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Khans and fractious chieftains

Rizwan Zeb  TFT Issue: 22 Jul 2016

Rizwan Zeb begins our journey through Balochistan’s past by tracing the origins of the Kalat state


Mir Mehrab Khan's heroic last stand against British forces

What exactly is the origin and the meaning of the word “Baloch”? This cannot be easily answered. The predominant view is that Baloch derived from Belus. The Babylonian kings were called Belus. Nimrod, one of the most famous of the Babylonian kings was called Nimrod the Belus. According to Baloch historians, his followers were called ‘Belusis’, which became ‘Balos’ in Arabic which further corrupted into Baloch.

Mir Khuda Bux claimed that the Baloch originated in Aleppo (Haleb) in Syria and eventually settled in the present day Balochistan. These groups or bolaks comprising blood relatives roamed the land and earned their living from robbery, assault, looting, plundering and enslaving of people. The union of various bolaksunder a common leadership gave birth to the Tuman.  Unlike a bolak, a tuman was not homogeneous and consisted of a dominant bolak and several other bolaks. The Baloch comprised forty to forty-four bolaks that evolved into five tumans: Rind, Lashari, Hot, Korai and Jatoi were thus named after the direct descendants of Amir Jalal Khan, the father of all Baloch. Firdosi, in his epic Shahnameh, described the Baloch as

An army of the Baloch and Kouch (Brahui).

bred and ready like Ewes.

They never turned their back to the battlefield.

They were armed to teeth – not even a finger uncovered.

Their brave heads could reach the glaring Sun

Daptar Shaar described the Baloch as:

We (the Baloch) are followers of Ali, firm in faith and honor through the grace of the Holy Prophet, Lord of the Earth. We are the offspring of Amir Hamza, victory rests with God’s shrine. We arise from Halab and engage in battle with Yazid in Karbala and Bampur, and we march to the town of Seistan.

Robert Sandeman, representing the British, worked to curtail the Khan’s authority

Kalat operated at a level ahead of a tribe but still far away from the status of a state

Does this mean that the Baloch or at least some of the Baloch were originally Shia?  Hatu Ram in his The history of Baloch claimed that that was the case in the past but since the 1800s, almost all of the Baloch are Sunni Muslims. He however is silent on how exactly and when this conversion took place.

Throughout history, present day Balochistan has been identified as Macka or Mecka, Mackiya and Mackiyan, Gedrosia, Gedroshia or Gedrozia, Makoran or Makran. Marco Polo called it Kasmakoran or Kasehkoran. Not much is known about the earlier inhabitants of Balochistan or whether there was any link between these and the Baloch. Greek historian Arian claimed that when Alexander the great passed through the present day Balochistan, two different groups of people Ichthyophagi and Oreitai lived there.

British troops advance on the Miree Palace in Kalat, November 1839

Balochistan was ruled or invaded by the Mauryans, the White Huns and Saka, the Sassanians and by the Hindu rulers of Sindh. In the seventh century, Hajaj bin Yusaf’s geostrategic and geo-economics concerns resulted in Arab conquest of parts of Balochistan and Sindh. From 1559-1595, and then again from 1638-1708, Balochistan was under the Safavids. In between these time periods, Balochistan remained under the Mughals (1595-1638) and eventually under the Pashtun Ghilazis.

In the 15th century, Mir Chakar Rind founded the first independent Baloch kingdom with Sibi as its capital. He died and was buried in Satygraha, present day Okara, in Punjab, Pakistan.

Over the years, the Baloch developed a traditional code of honour, the Rivaj, based on Shadi-ghum and Khun Baha. Thus arose a notion of ashared history, place, belonging, common identity and an effort to maintain and retain the honour of the tribe. Henry Pottinger, a British spy who scouted parts of Balochistan in the nineteenth century wrote: “When they once offer, or promise to afford protection to a person who may require or solicit it, they will die before they fail in their trust.”

Great Khan: Nasir Khan of Kalat, who carved out an extensive realm

Mir Mehrab Khan refused to surrender to the British might and fought in a heroic last stand

The tribe and its loyalty to its sardaris the main unit in a Baloch tribal system. It follows a multi-tier leadership system: Motebars, Takkaris and the sardar. Motebars and Takkaris work under the sardar who is the overall chief of the tribe. The position of the sardar is hereditary and within a tribe he is the final authority. The sardar is very much part of the tribe and both the sardar and the tribe are dependent on each other.

The rise of the Ahmadzais and the establishment of the Khanate of Kalat by Ahmed Khan itself is a historical riddle. A Brahui-Dehawar alliance provided Ahmed Khan with the agricultural and economic resources to expand his influence and alliance with other Baloch sardars. In exchange for a pledge of providing military support to the Khan in case of a war, the Baloch sardars were provided cultivatable land. The Baloch-Brahui coalition resulted in later khans despite being Ahmedzai Brahui able to claim to be Khan-e-Baloch.

