Illustration by Neha Awais
Illustration by Neha Awais

Along the major highways across the country, madressahs, mosques and other big and small structures of various religious denominations are a common sight. From Karachi to Torkham, Islamabad to Gilgit and Peshawar to Kotri, the spread of religious institutions is a visible indication of the religious ethos in the country. But the architectural symmetry of madressahs, mosques and religious centres also points to the presence of religious forces that are at work to create a kind of national cohesion.

The main beneficiary of religious institutionalisation is a major segment of the lower income groups. In Punjab, this phenomenon has already significantly transformed social structures, and a similar transformation is also underway in Sindh. Now, not unlike the rest of the country, such structures are increasingly sprouting up along the major highways and inter-district roads in Balochistan. But, the case of Balochistan is a more complex one in many respects.

Rapid urbanisation in parts of Balochistan and a growing middle class can be counted as primary factors behind growing religiosity in the province. The Baloch overseas workers in Middle Eastern countries, as well as Omani and Iranian influences in the coastal and bordering regions, have also factored in to change the socio-economic fabric of the area. Encompassing all this is the state’s larger religion-oriented national cohesion project, which defines Pakistan’s ideological foundation in religious terms and places religious identity above all other identities including ethnic. The historical processes of Islamicisation of the state and society palpably indicate that.

Read: Balochistan: An easy target

A nationalist Baloch scholar, Naseer Dashti, in one of his publications, acknowledges that Baloch society has undergone profound change during the last few decades. The traditional social and tribal structures have changed, nomadism has vanished and, with the development of numerous townships throughout Balochistan, a middle class has emerged on the Baloch socio-political horizon. With this change in society, claims the scholar, the essence of nationalist leadership is also transforming; instead of tribal elders, the middle class is increasingly taking up the leadership role.

The intersection of maulvis, militants and the military is a complex web of overlapping and opposing interests in Pakistan’s largest and most restive province. And its dynamics are increasingly reshaping Baloch society

The traditional religious structures — which were once responsible only for performing religious and social rituals and reflected the conservative side of society — are becoming a genuine socio-political force.

Baloch clerics, sub-nationalist in character, have gotten a sense of empowerment because of the increasing religious influence and religious institutions in Balochistan; they lacked this empowerment within the traditional social structures. Hafiz Hussain Ahmed, the renowned Jamiat Ulema Islam-Fazlur Rehman (JUI-F) leader in the province, asserts that the establishment has its favourites within the religious parties but it still relies more on sardars because they prove more helpful in counteracting separatist tendencies among the Baloch than the religious leaders do.

However, divisions among different religious brands are also visible in their geographical distribution. The banned sectarian and militant organisations politically associate themselves with pro-establishment political streams. Such groups have influence mainly in Quetta, Mastung, Kalat, Naseerabad, Jhal Magsi and the Pashtun belt of the province. In Gwadar, Turbat, Panjgur, Washuk, Chaghi, Kharan, Kech, Nushki and Awaran districts, nationalist tendencies are dominant among the clergy, who have to deal with other influences, including from nationalist political parties and insurgent groups of both left-wing leaning and religious-nationalist character. Pakistani Baloch insurgent groups such as the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) and the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) are mainly active here and are seen as having largely a leftist or secular ideological character. The Iranian Baloch insurgent groups, mainly Jaishul Adl, are also present in bordering areas of some of these districts and deemed as religious-nationalist owing to their use of a religious ethos to influence their fellow Baloch in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchestan province.

“The issue is not as simple as is sometimes understood,” says Hafeez Jamali, an anthropologist who is currently heading a CPEC project-related section in the Balochistan government. He points out that central Balochistan has remained relatively more religious since the times of the Khanate of Kalat as the Khans always patronised religious institutions. Then, during the Afghan-Soviet war, the central parts of Balochistan were relatively more affected by the expansion of religious institutions. “However the eastern and western parts of Balochistan traditionally remained less inclined towards religion,” he says. “Even when the number of madressahs and mosques is increasing in these parts, the pace of religious influences [gaining traction] is slower [there] compared to the central parts of the province.”

