Secessionism and Separatism Monthly Series: "Secessionism and Separatism: Pakistan as a Case Study" by Farhan Hanif Siddiqi

Emmanuel Dalle Mulle's picture

H-Nationalism is proud to publish here the seventh post of its “Secessionism and Separatism Monthly Series”, which looks at issues of fragmentation, sovereignty, and self-determination in a multi-disciplinary perspective. Today’s contribution, by Professor Farhan Hanif Siddiqi (School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad), deals with Pakistan as the first in a series of case studies that we will propose in the coming months.

Pakistan’s encounter with secessionism is rooted in its history since 1947. In fact, August 14th and 15th, 1947, the dates on which Pakistan and India emerged as independent states, were also marked by a third entity proclaiming independence. This was the princely state of Kalat in Balochistan whose princely ruler, Mir Ahmad Yar Khan, issued a declaration of independence on account of his independent relations with the British colonialists.[1] Interestingly, the person fighting Kalat’s legal case for independence with the British was none other than the founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah himself.

In the ensuing weeks and months, Jinnah and the Pakistani state pressurized the Khan of Kalat to integrate into the Pakistani state and the Khan acquiesced in March 1948. So, paradoxically, Pakistan contained an independent state in its geographical boundaries for a good eight months, that is, from August 1947 till March 1948. Furthermore, Pakistan was unique in the sense that territorial ‘dis-contiguity’ marked its boundaries, as opposed to the general norm of coherent borders.[2] The two provinces of West and East Pakistan were separated by a 1,000 miles of Indian territory in which East Pakistan (ethnically homogenous, with Bengalis as the dominant ethnic group) was demographically dominant but undermined by the politically dominant West Pakistan (with five major ethnic groups: Punjabis, Pashtoons, Sindhis, Baloch and Urdu speakers). Ethnonationalist tendencies intensified in Pakistan owing to a centralized governance structure bequeathed by the British that, however, unlike the British political system, was characterized by lack of democracy and the military’s assertiveness in the political process.

East Pakistan became a hotbed of nationalist activities in the 1950s owing to the centre’s insistence on Urdu as the national language as opposed to Bengali. While Bengali ethnonationalism was not essentially separatist, it manifested itself as such owing to the repressive policies of the Pakistani state. With power denied, marginalized and alienated from political and economic processes of development, the Bengali ethnic elites demanded federal autonomy as the basis for a renegotiated formula of a Pakistani state consisting of distinct nationalities. The state’s denial and a consequent military action in March 1971 inflamed Bengali passions leading to the secession of East Pakistan in December 1971 and the consequent dismemberment of the Pakistani state. In the post-war era then, Pakistan became the first state to experience disintegration leading to assertions that the religious bond had failed to keep the state united and that ethnicity had trumped religion.

The theoretical lessons, in view of earlier posts, are the following: secession may not be an outright desire, goal or strategy of the ethnonationalists but more of a ‘spur of the moment’ thing, whereby state policies induce circumstances which make ‘secession’ inevitable. Second, movements with outright secessionist aims such as the Jeay Sindh Mahaz (in Pakistan’s Sindh province) might be highly committed to secession, but may not garner enough members to support their nationalist cause. The defeat of separatist referendums in Quebec and Scotland can be seen in a similar light. Third, the Bengali case study attests to the near dominance of one party, the Awami League, as the front bearer of Bengali nationalism. More often than not, however, culturally homogenous ethnic groups are marked by political heterogeneity, which makes secessionist aims and strategies problematic allowing for the state to indulge in divide and rule tactics.

In the recent ‘War on Terror’, the ethnic question has come to haunt the Pakistani state because of the violent activities carried out by the Baloch nationalists. Balochistan’s fifth insurgency is overtly separatist with the earlier insurgencies dilly-dallying between assertions for provincial autonomy and independence. At the core of the conflict is the Baloch demand for adequate financial compensation for Balochistan’s resources (including natural resources such as natural gas, gold and copper) usurped by the central government. While a state does not stand to tolerate secessionist movements and conventionally utilizes force to repress it, the Pakistani state has realized now the consequences of sticking to a centralized model of governance. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution passed in 2009 allows for provincial autonomy and the transferring of subjects such as health and education to the provinces. Also, the debate to create new provinces and for further administrative decentralization of power has taken roots in the political culture and featured prominently in the manifestoes of the major political parties contesting the 2013 general elections.

The Baloch secessionist movement now in its fifteenth year is showing signs of abatement. Recent developments indicate Baloch separatists’ willingness to negotiate with the central government and the government’s drive to co-opt the separatists through rehabilitation schemes.[3] In Pakistan’s case, secession can be understood as a ‘remedial’ right whereby the right to unilateral secession comes as a denial and violation of other basic rights. However, secession in this sense comes out as a plan of action, a goal, which might not always be the initial case or goal of ethnonationalists, as the Bengali case study demonstrates. This also fits into the Baloch case study, which only in its recent phase has overtly expressed its secessionist tendencies as opposed to earlier nationalist episodes in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. In this context, then, can the argument relative to national self-determination be understood as a demand for rights short of independence? After all ‘remedial’ theories of secession see secessionist tendencies as a strategy of the last resort when basic rights are denied. This automatically leads to the argument that if basic rights are not violated and powers divided between the centre and ethnic groups, the desire for independence may well subside. But, can the comparatively resource and financially rich cases of Scotland, Catalonia or the Basque Country be understood this way? In these cases, granting provincial autonomy may in fact aggravate, as opposed to alleviate, the movement and desire towards independence.