In 1740, Kalat formally accepted the sovereignty of Nadir Shah of Persia. Nadir Shah rewarded Kalat with the Kacchi plain. This further expanded Kalat’s agricultural resources. Nasir Khan I further refined Kalat’s administration and appointed a prime minister and a council of sardars. Under Nasir Khan, Kalat comprised two different types of areas. One belonged to Kalat and the Khan of Kalat directly ruled it through his Naibs (deputies). The second area comprised the provinces of Sarawan and Jhalawan. Nasir Khan established an army of 25,000 men and 1,000 camels. Nasir Khan initially paid tribute to Nadir Shah, however, the Shah’s assassination in 1747 briefly freed him from this pledge. Ahmed Shah Abadali – who provided Nasir Khan refuge for almost nine years when as a young boy he was exiled from Kalat by his step brother, the then Khan of Kalat – established a new kingdom of Afghanistan. Nasir Khan accepted his suzerainty and agreed to provide safe passage and security to Afghan trade caravans, pay Rs. 2000 annually to Abdali and station and maintain a 1000-strong military contingent at Kandahar. In reciprocity, Kalat received a vast area including Quetta and Mastung. In 1758, after a brief clash, both Nasir Khan I and Ahmed Shah Abdali negotiated a new treaty. Under the new treaty, Kalat would provide a military contingent to Afghanistan in case of a war and pledged that Kalat would not support or provide shelter to any anti-Abdali element. Ahmed Shah Abdali, on his part, agreed not to interfere in Kalat’s internal affairs, to provide financial support and return all captured areas of Kalat. To further strengthen the relationship, Nasir Khan’s brother’s daughter was married to Ahmed Shah Abdali’s son.

A view of the Khan of Kalat’s palace

A particular puzzle for the British was the relationship between the Khan and the sardars

Soon after, Nasir Khan invaded and incorporated Makran, Lasbela and Kharan into Kalat. Nasir Khan died in 1795. Unfortunately, his successors could not match Nasir Khan’s charisma or his achievements. Kalat plunged into a civil war between several claimants to the throne supported by various tribal sardars. A number of sardars defected. A number of areas of the khanate of Kalat were captured or reclaimed by Sindh and Afghanistan.

Akbar Bugti, commenting on Nasir Khan and Kalat stated: “Mir Nasir Khan (Nuri) set up a loose tribal confederacy on some parts of Balochistan. Most Balochi speaking people were never a part of this confederacy, for example: the Marri, Bugti, Buledi, Khosa, Bijrani, Sundrani, Mazari, Lund, Drishak, Leghari, Gishkori, Dashti, Ghulam-Bolak, Gophang, Dodai, Chanday, Taalbur, and a number of other smaller clans never vowed allegiance to the Khans of Kalat.”

The Khan of Kalat’s army comprised of a dasta khas (special regiment), dasta Sarawan (regiment of Sarawan) and dasta Jhalawan (regiment of Jhalawan). Dasta Khas comprised soldiers of Khan’s own Brahui tribesmen numbering 1,750 whereas the dasta Sarawan and dasta Jhalawan were provided by sardars of Sarawan and Jhalawan. Dasta Sarawan had 1750 tribesmen and dasta Jhalawan had 4800 tribesmen. These two dastas were part of the ghami lashkar. Each dasta was further subdivided into sections – Palu Sherik (partners).

One twelfth of the ghami lashkar was permanently stationed at Kalat and was maintained by the Khan of Kalat. This group was known as the Saan. These troops were loyal to their sardars and not to the Khan of Kalat. Charles Masson, a British soldier and spy who visited Kalat, witnessed a clash between a group of Saan soldiers and soldiers loyal to the Khan of Kalat. Masson’s assessment was that Saan soldiers were ill trained, under disciplined and of questionable loyalty.

The Khan of Kalat might have had a lavish court attended by most of the sardars yet he and his court had little relevance and no direct connection with the Baloch tribesmen. For these tribesmen, the tribal sardar was the authority. Hence joining the Khan of Kalat’s court offered a number of benefits to the sardars but on the ground, it further reinforced their hold on their tribes and tribal affairs. Mir Nasir Khan Nuri’s tenure can rightly be called the golden era in Baloch history but the unity faded after his death and a civil war started where the khan of Kalat and the sardars were competing for influence and territory.

Despite all this, the establishment of the confederacy of Kalat was indeed a significant development. Kalat operated at a level ahead of a tribe but it was still far away from attaining the status of a state. Despite the infighting and the internal fissure and instability after the death of Nasir Khan Nuri, had the British not intervened, there was a fair chance that, under a more assertive Khan, Kalat might have been able to inch towards statehood. However, Kalat’s internal conflicts, combined with the movement of Russia into Central Asia, led the British to intervene and initiate policies which froze the chiefdom’s evolution.