The madressah factor

A boy reads the Quran in a seminary | File photo
A boy reads the Quran in a seminary | File photo

Hafiz Zubair Ahmed, a madressah teacher in Quetta who is a local JUI-F leader says, “Education, both formal and religious, is changing Baloch society.” He claims that it is the burgeoning of madressahs that not only contributes to an increase in the literacy rate in the province but that it is also helping to create a new lower middle class, which is more conscious about its political rights. Some journalists and madressah teachers from different parts of the province share that Baloch madressah graduates have strong ethnonationalist sentiments and are against the tribal and sardari system in the province.

Read: The madressa mix: beneath the surface

The powerful tribal or sardari system deemed itself the custodian of the Baloch socio-cultural and political ethos. The traditional religious structures were somewhat entrenched within the sardari system and the two rarely challenged each other before this trend of increasing religiosity.

If the impact of this new wave of thought can be measured by counting the number of religious centres one passes on the highways in Balochistan, the picture is stark. There are more than 10,000 small and big madressahs in Balochistan, which roughly translates into availability of ?one madressah for every 1,200 to 1,300 people in the province. In Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces, by contrast, there is one madressah for about 45,000 to 50,000, and 10,000 to 12,000 inhabitants, respectively.

However, one cannot claim that the madressah is a new centre for revolutionary thoughts and ideas. The madressahs in Balochistan played a key role in the formation of the Taliban and not only provided human resource to their militias but also provided ideological and political support.

The madressah institution has also fanned the flames of sectarian violence in the province. Yet, the presence of a distinct nationalistic character among madressah students in Balochistan can be attributed to the overall political environment of the province, the dominance of the Baloch nationalist discourse in mainstream education, and an element of anger against the state’s polices to reverse the militant chapter in the country.

“There is a sense of humiliation that the state has abandoned them, which could be a reason for their anger,” says Qari Saifullah, the principal at Markaz-e-Islami Panjgur, a prominent seminary of the area belonging to the Jamaat-e-Islami. However, Shahzada Zulfiqar, a Quetta-based senior journalist and political analyst, doubts such claims. According to him, most of the madressahs students in the province belong to the Pashtun community. “These [nationalist] tendencies [among the madressah graduates] are not going to benefit nationalist politics and the Baloch insurgent movement because they will prefer to support their religious political and sectarian organisations,” he says.

Whatever the cause may be, the Baloch nationalist insurgent movement — which is largely left-wing leaning and seeks revolutionary inspiration from global leftist movements or from its own historical background — is now facing resistance from the emerging religious-nationalist forces.

Does religious nationalism exist in Balochistan?

Pakistan security personnel inspect the site of a suicide attack in Dalbandin carried out by Baloch insurgents targeting Chinese engineers on August 2018 | AFP
Pakistan security personnel inspect the site of a suicide attack in Dalbandin carried out by Baloch insurgents targeting Chinese engineers on August 2018 | AFP

The institutions of religious education may have not completely eroded the nationalist ethos of the Baloch but they have at least provided them a sense of connectivity with the broader religious communities in Pakistan. The Tableeghi Jamaat is one of the instrumental organisations connecting the Baloch with the wider national, religious and social discourses in the country. Banned terrorist groups such as the Jamaatud Daawa and Al-Rehmat Trust were also encouraged to expand their networks in the province, especially in the insurgency-infested areas. “If these organisations are agents of national cohesion, they may take a few more years to dilute the nationalist tendencies and this cannot happen without the expansion of the middle class,” says Quetta-based civil society activist Ali Baba Taj.

Despite the conflicting views, this fundamental question still remains unanswered. A review of the Iran-focused militant group Jaishul Adl can help to understand this question.

Rapid urbanisation in parts of Balochistan and a growing middle class can be counted as primary factors behind growing religiosity in the province. The Baloch overseas workers in Middle Eastern countries, as well as Omani and Iranian influences in the coastal and bordering regions, have also factored in to change the socioeconomic fabric of the area.

Balochi separatists and militants have engaged in regular cross-border raids against Iran which has made the Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchestan a flashpoint since long. In October 2018, 12 Iranian security personnel were abducted near a village 150 kilometres southeast of Zahedan, the capital of Sistan-Baluchestan province. The group that claimed responsibility of the abduction was the anti-Iran Sunni Muslim militant group which calls itself Jaishul Adl (JA), or the Army of Justice. Operating primarily in the Iranian province, it receives support from local Baloch tribes in Pakistan where it also operates from.

