The Bane of the Sardari System in Balochistan
By Syed Arif Hussaini


Much to the chagrin of tribal potentates and chieftains of Balochistan, a wind of change has started blowing in that province of Pakistan which had remained frozen in time largely because of the Sardari system.  The shifting scenario portends the awakening of a somnolent populace into a pulsating, throbbing society willing to labor and live well. Expansion of economic activities, spread of awakening through education and increase in gainful employment opportunities, weaken the hold of the Sardars.

The province is the poorest in the country, owing largely to official policy of spending development funds through the Sardars. The money and its benefits rarely filtered down to the common people or spent on high gestation and high-cost projects. The federal funds worked, in effect, as bribes to Sardars to maintain peace. The Sardars kept stirring trouble the moment any move was made to effect a change in the system. Even today, 64 of the 65 members of the provincial parliament are serving as ministers, advisers or in some other official position with all the attendant perks. And, almost all of them are from higher echelons of various tribes. They have had a negative role in the socio-economic development of the area. The more they are placated, the more grow their demands. They are now threatening cessation from Pakistan and demanding  an independent Balochistan state comprising areas of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan where Balochi-speaking people are claimed to be in a majority.           

The Balochis have, for decades past, remained pliant like wooden puppets with all strings in the hands of their Sardars – hereditary tribal chieftains.  The system was strengthened by the British in pursuance of their policy of indirect rule. Since independence,  successive governments of Pakistan have also found it convenient to let the system continue undisturbed. That was a blatant folly.

The illiterate, poverty-stricken common people of the area were invariably left subservient to the overarching interests of the Sardars who wielded political, economic and social powers and enjoyed complete supremacy over all aspects of their vassals. These tribal chieftains zealously guarded their privileged positions.  Every time there was even a tentative move to introduce reforms –in education in particular-  for the welfare of their wards, the Sardars created law and order conditions making it almost impossible to go further with the reforms.

 Tribal loyalty, tribal honor, total respect and obedience of the Sardars were the values drilled deep into the psyche of their followers. The mesmeric effects of these could have gradually worm off had the reformative efforts continued sincerely.  No leader at the Center or in the province found himself in the strong position to pick up cudgels against the Sardars who, in any case, were more than willing to cooperate with the rulers so long as their own status vis-à-vis their tribal vassals was not disturbed.

Prime Minister Z. A Bhutto’s military action in Balochistan that started in February 1973 was calculated to destroy the hold of opposition parties in order to pave the way for the success of his party (the PPP) in the province. The use (or abuse) of the army was thus calculated to promote partisan interests. Considering the nature of this intent, the military action proved counterproductive and served to strengthen further the hold of the tribal system besides stoking the flame of provincial feelings.

There has been a sea change since then. The world has shrunk further and no part of the world can continue to remain unaffected by the wind of change that is blowing hard and fast. The collapse of the Soviet Union in early 1990s marked the emergence of the United States as the sole super power with the world economies coming under the sway of Globalization (referred to by its opponents as ‘neo-colonialism’). Russia and China have both accepted the new deal and are benefiting from the system. The days of the bipolar world, of confrontation and conflict, have yielded to a period of cooperation and healthy competition.

China has already become the manufacturing floor of the world with Wal-Mart alone acquiring from it goods worth $25 billion annually.

Viewed against these developments, one readily appreciates the significance of Gwadar port, coastal highway linking that port to Karachi, and the Indus Super Highway that would eventually link the Western regions of China (Xinxian/Sinkiang) with the ports on the Arabian Sea - Gawadar,. Karachi and Port Qasim.  Balochistan would also become the conduit for the external trade of Central Asian States, economic partners of Pakistan in ECO – Economic Cooperation Organization.

The days of the special status of the Tribal Areas of the Frontier Province, and of the tribal Sardars of Balochistan, are fast reaching their end. Only those far-sighted leaders of these areas will survive and even gain substantial benefits who would bend and flow with the wind of change instead of standing against the gust and breaking down in consequence.

Despite the writing on the wall, the tribal Sardars have resorted to their techniques of creating law and order problems so that those in authority give up or suitably amend their projects. 

 The security agencies of the province – paramilitary Frontier Constabulary, the Levies, and the men in military uniform -   have been, for obvious reasons, the particular targets of the insurgents.

With a geographical spread of 347,641 square kilometers, Balochistan is the largest province in Pakistan, covering almost 43 per cent of the country’s total area, but it accounts for just five per cent of the country’s population. It has the largest proportion -55 per cent - of its population living below the poverty line and has the lowest literacy rate in the country - 34% for men, and 14.1 % for women.

Balochistan has some of the largest gas reservoirs in Pakistan at Sui, Pir Koh, and Marri accounting for some 40 % of the country’s gas production. Bulk of the output, 80 % , is supplied to the Punjab, while only 17 percent is consumed in the province itself. A perennial grievance of the Baluchi Sardars has been that the natural resources of their province are being transferred to the already better off majority province of Punjab and that the armed might of the country is being utilized to protect this exploitation. This is largely true and calls for immediate rectification.

Emotions of the tribesmen have been stirred up to such an extent that they would rather destroy the gas pipelines than let the supply continue to Punjab. To ensure security to the high-cost Gawadar port project, highway networks and the mineral extraction projects at Sanduk and elsewhere, the Federal government has set up new military cantonments at Gawadar, Dera Bugti, and Kohlu apart from enhancing the facilities at the existing setups at Quetta and Khuzdar.

This decision is most widely and vehemently criticized by the Baluchi Sardars. For, the cantonments would abridge the liberty they have always enjoyed in dealing with men and matters as the sole arbiters in their respective areas of influence.

From the viewpoint of the common people of Balochistan, things are moving in the right direction. They may not have to wait for long to see the fruits of the economic activities at Gawadar. This deep seaport has already started serving as the catalyst for various economic activities providing the people with opportunities of education and employment and a bright future for their children.

The Sardars too would be well advised to take advantage of the wind of change instead of offering themselves as martyrs to a static, fossilized system. At the same time, the callousness of the federal government has to yield to an aggressive, proactive policy to redress the grievances of the people of the area.  Pakistan’s powerful media - the TV channels in particular-  would be well-advised to keep presenting  forcefully the basic flaws in the structure of power in the province instead of lending support to an antiquated system.  


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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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