Balochistan: Oppressed in All Their Lands, Dreaming of a Secular State of Their Own

Julie Lenarz

Julie Lenarz

Senior fellow, The Israel Project; executive director, Human Security Centre

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~ Also in this issue ~

~ Also by Julie Lenarz ~

From the Blog

The South Asian region of Balochistan is home to tremendous deposits of natural resources, as well as a persecuted ethnic group perfectly situated to be allied with the West, if only given the chance.

The bodies are dumped like roadkill by the side of the road. Sometimes corpses are found piled in shallow mass graves in nearby mountains. They bear the marks of extreme torture—cut-off limbs and broken bones, ripped-out fingernails and missing teeth, mutilated genitals, bruises and burn marks, signs of malnutrition and dehydration. In some cases, they are so badly disfigured that visual identification is impossible.

This horrific spectacle is taking place under the nose of the international community in a remote place many have never even heard of—Balochistan. The largest province in Pakistan, Balochistan is located in the southwest of the country at the edge of the Iranian plateau, and now, it has become a 21st century killing field.

In recent years, according to human rights organizations, thousands of forced disappearances and unlawful killings have taken place in Balochistan as a result of what Amnesty International has described as a “Kill and Dump” policy. Pakistan’s notorious Inter-Services Intelligence agency, military intelligence, and the Frontier Corps (a federal paramilitary force) are responsible. They use the “Kill and Dump” policy as an instrument of terror in their campaign to suppress the province’s struggle for independence.

Despite claims to the contrary, it is not only members of organized resistance movements who are targeted. According to Hyrbyair Marri, the exiled leader of the Free Balochistan Movement (FBM), who now lives in London, “It is becoming pretty much clear that Pakistan’s main target is the educated and politically conscious section of Baloch society, which includes students, teachers, lawyers, and doctors.”

Indeed, any Baloch who dares to raise their voice above a whisper is labeled a terrorist or a traitor, and is at risk of being killed. “They can be a far-off relative, but having any connection to someone who supports the freedom of Balochistan can easily be made a target,” explains Banari Mengal, daughter of Akhtar Mengal, the president of the Balochistan National Party (BNP). Banari’s paternal uncle, Asadullah Mengal, was the first case of a forced disappearance in Balochistan in 1974. Her family never recovered his body.

The Mengal family, along with thousands of other Baloch around the world, is nonetheless determined to continue Asadullah’s struggle.

Scattered across three countries, the Baloch are an ethnic minority group with their own language and customs, as well as a deep commitment to their traditional tribal structures. Pakistan is home to the vast majority of Baloch, with roughly seven million, but smaller communities can also be found in Iran and Afghanistan, numbering 1.5 million and 600,000 respectively. While Balochistan is generally used to refer to the Pakistani province, the Baloch use it to mean their entire historic homeland—the unrecognized, all-encompassing Baloch state.

Following the end of British rule and the partition of India in 1947, the Khanate of Kalat, a princedom that existed from 1666-1955 in the center of modern-day Pakistani Balochistan, was promised autonomy and briefly gained independence from August 1947 to March 1948. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founding father and the country’s first Governor-General, proposed a merger of Kalat with the Muslim republic. Both houses of the Baloch parliament rejected incorporation.

Less than a year later, Jinnah ordered the invasion of Balochistan and annexed the entire territory. Under duress, Baloch leader Mir Ahmad Yar Khan Ahmadzai was forced to sign an incorporation agreement without a mandate from his people. The Pakistani state deposed the traditional tribal leadership and the historic Khanate of Kalat ceased to exist in 1955.

To appease the Baloch, the Pakistani government promised the region de facto autonomy, but genuine self-rule never materialized. In response, the Baloch launched an armed struggle, resulting in periodic uprisings. The Pakistani military put them down with extreme brutality. “Violence has been imposed on our people when Pakistan occupied our country at gunpoint,” Marri says. The cycle of violence remains unbroken to this day.

A 1980 map of Pakistani ethnic groups. Baloch population areas are in pink. Photo: Central Intelligence Agency

A 1980 map of Pakistani ethnic groups. Baloch population areas are in pink. Photo: Central Intelligence Agency

The Baloch are invisible victims. It is hard for us to understand just how isolated they feel. They are persecuted by almost everyone in the region and ignored by the international community. They face huge challenges in bringing attention to the plight of their people in a world occupied with more pressing concerns and a region awash in systemic violence. When we think of the upheavals in Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Iran, Balochistan fades into the background. Issues like terrorism, religious fanaticism, sectarian violence, corruption, and the threat of nuclear proliferation overwhelm the suffering of the Baloch.

Furthering the problem is the media blackout surrounding events in Balochistan, which is a product of indifference and ignorance, and the fact that Pakistan and Iran have sealed off their Baloch provinces. While even a minor escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict dominates headlines for days, the oppression in Balochistan goes unreported, dismissed as a byproduct of Afghan-Pakistani border violence or a shadowy conspiracy by the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s foreign intelligence agency.