Jaishul Adl can be classified as a Baloch religious-nationalist militant group, which was formed soon after the arrest and execution of Abdul Malik Regi, the leader of the Sunni extremist organisation Jundallah. Jaishul Adl claims to be fighting for the rights of the Baloch and Sunnis in Iran. It had demanded of the government equal rights for both the Baloch and Sunnis in Iran, among other things, in exchange of freeing the Iranian guards.

Such a demand reflected that, unlike Jundallah, the group’s struggle is for the rights of the Baloch-dominated districts in Iran and not necessarily for the independence of these areas. However, on-the-ground reports reflect a different reality. Local accounts from Panjgur and Nushki claim that JA has separatist tendencies and, like the Pakistani Baloch groups BLA and BLF, it advocates for a ‘greater Balochistan’ comprising Baloch regions within Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan.

This is the reason that has drawn the Baloch youth from Pakistan’s bordering towns to join the group. Quetta-based journalist Akber Notezai feels that “Unemployment could be one of the factors for Pakistani Baloch youth to join the Jaishul Adl.” Mainly those youth who subscribe to different Sunni sectarian and religious organisations comprise its ranks. JA’s core leadership, however, is mainly Iranian Baloch. In this context, it has become a transnational religio-separatist group of the region.

Jaishul Adl vs BRAS

JA is often engaged in skirmishes with left-leaning Pakistani Baloch insurgent groups. The Baloch Raaji Ajoi Sangar (BRAS) is an alliance including the BLA, the BLF and the Balochistan Republican Guards (BRG) and often clashes with JA in armed confrontation in the areas they share alongside the Pakistan-Iran border.

The BLA and the BLF are beneficiaries of Iran’s lenient attitude towards them and, in turn, BRAS insurgents believe that Jaishul Adl enjoys Pakistan’s inattention to its activities as well as support from some Middle Eastern countries. They also claim that JA has been undermining the nationalist insurgency. However, the presence of Pakistani Baloch youth in the folds of JA indicates that the issue goes deeper.

While Pakistani insurgents did not have a close association with Iran, the breakaway faction of the Jundullah group was tolerated by Pakistani Baloch insurgents. But now the situation is different. A few blogs maintained by BRAS supporters reflect that the debate among Pakistani Baloch insurgents to form an alliance with their Iranian counterparts carries on, though with little success.

A few among hardliner Baloch nationalists in Pakistan, who take pride in the traditionally left-leaning and secular roots of the Baloch nationalist movement, consider JA an illegitimate entity to lead the Baloch. They assert, instead, that the group is dividing the force of the insurgents while giving a religious colour to the resistance movement. According to them, the Iranian regime is, in fact, not against the Sunnis because it allows Sunni mosques and madressahs to function, that Sunni books are published in Iran, and Sunnis have representation in the Iranian parliament. They also point to Maulana Abdul Hameed, the head of the Sunni Council in Iranian Balochestan.

They argue that the Iranian regime is, in fact, against ethnic minorities including Baloch, Kurds and Arabs. They assert that the Iranian regime has not set up any Baloch cultural centre in Sistan and there is a ban on the publication of Balochi-language books. A secular Baloch cannot contest elections in Iran. This is a popular view among the hardliners, but many experts underscore that Baloch nationalism in Iran has become increasingly religious in nature, and JA is one of the reactions.

Although the groups in the BRAS’ fold have a critical view of Iran and advocate for a greater Balochistan, logistical support from Iran has also made them dependent on the country. This has given Iran clout over these insurgent groups and it is using them against anti-Iran groups such as JA. According to local accounts, families of BRAS commanders have been given protection and refuge by the Iranian security forces and, in return, they attack JA hideouts inside Pakistan and provide information about them to Iran.

The Zikri factor

Seminaries have been accused of providing human resource to the Taliban movement | AFP
Seminaries have been accused of providing human resource to the Taliban movement | AFP

The Zikri issue is another manifestation of the complex religious landscape of Balochistan.

