which, it should be pointed out, are very difficult to prove, either way), it is the concept universally held among members of the group that matters. In this connection Kurdish nationalism offers a good parallel. The fact is that there are many common ethnic factors which have contributed to the formation of the Kurdish nation; there are also factors which have led to divisions within the Kurds themselves. While the languages identified as Kurdish are not the same as the Persian, Arabic, or Turkish, they are mutually unintelligible. Geographically, the division between the Kurmanji-speaking areas and the Sorani-speaking areas correspond with the division between the Sunni and Shiite schools of Islam. Despite all these factors, the Kurds form one of the oldest nations in the Middle East.Tribal loyalties continue to dominate the Baloch society, and the allegiance of the majority of the Baloch have been to their extended families, clans, and tribes. The Baloch tribes share an ideology of common descent and segmentary alliance and opposition. These principles do actually operate at the level of the smaller sub-tribes, but they are contradicted by the political alliances and authority relations integrating these sub-tribes into larger wholes. In a traditional, tribal society a political ideology such as Baloch nationalism would be unable to gain support, because loyalties of tribal members do not extend to entities rather than individual tribes. The failure of the tribes to unite in the cause of Baloch nationalism is a replay of tribal behaviour in both the Pakistani and Iranian Baloch revolts. Within the tribes, an individual’s identity is based on his belonging to a larger group. This larger group is not the nation but the tribe. However, the importance of the rise of a non-tribal movement over more tribal structures should not be underestimated. In this respect the Baloch movements of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s provide us a good example.
The Baloch have devised a nationalist ideology, but realise that the tribal support remains a crucial ingredient to any potential success of a national movement. By accepting the support of the tribes, however, the nationalists fall vulnerable to tribal rivalries. Tribal ties, however, are of little significance in southern Balochistan (both Pakistani and Iranian Balochistan), Makkoran, which was originally a stratified society, with a class of nominally Baloch landowners controlling the agricultural resources. The great majority of the tribes in Balochistan view them and are viewed by outsiders as the Baloch.
Politically, the British occupation of the Baloch State of Kalat in 1839 was perhaps the greatest event and turning point in the Baloch history. From the very day the British forces occupied Kalat state, Baloch destiny changed dramatically. The painful consequences for the Baloch were the partition of their land and perpetual occupation by foreign forces. Concerned with con taining the spread of the Russian Socialist Revolution of 1917, the British assisted Persian to incorporate western Balochistan in 1928 in order to strengthen the latter country as a barrier to Russian ex pansion southward. The same concern also led later to the annexation of Eastern Balochistan to Pakistan in 1948.
Thus, colonial interests worked against the Baloch and deprived them of their self-determination and statehood. Confirming this notion, in 2006, in a pamphlet, the Foreign Policy Centre, a leading European think tank, launched under the patronage of the British Prime Minister Tony Blair, revealed that it was British advice that led to the forcible accession of Kalat to Pakistan in 1948. Referring reliable British government archives, the Foreign Policy Centre argues, that the Secretary of State Lord Listowell advised Mountbatten in September 1947 that because of the location of Kalat, it would be too dangerous and risky to allow it to be independent. The British High Commissioner in Pakistan was accordingly asked “to do what he can to guide the Pakistan government away from making any agreement with Kalat which would involve recognition of the state as a separate international entity”.
Since the early 20th century, Balochistan’s political boundaries do not conform to its physical frontier; they vary widely. Eastern Balochistan with Quetta as its capital has been administered by Pakistan since 1948; western Balochistan, officially known as “Sistan-wa-Balochistan” with Zahedan as its capital, has been under the control of Iran since 1928; and the Northern Balochistan known as the Walayat-i-Nimrooz, has been under the Afghan control since the early 20th century.
As the Kurd, Baloch make a large ethnic community in the Southwest Asia without a state of their own. Baloch folk tales and legends points out that major shift of Baloch population to the present land of Balochistan were brought about in different times and different places. From linguistic evidence, it appears that the Baloch migrated southward from the region of the Caspian Sea. Viewed against this background, the Baloch changed several geographical, political and social environments. Thus from the very beginning they learned to adjust themselves with different cultures and way of life.
