Contemporary Baluch (my preferred spelling when addressing the Baloch diaspora in the Gulf) narrative is locked in an active yet reductionist frame of the Pakistani security establishment. Even as Pakistan throttles their legitimate aspirations as a ‘qom’ i.e. national community fighting for independence, the Baluchs are a globalised lot since much before the term became mainstream.
Quoting one of my favourite scholars Benedict Anderson, national histories are part myth, making for the construction of an imagined community. But histories have existed even before the notion of nation-state predominated our discourses. In South Asia, where borders shifted as contesting powers sabre-rattled for control, the nation-state is a contemporary development. There are other similarly significant histories connected by the sea, and one of them is of the littoral ports of the Gulf and Gwadar.
A powerful historical school of ‘Inter-Asia’ connections has been mapping links between various diasporas in the Indian Ocean, through multi-sited, multi-lingual archival work. Prof. Eng Seng Ho from US-based Duke University leads this research; his own study of the Hadrami diaspora from Mukalla in Yemen, to Java, Zanzibar, and Kerala is a conceptual framework which I have utilised to understand transnational Baluch networks working under the threshold of the nation-state for this article.
Such is the story of the brave Baluchs, warriors serving every empire, from the Durrani in the infamous Panipat wars, to the British in their police forces in Muscat and Manama, to the Omani Sultan. The Muscat and Bahrain Levy Corps in the 1920s was exclusively manned by Baluchs. In the 1950s, the British supervised an Omani military mainly comprising of Baluch soldiers, who helped put down the Jabal Akhdar revolt by the tribes from the interior. In the hey days of the Omani Maritime Empire, Baluch soldiers won Mombasa and Zanzibar in East Africa for the Sultan in Muscat. Baluch mercenaries also served in the Germany Army in Tanganyika and the Belgian Congo Army prior to World War I.
As a martial race, the Baluchs won wars for their rulers, however never sought sovereignty for themselves. As a strictly oral culture, they did not put their narrative in writing and lacked the culture of documentation so required to form a nation-state.
The Baluchs have a large presence across Oman, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, and are scattered in other Gulf states. They are popular as soldiers and actively recruited in Omani and Bahraini security; Iranian Baluchs are especially popular in Bahrain as they speak fluent Farsi, which is widely spoken in Bahrain, a Shia-majority country.
The Sunni Baluchs helped Bahrainis keep a tab on the festering unrest after the Arab Spring. They squashed the Shia protests, denting their own reputation in the process. Many Baluch soldiers also earn Bahraini passports as a part of a systemic program of demographic reengineering, which cements them as informal cogs in a well-oiled recruitment chain from Manama to Gwadar and Karachi.
Their recruitment in the Omani Military has been via state-to-state channels. When Omani Sultan Said sold Gwadar to Pakistan in 1958 for 2.5 million pounds (which he apparently used to build a private theatre in his palace), he reached an understanding with the Pakistanis which allowed him to continue military recruitment from the region.
Sharjah-based veteran Baluch nationalist Jumma Khan, now in his nineties, told academician Ameem Lutfi that he wrote an article critiquing the sale in 1959, which naturally made him an undesirable entity in Muscat. He then found refuge in Sharjah during the pre-UAE days when revolutionary activity was tolerated.
That the Gulf is a site of Baluch nationalist imagination is an open secret – books and literature on Baloch independence are found in routine bookstores of Muscat. The former chief of Dubai Police tweeted calling for an independent Baluchistan. In my deep interactions with Baluchs holding Omani passports, I deciphered that they are deeply patriotic towards their adopted land but have strong familial networks back in Chabahar, Gwadar and Karachi. They spend significant time in Baluchistan for medical treatment and, if in business, for supplies. They also make no bones, in private conversations, about their cousins’ persecution by the Pakistani state; officially, Oman’s ties with Pakistan and Iran are strong as they are immediate neighbours.
Gwadar is a few days’ dhow ride from the towns of the Batinah coast such as Saham and Suwaiq. Many Baluchs still travel by dhows to Oman without paperwork, either till they get official visas to work, or simply to stay under the radar. Many have families who are Omani citizens which makes it easier for them to be sponsored under the controversial Kafala system of labour governance in the Gulf.
As a nation-building project, Baluch integration into mainstream Omani society has been successful since the Late Sultan Qaboos took over the reign in 1970. Baluchs complain of lack of opportunities in the over-bloated Omani public sector although they find work in the increasingly nationalised private sector. Many Baluch women hold advanced college degrees and are much in demand for their professional work ethic and better English language skills than their Omani counterparts, especially in the banking space. Baluchs have risen to the top echelons of the Army and the diplomatic corps in Oman, which is unthinkable in other parts of the Gulf.
The success story is not sans hiccups. In Baluch-dominated areas such as Mabela on the outskirts of Muscat which hosts the municipal wholesale market, murmurs of structural ‘othering’ are significant. Unemployment is a major concern among the youth there which might have led them to engaging in social ills such as substance abuse.
In neighbouring UAE, which is far richer than Oman, the burdens of integration are huge. Here, the natives are outnumbered by expats in the ratio 1:9 and availing the rights of citizen or a ‘Mutaween’ can be particularly lucrative as access to state resources is a huge win.
But, the only national story entertained is in an Arab-Bedouin vein and, in the ethnographic research of academician Idil Ikinci, certain aspects, such as speaking native Emirati Arabic with the correct accent and wearing the national dress, are a pre-requisite for performing as a citizen. The Baluchi language, then, is aggressively discouraged in public spaces such as government offices and must be spoken only within the family. The pre-oil Khaleej was a melting pot of cultures and still is, but now this story cannot be found in national museums, only in the soundscapes of the souqs in Mutrah and Manama.
As a second-generation migrant in the region, I grew up and worked with Baluchs on environmental compliance projects for many years. I enjoyed the loud and peppy Baluch music blasting out of their cars while driving at crazy speeds on the well-developed road network from Sohar to Muscat. This they shared with an Indian without any preconditions of ethnic/national performance.
The Baluchs are passionate about catching the latest film of ‘Bhai’ or Salman Khan with their families in the traditional commercial district of Ruwi, at the former Al Nasr Cinema, the only 70mm screen showing Bollywood films prior to the onslaught of multiplex madness. They articulate their national imagination in the music CDs brought from Chabahar from the last shopping trip.
There are various layers to the fragmented Baluch national narrative. It is about time we knew the other registers of identity and articulation, starting with the Gulf where Indians have worked with Baluchs for decades and know of their concerns. Not every understanding has to pass through the file of a bureaucrat. This article is a humble attempt at understanding and narrating one complexity of the ‘Baluchistan’ question better.
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