Balochistan: Lessons from the British Forward Policy

Richard Isaac Bruce, the right-hand man of the famous pacifier of the Balochistan tracts, Robert Sandeman, for a considerable amount of his frontier career in British India, wrote a book entitled “The Forward Policy & its Results”. 

In it, he outlines the policy adopted by the Government of India in the mid-1860s wherein the British abandoned the previous Closed border system and supplanted it with the Forward Policy which encouraged British engagements with the Border tribes of Balochistan and KP (formerly NWFP).

Under the Forward Policy the British tactics were novel and worked wonders as far as their success in subjugating the tribes of the frontier was concerned so much so that by the end of the 19th century, the regions from Chitral to the Balochistan coasts were brought under total British control, excepting a few occasions, without a shot being fired. 

How so, one wonders, could the British possibly have performed this feat? The tribal people of the frontiers were deemed fanatics and radicals. The British on the other hand, were considered by these same people as infidels who sipped whiskey day and night and indulged in morally degenerate acts. In order to understand the success of the British one must analyze their ways and approaches and possibly learn a lesson or two from them.

The British were masters of the policy of divide and rule. The vast wastelands of the Indian North West Frontier, here after referred to as the Frontier, were sparsely populated by tribes who missed no chance of raiding and plundering each other. When Robert Sandeman rode into the Kelat State in 1876, the primary justification for his action was to resolve the conflict between Marris and the Khan of Kelat. The British therefore capitalized on the divisions among the tribes to their own advantage and consolidated their control over the tribes under the pretext of maintaining law and order and conflict resolution.

The proponents of the Forward Policy, chief among them being Robert Sandeman, regarded punitive military expeditions as possessing limited utility and sometimes even detrimental to the overall British policy of maintaining the defence of India during the Great Game against Russian advances. Contrary to launching punitive expeditions to subjugate the Frontier, the British adopted a policy of negotiations with the headmen of the tribes. To mention, the possession of the strategic Bolan, Gomal and Tochi passes were not acquired by the British through sending armies and conquering the land but by shrewdness of the political agents who negotiated deals and settlements with the tribal heads wherein they were offered annual subsidies and the fit-to-fight men were inducted into tribal levies whereby they were offered a chance to earn a good living without indulging in theft or raids. 

Civilian political agents were instrumental in bringing about the success of the Forward Policy. Isaac Bruce after 36 years of service, in his book argues that the Civilian officers are by far much more well versed in succeeding in negotiations compared to military officers. 

The British classified the border tribes into three segments. The first were the major stakeholders of the areas who were the chiefs – they had it in their best interest to uphold orderly way of life in their country in order to sustain their rule. The second segment were the anarchists who thrived on lack of order. The third were the religious fanatics who rallied against the British conquerors with radical fervor. 

The British only came into contact with the influential segment i.e. the first segment – the peaceful ones – who not only were in the majority but also held substantial hold over the local politics of the region. They disregarded the anarchists, the militants and the fanatics leaving them to be dealt with later, once the British consolidated their hold over the Frontier.

Bearing these in mind, it is important to learn from the British experience of the Frontier. Pakistan too, suffers from a lack of confidence reposed by some sections of the tribal people in the government, chief among them being the militant organizations. We have, as perceived, emphasized too much on punitive expeditions and operations as a method of dealing with these disgruntled elements. To be fair, we have not succeeded as much as we have wanted or could have. The cure to the Pakistan’s militancy problem especially in Waziristan and South Balochistan may as well lie in a thorough study of the British Forward Policy and the novel reapplication of it.

[Photo by Rizwan Bhiriya (RB), via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

The Writer is an Assistant Research Fellow at Balochistan Think Tank Network.

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