In Turbat, in Kech district, Zikris have prayed for centuries at Koh-e-Murad. Every year, on the 27th of Ramazan, members of the small Muslim sect hold a mystical gathering at the shrine. Mainly based in the Makran region, the Zikris also inhabit in large numbers the Mashkay and Gresha areas of Khuzdar district, the entire Awaran district and many parts of Lasbela district. Many historians believe that Zikris were the native Baloch. Some claim they came from Fatimid Egypt and, travelling through Iran, they arrived on the Makran coast centuries ago. However, Zikris have a strong affiliation with Balochistan and have nationalist thoughts.

Read: Zikris under attack in Balochistan

Derived from the Arabic dikr — meaning ‘pronouncement’ or ‘remembrance’ — the term Zikri denotes the prayers which Zikris perform in place of the daily Muslim prayers. The exact number of Zikris is unknown but it is estimated at around 600,000 to 700,000 , with more than 100,000 living in Karachi, and a considerable number present in interior Sindh as well. The predominantly Baloch community lived peacefully side by side with the ‘Namazi Baloch’ (Sunni Baloch) until religious persecution reared its ugly head. 

Some journalists and madressah teachers from different parts of the province share that Baloch madressah graduates have strong ethnonationalist sentiments and are against the tribal and ​sardari system in the province.

When the government allowed Salafi clerics to settle in the Makran region, it triggered a discourse of hatred against the Zikris. Later, Deobandi clerics from Karachi and sectarian groups from Punjab also joined the campaign against them. In 1978, Ziaul Haq himself visited the region and had a long consultation with the local religious leaders, which has been documented by Maulana Abdul Haq in his booklet Zikri Masla. He claims that the ‘ulema’ demanded that Zikris be declared non-Muslim and Zia promised in the meeting that he would send the case to a superior court to resolve the issue permanently. Zia encouraged the clerics to sensitise people about the issue.

The mullahs also tried to incite other Muslims in Makran and Balochistan against the Zikris in order to force them to the margins of society. A religious group Majlis Tahafuz Khatm-e-Nabuwwat, in collaboration with the Sipah-e-Sahaba, organised an annual congregation in Turbat at the same time as the Zikris’ annual gathering at Koh-e-Murad near the city. These religious groups invited thousands of their followers from across Pakistan to stop the Zikris from performing their rituals.

Over the last few years, the local administration has stopped the religious groups from intervening in the Zikris’ rituals, but this action comes too late. A wide sectarian rift has already been created among the Baloch. Zikris are still the target of terrorist groups and religious zealots. In 2014, six Zikris were shot dead in a Zikr khana in Awaran district. In the same year, Zikri passengers of a bus were attacked in Khuzdar district of Balochistan. Seven of them were injured. In 2016, a Zikri spiritual leader was killed in Kech.

The Zikris claim that they are targeted because of their political views — they have strong nationalist inclinations and they support nationalist parties in the province. Maulana Abdul Haq, in his booklet, also endorsed that the Zikris’ secular and nationalist credentials were a cause for concern for the government. In retaliation, many young Zikris have joined insurgent groups, mainly the BLA and the BLF.

Some see the Zikris’ inclusion in Baloch insurgent groups as one of the impediments to developing a working relationship between these groups and the Iranian Sunni religio-nationalist groups — despite the fact that they all have some common nationalist tendencies among them. Abdul Haq Hashmi, the Jamaat-i-Islami provincial head, endorses this view. He points out that the anger among Zikri youth was already intense and when the current phase of insurgency began, many of them instantly joined in. “The Zikri factor could be one of the obstacles in the way of any probabilities of cooperation between nationalist and religious insurgent groups,” he observes. However, the number of Zikris among insurgent groups is significant. Most of the important commanders of the BLF and the BLA belong to the sect.

Compounding the crisis of identity comes the modern-day problem of housing and settlement. After fighting nationalist insurgency, religious extremism and sectarianism, the Zikri sect now faces encroachment by mega development projects. Journalist Notezai says that many Zikris fear that the CPEC route will cause massive displacement for them as many community members reside in the areas the CPEC passes through — starting from Gwadar to Hoshab-East of Turbat (M8) on one side and Gwadar to Lasbela, as well as in Awaran. M8 connects Turbat to Hoshab, where one can find a significant population of Zikris. Areas with a strong presence of Zikris include Gwadar and surrounding areas, Turbat city, Kissak, Kikkin, Shahrak, Shapuk, Sammi, Karki, Hoshab and some parts of Dander and Kohlwa.