Journalists trying to uncover the ugly truth are usually arrested and deported before they can set foot in the provinces. “In the recent past, journalists have also been subject to forced disappearances and killed in custody because they refused to follow the Pakistani line of journalism and had reported state atrocities,” Marri explains. Moreover, to cover up its systematic human rights abuses, the Pakistani government prohibits international organizations and independent aid agencies from operating in Balochistan.

It is not immediately clear why Pakistan goes to such great lengths to control a region that at first sight looks like little more than a remote, mountainous wasteland. The reason is simple: That wasteland is awash in natural resources. The entire area, including the Baloch regions in Iran and Afghanistan, contains plentiful supplies of oil, coal, gas, gold, silver, uranium, and copper. It also provides direct access to the strategically significant Indian Ocean, with a thousand kilometers of coastline near the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz.

The Baloch should have investors banging down their doors, but Pakistan treats the province like its own private property. It effectively rents out the area to its powerful Chinese allies, with the Baloch denied the benefits of their own national wealth. Recently, China announced a $46 billion investment plan, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). It is an effort to revive the ancient Silk Road across southwest Asia. In the end, it will stretch from Gwadar in Pakistani Balochistan to Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang province, with a potential gas link to Nawabshah in Iran as well. Once operational, the route will provide China direct access to the Indian Ocean and a significant presence in the Middle East.

Marri warned of the large-scale geopolitical implications of this plan. “Pakistan is already destroying Baloch lives and now China too has become a partner in those crimes,” he says. “It is evident from the South China [Sea] issue that China is not keen on international laws and norms. … If the CPEC succeeds, it will not only turn the Baloch people into a minority inside of Balochistan, but it would weaken Indian and American influence in south Asia and the Middle East.”

The port of Gwadar. Balochistan is rich in natural resources. Photo: Moign Khawaja / flickr

The port of Gwadar. Balochistan is rich in natural resources. Photo: Moign Khawaja / flickr

While Pakistan and China make huge profits in Balochistan, the local people suffer extreme hardship. Despite its mineral wealth, Balochistan is the poorest region of Pakistan. Much of the population lives below the poverty line with limited or no access to education, jobs, electricity, and clean water. Many are forced out of their homes without due process or compensation.

Their kin in neighboring Iran face similar challenges. The Baloch province of the Islamic Republic is rich in resources, but its population is scandalously poor. Many of the Baloch adhere to the Hanafi denomination of Sunni Islam, and are systematically targeted by Iran’s Shiite leadership. According to the London-based International Voice for Baloch Missing Persons, hundreds of Baloch activists have been executed by the regime since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

Afghanistan is different. There the Baloch are a small ethnic minority in the southeast provinces of Nimruz, Helmand, and Qandahar, and have a long history of coexistence with Afghans, Pashtuns, Hazaras, Seraiki, and other tribes and ethnic groups, often fighting alongside them. While tensions ebb and flow, there is a generally accepted state of non-interference between the Baloch and their neighbors.

This, unfortunately, is an exception that proves the rule.

If mentioned at all, the ongoing violence in Balochistan is often lumped together with other trouble spots in the region or blamed on RAW provocations. This may stem from a lack of understanding. Put simply, people do not know that the Baloch struggle for independence differs significantly from other conflicts in the Middle East, which are defined by religious intolerance and sectarian divisions.

The Baloch are certainly not religious extremists. In fact, they are some of the most secular people in the region. At the heart of their struggle is the demand for national self-determination, not the desire to impose a theocracy, which sets them apart from Islamist groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, or the Taliban. “Our struggle is not based on religion or religious assumption; that is why we welcome support from any nation,” says Marri.

The Baloch’s secularism makes them not only a target of Muslim states like Iran and Pakistan, but also Islamist terrorist organizations. Last month, during a gathering of lawyers to protest the assassination of the president of the Balochistan Bar Association, a local group affiliated with ISIS detonated a bomb that killed at least 74 civilians and injured many more.

Quite unlike ISIS, groups like the Marri-led FBM are pursuing a peaceful and democratic transition towards greater autonomy and, ultimately, full independence. The group has launched its own Balochistan Liberation Charter. The declaration highlights the need for the separation of state and religion, gender equality, pluralism, and basic human rights—principles and values that are in short supply in the Middle East.

It is true that not all Baloch opposition groups are worthy of support. There are some that engage in violence and terrorism. They are divided into several factions, with the largest being the Balochistan Liberation Army, followed by the Baloch Republican Army and the Baloch Liberation Front. These armed groups rely on classic guerrilla tactics such as ambush, sabotage, and hit-and-run attacks.