The Baloch history is a chain of unsuccessful uprisings for autonomy and independence. It tells about genocide, forcible assimilation, deportation and life in exile. Since its inception, the Baloch national identity has been seen as based primarily on such experiences. However, the early political history of the Baloch is obscure. It appears to have begun with the process of the decline of the central rule of the Caliphate in the region and the subsequent rise of the Baloch in Makkoran in the early years of the 11th century. The Umawid general Mohammad bin Qasim captured Makkoran in 707 AD. Thereafter, Arab governors ruled the country at least until the late 10th century when the central rule of the Abbasid Caliphate began to decline.
The period of direct Arab rule over Makkoran lasted about three centuries. By gradually accepting Islam, the scattered Baloch tribes over vast area (from Indus in the east, to Kerman in the west), acquired a new common identity, the Islamic. Thus Islam gave them added cohesion. The Arab rule also relieved them from the constant political and military pressure from Persia in the north. Moreover, as mentioned earlier, they benefited materially from the growth of trade and commerce which flourished in the towns and ports under the Arabs, reviving the old sea and land-based trade routes that linked India to Persia and Arabia through western Makkoran.
Under the Arab rule, the Baloch tribal chiefs became a part of the privileged Muslim classes, and identified themselves with the Arab caliphate and represented it in the region. The conflicts between the Arab caliphate and the Baloch on the one hand, and the neighbouring non-Muslim powers on the other, strengthened the “Muslim” identity of the Baloch, while the conflicts between the Arab caliphate and the Baloch contributed to their “tribal unity and common” consciousness. The threats posed to the Arab Empire and to the Baloch, would gradually narrow the gap between the warlike Baloch tribes. In this process, Islam would function as a unifying political ideology and promote a common culture among the Baloch tribal society and its different social classes as a whole. These developments appear to have played a significant role in enabling the Baloch to form large-scale tribal federations that led to their gradual political and military supremacy in the territories now forming Balochistan during the period of 11th to 13th centuries. Thus, the early middle ages saw the first emergence of a distinctive Baloch culture and the establishment of the Baloch principalities and dynasties. As the power of Arabs after the first Islamic staunch victory declined with fragmentation of Islam across the Sunni and Shiites theological lines, the Baloch tribes moved to fill the administrative, political and spiritual vacuum.
Since the 12th century the Baloch formed powerful tribal unions. The confederacy of forty-four tribes under Mir Jalal Khan in the 12th century, the Rind-Lashari confederacy of the fifteenth century, the Maliks, the Dodais, the Boleidais, and the Gichkis of Makkoran, and the Khanate of Balochistan in the 17thcentury, united and merged all the Baloch tribes at different times. Moreover, the invasions of the Mughals and the Tatars, the wars and the mass migrations of the thirteenth and the fourteenth centuries, and the cross tribal alliances and marriages, contributed to the shaping of the Baloch identity.
Thus, historical experiences have played an important role to the formation of the Baloch national identity. In this regards the Swiss experience shows a remarkable similarity. In the Swiss case strength of common historical experience and a common consensus of aspirations have been sufficient to weld into nationhood groups without a common linguistic or cultural background. The history of the Baloch people over the past hundred years has been a history of evolution, from traditional society to a more modern one. (“More modern” is a comparative term, and does not imply a “modern” society, i.e. a culminating end-point to the evolution.) As such, the reliance on tribal criteria is stronger in the earlier movements, and the reliance on nationalism stronger in the later ones. Similarly, the organizing elements in the early movements are the tribes; the political parties gradually replace the tribes as mass mobilization is channeled into political institutions.
Culture and the Baloch Identity
Geography helps, because it accustoms the Baloch to the idea of difference. Thus, the Baloch culture owes much to the geography of the country. The harsh climate and mountainous terrain breeds a self-reliant people used to hardship; the same conditions, however, result in isolation and difficulties in communication. In terms of physical geography, Balochistan has more in common with Iranian plateau than with the Indian subcontinent. On the north, it is separated from India by the massive barrier of the southern buttresses of the Sulaiman Mountains. On the south, there is the long extension from Kalat of the inconceivably wild highland country, which faces the desert of Sindh, the foot of which forms the Indian frontier. The cultural heartland lies in the interior, in the valleys of Kech, Panjgur and Bampur in the Southern and central Balochistan.
