By Akbar Ahmed
"A Baluch woman dressed in her wedding finery and wearing all her jewellery could walk alone from one end of Baluchistan to the other end without ever being molested." Baluch elders said this in response to a query on Baloch character while sitting with the-then Balochistan's Chief Minister, Jam Mir Qadir Khan of Las Bela. The image struck me as a metaphor; a literal sociological reflection on contemporary Pakistan. It has stayed with me ever since.
Three decades later, I asked Prince Ahmed Ali, Jam Sahib's grandson, to describe Baluch character. He noted, "Baluch identity revolves around hospitality, respect and honour, truthfulness, and the behaviour of a cultured man or woman." The definition of being Baluch, thus, remained unaltered through time.
In my dealings with Baluch leaders, I often found them to possess great wisdom and be ever-ready to perform miracles if approached with honour. This held true even for those in opposition as I discovered during my stint as Makran Commissioner. During my early days, I had learned of a plan to attack the Zikri community, a minority sect living in the division. Religious leaders in Karachi and Lahore were promising a bloodbath in order to convert them to "proper" Islam.
In addition to taking the usual administrative measures, I also decided to seek the help of the former governor, Mir Ghaus Bakhsh Bizenjo, then a left-leaning Baluch opposition leader. Widely revered by the Zikris, he was said to have landed in Makran to stir up trouble against the administration. Despite him being an avowed opponent of President Zia-ul-Haq, he accepted my dinner invitation at the Commissioner's house. He also promised me to request his followers to remain peaceful. Of course, nothing can be kept secret for long in Pakistan. The intelligence agencies soon reported this to the president who demanded an explanation from Balochistan Governor, General K.K. Afridi, as to why I had hosted such a dinner with an opposition leader.
Ultimately, by working together, peace was maintained in the region and the Zikri community was protected.
I often hear educated people in Islamabad and Karachi dismissing Baluchs as regressive and uneducated. This is an incorrect perception. One of the most sophisticated discussions I have ever had about Ibn Khaldun was with Nawab Akbar Bugti, a top Baluch tribal leader and the former provincial governor. Answering my question as to why Baluchs had stayed behind while Pukhtuns had left their homelands to settle and rule in India, Bugti emphasised on the importance given to their code of honour. If we had migrated to India to set up ruling dynasties like Pukhtuns, we would have slowly lost our language and our culture, he exclaimed.
Not only did Bugti show an understanding of Khaldun's theory of Asabiyah (social cohesion) that kept a tribe united, he also took an intellectual leap and applied it to his own tribal group. I was deeply impressed by his vast knowledge of history and different cultures. It remains a grave tragedy that this Baluch leader was hunted like animals by missiles despite his loyalty to Pakistan in the face of immense opposition.
Baluchistan is both blessed and plagued by its geographic and demographic situation within the federation of Pakistan. Blessed because of its tiny population and vast resources while it remains plagued due to its size--covering almost half of Pakistan's territory--, its borders with Iran and Afghanistan, and its coastline spanning over hundreds of miles; all of which give the province great geopolitical strategic importance.
Of course, some of the criticism against the Baluch leaders stands valid. They do represent a system, which may not seem viable in the current times. Some cruel and tyrannical Sardars taint the entire tribal hierarchy. However, the critics often overlook the fact that the tribal society, despite all its ills, still provides its members with continuity, stability, and identity in an ever-changing world.
Pakistan's treatment of Baluchistan has, unfortunately, been erratic and unsatisfactory. The founding charter of the nation, which reflected the vision of the Quaid-i-Azam, was intended to be fully inclusive. Pakistanis should recall that the Quaid always had a soft spot for Baluchs. For a state that lost over half its population when its eastern wing broke away in 1971, Pakistan could be assumed to have had learned its lesson by now. The debate over an independent Baluchistan has once again reared its head, this time with some international support. Although the movement is tiny and sporadic, Pakistan should still vigorously reach out to Baluchs, both economically and culturally, to avert a graver crisis in the future. At the heart of its strategies, the state should emblazone all developmental plans with the much-talked-about motto, "Honour the Baluch."
Akbar Ahmed is an author, poet, playwright, and is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University in Washington, D.C.. He formerly served as the Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland, and can be reached at email@example.com.