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On a firm foothold

The sardar's extraordinary authority within this structure probably stems from the essentially military character of early Baloch tribal society.

india Updated: Aug 29, 2006 18:45 IST

The Balochis have preserved their ancient tribal structure.

Each tribe or tuman has its chief and consists of several clans. Generally, the attachment to the tumandar orthe tribal chief is very strong and the Balochis blindly follow him.

Balochistan had a tremendous strategic value in the eyes of the British. Even though it was nothing more than a barren tract of land, the region provided a gateway to Afghanistan and Iran.

Since the British didn't want to put resources into governing its small population, they opted for a system of indirect rule.

The Frontier Crimes Regulation Act (1901) recognised the Sardars or tribal chiefs and allowed tribal customary law to prevail. The government scrupulously avoided interfering in its operation.

The Sardari system was centralised and hierarchical. At the top of the system is the Sardar—the hereditary central chief from whom power trickled down to the Waderas—the section chiefs, and beyond them to the subordinate clan and sub-clan leaders of the lesser tribal units.

The Sardar's extraordinary authority within this structure probably stems from the essentially military character of early Baloch tribal society.

The tribesmen's seasonal migrations and isolation in scattered small camps would seem to have justified the emergence of a powerful and respected central figure who could obtain pasture lands and water, and arrange safe passage through hostile territory for herdsmen.

The Jirga or the council of elders settled disputes. A Sardar was then a British government loyalist. The Sardars were expected to maintain peace and order in their respective tribes and also collect taxes.

The British strengthened the tribal system and its hierarchy. The Sardars were given stipends, pensions, grants, and in return, they controlled their tribesmen.

Later, after an elected government came into being in Balochistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (1971-1977) was favourably inclined towards the government of Sardar Ataullah Mengal.

Bhutto also nominated the Baloch nationalist, Ghaus Buksh Bizenjo, as the Governor of the province. But, then the central government and the provincial government fell foul of each other.

Bhutto tried to establish his own party via the democratic process in a feudal tribal society. He also announced the abolition of Sardari system at Quetta. But it was not implemented in real letter and spirit.

Of late, the Sardars may have been sidelined politically but their hold on the tribes remains intact.

Writer Kunwar Idris says in his article in Dawn: "They may not be doing much for the welfare of their isolated, primitive folks, but government officials do even less while extorting more.

"That is why the Sardars last and rule. The brief army forays or long-lasting garrisons, thus, have not made much of a dent in the tribal structure nor impaired the authority of the Sardar, although when the troops camp in his area he himself might be camping in Karachi or in London."

There are scores of tribes in Balochistan and as many Sardars. The politically significant ones are Marris, Bugtis and Mengals.

First Published: Feb 09, 2006 21:18 IST