The sectarian turf

Many Baloch insurgent groups are said to be fighting for a ‘greater Balochistan’
Many Baloch insurgent groups are said to be fighting for a ‘greater Balochistan’

The markets of eastern and western Balochistan are full of Iranian goods and Iranian petrol and diesel. Goods from Iran have occupied virtually the whole market not only in Balochistan but also in bordering towns of Sindh and Punjab. “Bordering towns cannot survive without trade with Iran and this is used for political leverage,” says Dr Ishaque Baloch, central vice president of the National Party (NP). In the absence of religious influence in Balochistan, Iran mainly depends on economic incentives as a tool. Many Baloch in the border regions have dual nationality of both Iran and Pakistan, and others have entry permits as they are in the business of trading petrol and grocery items.

While infiltrating the market via trade with the Pakistani Baloch is easy, the religion schema is more complex for Iran as the Baloch on both sides belong to the Sunni school of thought. Iran made attempts to introduce Shia Islam in the bordering regions of Pakistan but the campaign was abandoned because of fear of persecution of the Shia population by Sunni hardliners and violent groups. Journalist Zulfiqar points to the presence of pro-Iran religious scholars sent on preaching missions in the Baloch areas but says they have had little success. Allama Akber Zahidi, a prominent religious scholar from Quetta, says that the Makran region has zero Shia presence but Khuzdar and adjoining areas are home to non-Baloch Shia families. After sectarian tensions and incidents of target killings, these families were evacuated and brought back to Quetta; many settled later in Punjab.

On the other hand, Sunni sectarian groups and clerics are also confronting Iranian influences, which deepen the sectarian divide in the province. Quetta, Kalat and Mastung districts particularly remain sensitive because of the presence of sectarian and global jihadist terrorist groups in these areas. So far, these groups do not have strong operational linkages with anti-Iran groups such as JA but, if they indulge in any formal alliance, the sectarian divide in the province could intensify. Though the Baloch-dominated districts have a different sectarian complexion, Quetta and the districts bordering Sindh may get affected by such a Shia-Sunni divide.

Many Baloch nationalist leaders are still reluctant to admit the fact that religious institutions are reshaping Baloch society. “The Baloch are born secular and their women are more independent and confident, working in and outside their houses,” says Dr Baloch. But when his attention is drawn towards the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam’s usually securing good number of seats to the provincial and federal legislatures from Balochistan, Dr Baloch asserts the JUI’s rise was only made possible by the Islamicisation process of the 1980s. Otherwise, he maintains, the clergy could not change Baloch society to any great extent.

But religion is reshaping the socio-political ethos of the province and the state is also using religion as a tool to glue disparate groups together. “The establishment feels easy using religious actors and it feels it has mastered this art,” says Zulfiqar explaining why the establishment does not instead engage with other aggrieved segments of society. But the rest of Pakistan has already experienced how the clergy, once empowered through patronage, can start dictating powerful elites after becoming strong.

The process of religious cohesion is slow and complicated. The ultimate outcome of this process is anybody’s guess. Whether or not it will dilute the nationalist tendencies among Baloch remains to be seen. But as has been proven time and again, an ideological dose cannot be an alternative to a cohesive social contract and an equitable distribution of resources.

The writer is a security analyst

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 14th, 2019



Wheat price crash
Updated 20 May, 2024

Wheat price crash

What the government has done to Punjab’s smallholder wheat growers by staying out of the market amid crashing prices is deplorable.
Afghan corruption
20 May, 2024

Afghan corruption

AMONGST the reasons that the Afghan Taliban marched into Kabul in August 2021 without any resistance to speak of ...
Volleyball triumph
20 May, 2024

Volleyball triumph

IN the last week, while Pakistan’s cricket team savoured a come-from-behind T20 series victory against Ireland,...
Border clashes
19 May, 2024

Border clashes

THE Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier has witnessed another series of flare-ups, this time in the Kurram tribal district...
Penalising the dutiful
19 May, 2024

Penalising the dutiful

DOES the government feel no remorse in burdening honest citizens with the cost of its own ineptitude? With the ...
Students in Kyrgyzstan
Updated 19 May, 2024

Students in Kyrgyzstan

The govt ought to take a direct approach comprising convincing communication with the students and Kyrgyz authorities.