To contain the French and Russian threat, the British sent expeditions to neighboring areas to identify areas which can be used as buffer states between the British India and Russia. In 1809, Captain Grant went to Balochistan to identify the possible route of an invading army from Persia. He scouted Makran and its surroundings. In 1810, Henry Pottinger went to Kalat. Pottinger’s account emphasised the centrality and sovereignty of the Khan of Kalat without any clear indication of the position of sardars. This was the impression under which General Keane approached the Khan of Kalat for a passageway for the Army of Indus to reach Afghanistan through Balochistan.

British forces needed the cooperation of the Khan and sardars to ensure access to Afghanistan

At that time, Khan of Kalat Mir Mehrab Khan was struggling to consolidate his position with the tribal sardars. An agreement was reached between the Khan of Kalat and the British on March 28, 1839. The Khan, under duress, acknowledged the sovereignty of Shah Shuja over him because he was under tremendous pressure in his struggle with the tribal Baloch sardars. He agreed to facilitate the movement of the Army of Indus to Kandahar through Khangarh (Jacobabad), Dhadar, the Bolan pass, Quetta and the Khojak pass and provide supplies and protection to the passing army. In return, the British agreed to pay Mir Mehrab Khan 150,000 rupees. The British at that time were not aware that the Khan of Kalat was not in total control and that there were Baloch tribes that operated independently and outside his control. When the British forces were passing through the Bolan Pass, they were attacked by the tribes of Kacchi and Bolan area. The British accused the Khan of Kalat of a double cross and of violating the agreement. General Willshire besieged Kalat. The Khan of Kalat Mir Mehrab Khan refused to surrender and stood against the British might and fought till his last breath in a heroic battle against the British forces, which deserves a glowing mention in the annals of military history. After his martyrdom, the British occupied Kalat and installed a new and more amiable Khan.

On October 6, 1841, the British signed a new treaty with the new Khan of Kalat. According to it the British would station troops and control foreign relations, while a British resident would conduct the business of state with Kalat. The British continued operating under the assumption that the Khan of Kalat was an independent and sovereign ruler. In 1854, a new treaty was signed between the two that made the Khan of Kalat more accountable to the British then his fellow sardars. As the British officials dealt with the Khan of Kalat and with the political realities of the Baloch tribal politics, the romanticised account of Pottinger started to appear hollow. The particular puzzle for the British was the relationship between the Khan and the sardars. Were the sardars mere rebels or part of a confederation and a disgruntled one at that, who wanted their share of the pie?

In 1876, Robert Sandeman was sent to Balochistan to interact with the sardars. Sandeman reached Kalat in May 1876. He held a meeting with the Khan of Kalat and the sardars in which they voiced their grievances against each other. In July 1876, the Mastung agreement was signed, that reinforced the 1854 treaty. As a consequence, the Khan of Kalat remained just a ceremonial head of the state. In 1877, Robert Sandeman was appointed the agent to the Governor General at the newly established Balochistan Agency, headquartered at Quetta. Sandeman took several steps that clearly compromised the Khan of Kalat’s suzerainty. Sandeman provided the Baloch sardars financial support, administrative functions, glamorous titles and the assurance of continued British support. These steps strengthened the position of a sardar within his tribe as well as in the Baloch tribal culture as he was no more accountable to his tribe and had other sources than his tribe to derive power, authority and support. Sandeman also set up a Levy system in Balochistan as a local law and order body to serve as the eyes and ears of the British. The Levy force was recruited from and served in their own tribal area, and was paid a stipend by the sardar who was provided a special levy fund by the British. This provided the British a financial leverage over the sardars. Whenever the sardars failed to achieve desired results or tried to act independently, their levy fund was suspended.

By 1886, the Agent to the Governor-General practically took over from Khan as head of Kalat. On March 29, 1893, the nominal Khan of Kalat, Mir Khudadad Khan was arrested by the British authorities and was kept captive along with most of his family members at Pishin. He remained under captivity till his death almost fifteen years later on May 21, 1907. The British appointed Mir Mahmud Khan II as the new Khan. This Khan of Kalat had no interest in the affairs of the state and remained confined to Miri, the residence of the Khans of Kalat. However, by the 1920s, a debate started among the British officers in India about Kalat and Balochistan. An emerging view among the British authorities in India was to revise treaties with Kalat and legally declare it an Indian state. As a first step, two seats in the Council of the States and one seat in the federal legislative assembly were allocated to Kalat. That the British were planning to include Kalat into the Indian federation could be substantiated from a communication between London and Delhi (British government of India) of January 1935; “the ultimate sanction for relations with these frontier states will be paramountcy of the crown, exercised through the viceroy, to the same extent as in the case of other Indian states which are units in the federation.”

This series is an abridged version of his book on the history of the Baloch.

Rizwan Zeb is associate editor of a peer-reviewed quarterly Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs, a research Fellow at the Institute of Regional Studies, Islamabad and Associate Professor at Iqra University, Islamabad


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