Being expressed through language, literature, religion, customs, traditions and beliefs, culture is a complex of many strands of varying importance and vitality. The Balochs’ adjustability, accommodation and spirit of tolerance enable their culture survive several vicissitudes. The Baloch people are distinct from the Punjabi and the Persian elite that dominate Pakistani and Iranian politics – they are Muslims but more secular in their outlook (in a similar fashion to the Kurds) with their own distinct language and culture. Spooner points to the importance of the Balochi language as a unifying factor between the numerous groups nowadays identifying themselves as “Baloch”. He wrote, “Baluch identity in Baluchistan has been closely tied to the use of the Baluchi language in inter-tribal relations”. In spite of almost half a century of brutal assimilation policy, both in Iran and Pakistan, the Baloch people have managed to retain their culture and their oral tradition of story telling. This explains the tendency to dismiss the existing states as artificial and to call for political unity coinciding with linguistic identity. The prevailing view is that only a minority of the people of Balochistan lack a sense of being Baloch; this minority category includes the Persians of Sistan and the Pashtuns of Eastern Balochistan.
It is, however, worth mentioning that the linguistic and ethnic plurality had been the rule in the almost all Baloch tribal unions in the past. The Rind-Lashari union of the 15 century, the Zikri state of Makkuran and the Brahui Confederacy of Kalat, all constituted of diverse tribal confederacies. No attempt had been made to force Kalat subjects to speak Brahui, a large number of tribes did not speak it as their first language and perhaps most Kalat subjects did not speak it at all. The Brahui tribes spoke Barahui, the Lasis and Jadgal spoke Jadgali, and the Baloch spoke Balochi.
Being a tribal people, religion plays a less important role in the daily life of the Baloch. It is generally believed that before the emergence of the Islamic fundamentalism in the region, Baloch were not religiously devout as compared to their neighbours, the Persians, Punjabis and the Pashtuns. Their primary loyalties were to their tribal leaders. Unlike the Afghan he is seldom a religious bigot and, as Sir Denzil Ibbetson, in mid-19th century described the Baloch, “he has less of God in his head, and less of the devil in his nature” Thus, historically speaking, the Baloch always have had a more secular and pluralistic seen on religion than their neighbours.
Because the Pakistani state assumed the mantle of two-nation theory (Islam/Hinduism) based on Islam for its legitimacy, as a countermovement one can expect most Baloch to rely on ethno-nationalism. In 1947, Mir Ghaus Bakhsh Bizenjo voiced the Baluch opinion against the religious nationalism of Pakistan: “We are Muslims but it (this fact) did not mean (it is) necessary to lose our independence and to merge with other (nations) because of the Muslim (faith). If our accession into Pakistan is necessary, being Muslim, then Muslim states of Afghanistan and Iran should also merge with Pakistan.”
As mentioned earlier, linguistically the Baloch society is diverse. There are a substantial number of Brahui speakers in the central and northern Balochistan who are culturally very similar to the Baloch, and the Baloch, who inhabit the Indus Plains, Punjab and Sindh retain their ethnic identity though they now speak Sindhi or Seraiki. Although Brahui and Balochi are unrelated languages, multi-lingualism is common among them. Having considered this reality, Tariq Rahman believes, “The Balochi and Brahvi languages are symbols of the Baloch identity, which is a necessary part of Baloch nationalism.”
Of the various elements that go into the making of the Baloch national identity, probably the most important is a common social and economic structure. For while many racial strains have contributed to the making of the Baloch people, and while there are varying degrees of differences in language and dialect among the various groups, a particular type of social and economic organisation, comprising what has been described as a “tribal culture”, is common to them all. This particular tribal culture is the product of environment, geographical, and historical forces, which have combined to shape the general configuration of Baloch life and institutions. Describing the Baloch economy in early 1980s, a prominent authority on the subject of Baloch nationalism, Selig S. Harrison wrote, “Instead of relying solely on either nomadic pastoralism or on settled agriculture, most Baloch practice a mixture of the two in order to survive”.
