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Myths and realities

Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur

by Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur

Even the head of the military power of a civilised state may well envy the “unrestrained respect” of society for the elder of a clan. This essentially is the distinction between a people’s sardar and the Pakistani state

The institution of sardar is much maligned here, and not because Pakistan deems it evil. It is because sardars commanding the unreserved respect of their tribes and representing the political will of the Baloch people have thwarted the state’s attempts to subjugate the Baloch and exploit Balochistan’s resources. Pakistan’s intentions and actions are at odds with the inherent rights of the Baloch and its uncivilised and shabby treatment of them has guaranteed that it will never get their confidence and support.

Marx and Engels have no parallel in understanding societies. Let’s see what Engels has to say about the unconditional respect that a sardar gets. In his book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, he says, “Having public power and the right to levy taxes, the officials now stand, as organs of society, above society. The free, voluntary respect that was accorded to the organs of the gentile [clan] constitution does not satisfy them, even if they could gain it....” Special laws are enacted proclaiming the sanctity and immunity of the officials. Engels brilliantly defines and highlights the distinction between the state and the elder of a clan. He elaborates how the state having pubic power and the right to levy taxes enacts special laws, proclaiming the sanctity and immunity of its officials in its attempts not only to become the sole authority but also to undermine the free and voluntary respect accorded to the clan elder (sardar) and yet fails. Underlining this divergence further, he says, “The shabbiest police servant” has more “authority” than the representative of the clan, but even the head of the military power of a civilised state may well envy the “unrestrained respect” of society for the elder of a clan. This essentially is the distinction between a people’s sardar and the Pakistani state.

Before going further, let’s observe the stark contrast of attitudes towards different nawabs (tribal or feudal lords). Ironically, the people and the media who berate the Baloch sardars and nawabs’ feudalistic mindset have no compunction in glamourising and extolling the nawabs and rajas of extinct Indian states as if they were paragons of justice and progress. The reason is those nawabs are a part of their history, hence romanticised; while the Baloch sardars, because they thwart their ambitions to exploit Balochistan, are derided. This attitude certainly smacks of racism.

A friend asked me to put light on “jus primae noctis” (the right to the bride’s first night). This is a slander and calumny on the honour and dignity of all the Baloch; they would rather die than submit to such an abhorrent practice. A bullet would be the answer to such a demand by the sardar. The best way to malign someone is to spread unsubstantiated tales knowing that prejudices will do the rest.

Let’s see how a tribe is organised. The Baloch are divided into tribes like Marri, Mengal, Bugti, Rind, called tumans, led by a tumandar or sardar. The tuman is divided into sub-tribes that are further sub-divided into septs. Mukhadams lead the sub-tribes and takkari the septs. A sardar in his tribe is simply primus inter pares (first among equals). He leads the tribe in times of trials and tribulations and is an arbitrator, in consultation with the tribal elders. He symbolises not only the tribe and its aspirations but also its martial and cultural history. A pusillanimous and wayward sardar would command no respect.

Initially, sardari in the Marri tribe was awarded for services rendered to the tribe; consequently the sardari alternated among different clans. Some nine generations back the house of Bhawalaan was permanently awarded the mantle of sardari and they did not let the tribe down. In the past Baloch tribes adopted outsiders into their tribe because of their services; internal adoption was practiced too. Rahzen, the ‘warchief-of-staff,’ always of the Nozbandagani sept served as the hereditary Marri second-in-command.

The practice of collectively owning the land, previously common among all Baloch tribes, prevails now only in the Marri tribe. The sub-tribes have demarcated areas that are re-divided among its septs every decade so that no one is permanently burdened with low quality land. However, some septs are abandoning this practice. Nawab Khair Baksh Marri, who has no share in the sub-tribes’ land, discourages the break-up of collective holdings.

The sardar too owns a portion of the land, which is leased to sharecroppers. There is a nominal tax on land cultivated by fresh water sources. An old annual tax on flocks was discontinued by the present sardar. The dwarf palm — a wild plant — is sold by the landowners. Water resources are shared.

When the sardar visits tribesmen, all sit on the dwarf palm woven mattresses. He does the customary haal (exchanging news). There is mutual respect and the sardar is never abusive or insulting. Once Sardar Mehrullah Khan, the present sardar’s father, in a fit of anger hurled a wife invective on a tribesman, who in all his dignity looked straight into the eyes of the Sardar and thundered, “Weren’t it that your wife is a mother unto us you would have heard the same from me.” This is not possible without democracy within the tribe.

The tribes are governed as states govern their population, with authority devolving from the sardar to others according to status. Disputes are resolved by consultation among elders and experienced persons; precedents are followed. There is consultation all along the chain in matters relating to the tribe.

Robert Sandeman, it is commonly believed, like a magician produced the sardari rabbit from his hat. It is contrary to the facts that he only strengthened the hands of the existing sardars vis-à-vis the Khan of Kalat, not for love of the sardars but to weaken the Khan. He increased their clout by handing out grants and dealing directly with them. Pakistan does exactly the same, doles out money and political office to obsequious sardars with the intention of garnering their support to facilitate the exploitation of Balochistan’s resources.

All the attempts to curtail the sardar’s influence have failed. It is not for lack of trying but simply because the sardar is the father figure to tribesmen, who they believe will not let them down. Interestingly, they believe in the sardar’s spiritual prowess and seek his blessings. As long as the people’s sardars live up to the expectations of the tribes and continue to represent the Baloch political will, they will continue receiving ‘unrestrained respect’, whatever the state may do.

Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur has an association with the Baloch rights movement going back to the early 1970s. He can be contacted at