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The following is an article in the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).
Baluchistan, literally “land of the Baluch,” is a barren, rugged land with ill-defined boundaries stretching across southeastern Iran, southwestern Pakistan, and, according to some, southern Afghanistan. Historically home to the Baluch, it also contains large numbers of Brahui and Pushtuns (Pathans), smaller numbers of Jats and Lassis, and, increasingly, Punjabis and Sindis, migrating to Pakistani-controlled Baluchistan from other Pakistani provinces.
Baluch is an Indo-European language related to Persian. Most residents of Baluchistan are Sunni Muslims, although prior to the partition of India there were small communities of Hindus. The 1998 Pakistani census put the population of Pakistani Baluchistan, whose capital is Quetta, at 6.5 million. In 2002 the Statistical Center of Iran reported its Sistan va Baluchistan province, capital Zahedan, to have a population of 2 million.
Baluchistan has a turbulent history of foreign domination. Persians, Greeks, Arabs, and Mongols subjugated the region. Various local dynasties held sway from the eleventh to the seventeenth centuries, before the Mughal Empire in India and the Safavid Empire in Iran again traded control over the region.
The fracturing and eventual collapse of the Safavid Empire enabled a local khan to establish a small state based in the town of Kalat in 1666. The khanate of Kalat was weak, however, its autonomy ensured only by payment of tribute, first to the Afsharid dynasty of Nadir Shah and, following the collapse of his empire in 1747, to the Durrani shahs in Afghanistan. Within Kalat there was frequent tension between the khan and feudal tribal leaders.
During the First Anglo-Afghan War (1838-1842) British troops marched on Kalat, angered at the khan’s refusal to grant them safe passage, and devastated the town. Entrenched in Baluchistan, the British government exploited divisions among local tribes and subtribes to further their influence, often at the expense of the Iranian shah Nasir al-Din (r. 1848-1896), who claimed sovereignty over the Makran coast, the region of southern Iran bordering the Indian Ocean. To settle the dispute, between 1870 and 1872 British telegraph workers surveyed and set Iran’s border with what is today Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Thereafter Baluchistan comprised five different areas of control. The Iranian shah held sway over western Baluchistan. In 1877 British Indian officials created a Baluchistan Political Agency to administer the strategic Bolan Pass and portions of Baluchistan adjacent to Afghanistan. As the political agent, Robert Sandeman worked to transform Kalat, which stretched from the new area of British administration to the Indian Ocean, from a sardari system akin to feudalism into a federal state, in the process creating the subordinate states of Makran, Kharan, and Las Bela. Over these new states the political agent exercised only indirect control. The British also indirectly administered tribal areas in northeast Baluchistan. Finally, in the 1879 Treaty of Gandamak the British Indian authorities took from Afghanistan direct control over the area around Quetta and Loralai, which they administered from Bombay through a chief commissioner.
Following Sandeman’s death in 1892, his successor, General James Browne, sought more direct British rule. He encouraged Mahmud Khan to replace his father, Khudadad Khan, who had ruled Kalat since 1857. Between 1893 and 1931 Mahmud Khan served as titular ruler under British suzerainty. After a two-year rule by Azam Jan Khan, Ahmad Yar Khan took the mantle of leadership.
On 15 August 1947, the day after the partition of India, Ahmad Yar Khan declared Kalat’s independence. Makran and Las Bela chose entry into Pakistan, however, and stripped of half his territory, Ahmad Yar Khan followed suit on 27 March 1948. The port of Gwadar, long controlled by the sultan of Oman, joined Pakistan on 8 September 1957. Today the Pakistani province of Baluchistan accounts for 43 percent of Pakistani territory.
For its first decade as a nation Pakistan largely neglected Baluchistan. It made no effort to change the tribal administrative system created by the British. There was little development or improvement in irrigation, and what few industrial jobs existed in Quetta went to Punjabis.
Baluch nationalist groups had existed since 1929. Pakistan later imprisoned Azam Jan Khan’s son, Abdul Karim Baluch, a governor of Makran until its incorporation into Pakistan, for his role in agitating for Baluch independence. Following a tribal revolt in 1958, Pakistan declared martial law. It sought to dismantle tribal administration and reorder Pakistan as a nation without internal divisions. In 1963 the Baluchistan People’s Liberation Front inaugurated a low-intensity guerilla campaign, which achieved some success in 1970, when the Pakistani government agreed to the formation of a Baluchistan province. Civil strife again erupted when President Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto declared martial law and arrested Baluchi leaders. Guerilla warfare continued in Baluchistan until 1977. Pakistani attempts to uproot the sardari system have antagonized Baluchi nationalists, who see the tribal system as integral to their identity. In 2004 insurrection resumed in protest against Pakistani government development plans that might lead to the migration of further Punjabis to the region, and the Pakistani government has been accused of detaining Baluchi nationalists without charge.
Baluchis in Iran have also been restive. In 1957 Dad Shah, a local sheikh, staged a brief uprising against Iranian rule. In the next decade Pakistan-based Baluchi separatists sought safe haven in Iran. Iranian Baluchis often complain both of neglect and, since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, of sectarian discrimination by Tehran’s Shi’ite government against the largely Sunni province. In 1993 Iranian officials razed several Sunni mosques. Three years later Iranian operatives killed Molavi Abdul Malek, an Iranian Baluch and Sunni cleric, in Pakistan. In October 2000 and June 2005 the region suffered a series of bombings.
Many powers have considered Baluchistan to have great strategic importance. In the nineteenth century British authorities saw Baluchistan as essential to communications security; the Indo-European Telegraph lay along the Makran coast. British diplomats in Iran and their superiors in London and Bombay (Mumbai) argued throughout the 1860s that an independent Kalat would make communications between London and India less dependent upon Iranian goodwill. During the Anglo-Russian “Great Game” competition in the latter nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Baluchistan became an essential buffer protecting British India from Russia. The Bolan Pass became a major route for British troops marching from India to Afghanistan during the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880). During the Cold War, and especially after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Baluchistan was all that prevented Moscow from having direct access to the Indian Ocean. On 28 and 30 May 1998 the Pakistani government conducted underground nuclear tests in Baluchistan, reaffirming the region’s importance in international rivalries.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at AEI.
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