A classic sociological principle proposes a positive relationship between external conflicts and internal cohesion. One such exclusive focus is the constantly expressed view that the only thing the Baloch agree on is the hatred of Gajar (Persian) and Punjabi dominance. The common struggle against the alien invaders, while strengthening the common bonds, develops national feelings. According to Peter Kloos, for reasons that are still very unclear, people confronted with powerful forces that lie beyond their horizon, and certainly beyond their control, tend to turn to purportedly primordial categories, turning to the familiarity of their own ethnic background. In the process they try to gain an identity of their own by going back to the fundamentals of their religion, to a language unspoken for generations, to the comfort of a homeland that may have been theirs in the past. In doing so, they construct a new identity.
The Baloch people face unique challenges contingent on the nation-state in which they reside. For example, in Iran, where the Baloch are thought to comprise more than two million are restricted from speaking Balochi freely and have been subjected in military operations by the Persian dominated state. The harsh oppression of the Iranian and Pakistani states has strengthened the Balochs’ will to pass on their heritage to coming generations. The Balochi language is both proof and symbol of the separate identity of the Baloch, and impressive efforts are made to preserve and develop it. Having realized the significance of the language (Balochi) as the most determinant factor for the Baloch identity, the Persian and Punjabi dominated states of Iran and Pakistan have sought to “assimilate” the Baloch by all possible means.
Globalization and the Baloch Identity
Since the early 2000, electronic media has been a continually changing forum for communicating, which has been taken up by the Baloch communities to maintain connections with their brethren all over the world. In that capacity, the technology has been an easy and innovative avenue for cultural expression. The Baloch, for instance, have established on-line magazines, newsgroups, human rights organizations, student groups, academic organizations and book publishers for a trans-national community. Some of these informative and insightful English media include: Balochistan TV,, , , , , baloch2000.orgetc. Based out of the country, they have significantly contributed to the development of the Baloch identity.
The revival of ethnic identity is converging with the emergence of continental political and economic units theoretically able to accommodate smaller national units within overarching political, economic, and security frameworks. The nationalist resurgence is inexorably moving global politics away from the present state system to a new political order more closely resembling the world’s ethnic and historical geography. Thus, the new world order may hold light of hope for oppressed ethnic communities, who have survived empires, colonization, nation building processes by brutal neighbors who systematically eroded them, reduced their existence to rival tribes. Therefore, contrary to the globalist argument, the new media are not eroding the sense of national identity but rather reinforcing and providing it with a broader and much independent context to an ethno cultural identity across the juridical boundaries of states to strengthen and solidify its distinct cultural identity.
There is a general consensus among the scholars about the Baloch community with regard to heterogeneity in Baloch political society, that voluntary association, independence, autonomy, equality and consultation had remained its basic principles and ingredients. It is the idea of an ever-ever land – emerging from an ancient civilization, united by a shared history, sustained by pluralistic way of life. In fact this way of life made it possible for people with different social realities come under the umbrella of a free, willingly accepted social and cultural code. The Baloch em braced and assimilated other minor groups to extend their strength. The pre sent-day Baloch are not a single race, but are a people of different origins, whose lan guage belong to the Iranian family of languages. They are mixed with Arabs in the South, Indians in the East, and with Turkmen and other Altaic groups in the North West.
The very survival of the Baloch, as a distinctive nation is characterised by decentralisation and diversity: diversity of racial origins, of dialects, of tribes and communities, of religions. But it’s diversity within a unity, provided by common tribal culture, common history, common experiences and common dreams. Thus, it is necessary to understand the forces of unity and the forces of divisiveness in relation to each other. These forces operate within the context of underlying conflicts and confrontations and under certain specific conditions. The Baloch identity is therefore developed to the extent that it manifests itself through a sense of belonging and a diversity of affiliations. The Baloch also recognize a shared place in history and common experiences. Similarly, social formations and shared economic interests have helped to shape the Baloch identity. And, finally, the baloch identity is shaped by specific, shared external challenges and conflicts.