[1] Farhan Hanif Siddiqi, The Politics of Ethnicity in Pakistan: The Baloch, Sindhi and Mohajir Ethnic Movements (London: Routledge, 2012)

[2] Pakistan’s geographical uniqueness is however also shared by other states, including the United States of America, where the state of Alaska borders Canada and not the American mainland.

[3] Syed Ali Shah, ‘Brahmdagh Bugti willing to negotiate with government: BBC,’ Dawn, August 27, 2015,

Thanks for this great post! 

It was most interesting to see how remedial rights theories may be employed to explain the secession of Bangladesh and of a possible (but unlikely) secession of Baloch populated region. Usually remedial rights theories provide normative justifications - secessions are justified as (as explained in the post) last resort remedies to breaches of rights. But Professor Siddiqi is surely right to ask, if there is nothing to remedy, why then secede? Well, if there is nothing to remedy, other reasons will be found for secession including the ubiquitous will of the people. And of course people may will to secede even if their rights are not breached (and the people of Scotland may indeed will so if the UK leaves the EU).

May I raise a relatively non-standard question, unrelated to the existing normative and other theories? How does one classify the political goals of the TPP and other Islamic movements in Waziristan? Although at the moment this movement does not seem to control much of the territory in this area, at some point before 2009 and even after, it appeared to have had de facto sovereign control over parts of this region. There were several large conventional military operations required to remove the movement's control over these areas - at the time when the Pakistani army launched the operations, the Pakistani central government did not appear to exercise effective control over these territories. The movement did not make any secessionist claims (at least the Anglophone media did not report them) and it did not have an exclusive ethnic base or appeal but what were then the political aims of its holding territory and resisting the Pakistani armed forces (instead of attempting to blend with civilian population and 'disappear', the preferred tactics of many guerilla movements)? Are there any other similar Islamic militant movements in Pakistan which control or aim to control territory (and effectively deny the Pakistani government control over that territory)?

As noted before in this space, ethnicity may be replaced by religious doctrine as a mobilizational tool for secession. Does Pakistan offer any potential examples of religious doctrine being used to mobilize populations to effectively secede from the the central government?

I would just like to thank Farhan Siddiqi for his excellent post and David Prior and Aleksandar Pavkovic for their comments. H-Nationalism will be publishing another post of our Secessionism and Separatism Monthly Series tomorrow, but please feel free to continue the discussion on Pakistan, if you so wish.

Thank you Aleksandar Pavkovic for your reply to the post and my due apologies for taking so long to get back to you: let me start by answering the last question first. Pakistan does not offer any example, either at the moment or previously, of a religious movement that is at the same time secessionist. This is why I do not see religion trumping ethnicity as the basis for secession in Pakistan in the future. The real challenge to Pakistan comes from ethnic groups, as for example, in Balochistan.

This is an interesting question: what is it that religious parties such as the TTP and others want? In most cases, the core of the religious objective is limited to the implementation of the Sharia or the pursuance of a very exclusivist ideology but all within the confines of the territorial boundaries of the Pakistani state. If there is a classification scheme, it has to do with their operational dynamics: for example, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi operates mainly against the Shia minority while not in direct confrontation with the Pakistani state; TTP is in direct confrontation but then again not secessionist in its orientation and there are others such as the Jamat-ud-Dawa which is focused on Kashmir and is stridently anti-Indian (India implicates the Jamat for the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008) but at the same time is not involved in a direct confrontation with the Pakistani state.

The Ahle Sunna wal Jamat (ASWJ) formerly Sipah-e-Sahaba and one of its followers assassinated the former Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer and was hanged by the government recently prompting protests in Islamabad. Their objectives again relate to the implementation of Sharia (their own brand as they are strictly opposed to the TTP), reduction of vulgarity/obscenity on the popular media but again nothing that makes it secessionist or anti-state.

In short, most religious groups espouse their own specific interpretations of Islam and stake a claim for themselves as interest groups. The state is involved in a direct military operation against them (TTP, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Jamat-ud-Dawa, others) while the rest are taken as not too serious (both by the state and the masses) to pose a significant challenge to Pakistan’s political system.

In the midst of all what is happening in the country, the fear of a religious movement taking over the reins of the government is a far fetched one!

Thank you Emmanuel and it was a pleasure to contribute to this series.

Thank you Farhan Siddiqi for your detailed and informative reply. It is interesting to learn that these religious groups do not want to take governmental powers themselves but want only to get their interpretation of Islam accepted and implemented. It would also be interesting to see how this kind of religious activism will develop in the future - in Pakistan as well as in the region.