A Baloch tribesman in traditional headgear. Photo: Ahmed Sajjad Zaidi / flickr

A Baloch tribesman in traditional headgear. Photo: Ahmed Sajjad Zaidi / flickr

In recent decades, rebels have kidnapped aid workers and killed journalists and teachers. They have also been known to kill entire families of Punjabi settlers—civilians forcibly transplanted by the Pakistani government in order to artificially alter the ethnic makeup of Balochistan.

Mengal unequivocally rejects violence. “We do need a revolution, but in the form of education,” she says. “With illiteracy rates so high, the population of Balochistan can be easily persuaded or forced into such acts of violence. Atrocities from the establishment further create this resentment and fuel the hatred for the establishment and in some cases the country.”

The lines between violent and peaceful resistance movements, however, are often intentionally blurred by the Pakistani state in order to justify the unlawful arrest or abduction of peaceful Baloch activists. Many of them have fled the country and now live in fear of their lives.

Hyrbyair Marri, son of veteran Baloch leader Nawab Khair Baksh Marri, is an example of this. Pakistani authorities claimed, falsely, that he was a senior commander of the Balochistan Liberation Army. As a result, Marri was arrested in Britain and detained for four months on charges of inciting others to commit murder abroad. After a lengthy trial, a British jury acquitted him. He was ultimately granted asylum since, given that his brother Balach Marri was assassinated by Pakistani agents and another brother, Mehran, has been in exile for over a decade, the threat to Hyrbyair’s life is clear.

Despite its current indifference, the West may find an important ally in the Baloch nationalist movement, whose dream of an independent, secular state converges with our goal of fighting religious fanaticism in the Middle East. Islamic fundamentalism, sectarianism, anti-Americanism, and anti-Semitism are ideologies that have not yet taken root in Balochistan.

And this is one of the reasons the Baloch are persecuted. The Pakistani government has identified the secular Baloch as a potent threat to Pakistani identity, which is a toxic cocktail of hard-line Punjabi nationalism and Sunni Islamic fundamentalism. “They have radicalized Pashtu areas to counter secular nationalism and they are doing it in Balochistan,” Marri warns.

One way Islamabad is taking steps against secularization is by forcefully settling Punjabis in Balochistan in an attempt to make the Baloch a minority in their own homeland. Ten years ago, the Baloch were the majority group in the province’s capital, Quetta. Today, the Punjabis outnumber Baloch, and their numbers continue to be artificially inflated. In addition, the Pakistani government is pouring millions into madrasas (Islamic religious schools) across Balochistan that teach a hard-line interpretation of Islam, providing fertile recruiting grounds for extremist groups. This has led to a slow but growing Islamization in the province.

Despite being seen as a traditional Western ally in the fight against terrorism, Pakistan’s legacy of confronting religious extremism is decidedly mixed. The Pakistani government frequently turns a blind eye to the movement of Taliban fighters and other extremists across the Afghan-Pakistani border, and sometimes deliberately use them as proxies against the Baloch independence movement. According to Marri, Pakistan “has been working hand to hand with religious extremists for decades to counter secular national movements. They have also attacked Hindus and Shiite minorities in Balochistan in order to destroy the secular fabric of our society.”

The Baloch, of course, are not alone in their predicament. For decades, the Kurds in the Middle East have lamented that they have “no friends but the mountains,” a proverb the Baloch strongly identify with. The two peoples have something important in common—statelessness. While the Kurds have made powerful allies in the fight against ISIS, the Baloch are still struggling to set foot on the international stage, Marri believes.

The indifference and ignorance is most seen in the Muslim world, where they conceal Pakistan’s crimes solely on the basis of religion. Their whole worldview is religiously orientated and they do not accept the notion that one Muslim country can occupy another weak Muslim nation, like Balochistan and Kurdistan. The world so far has ignored the plight of the Baloch nation, but we are not hopeless, as we see the world is now starting to realise Pakistan’s cunning and deceit.

There is indeed hope. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has recently made two public statements of support for the people of Balochistan, including, for the first time, during his keynote speech on Independence Day. “The time has come that Pakistan shall have to answer to the world for the atrocities committed by it against people in Balochistan,” he proclaimed. The Pakistani government sharply condemned his remarks and suggested it proves India’s intelligence services are fomenting unrest in Balochistan.

Of course, India is not reaching out to the Baloch purely on humanitarian grounds. An alliance with the Baloch is in their national interest. For one, they see Balochistan as a possible buffer against Pakistan’s use of terrorism as a state policy against India’s western border. But more importantly, perhaps, the Indian government is concerned by the increasingly powerful China-Pakistan axis that will encircle India once the CPEC is enacted.

Nevertheless, Baloch leaders have warmly welcomed Modi’s statement as a step in the right direction. “He is the first prime minister of a sovereign country who has openly expressed his concerns against human rights violations in Balochistan,” Marri states. “His statement is a courageous step and shows his statesmanship.”

Interestingly, the Baloch also seek a relationship with Israel. In particular, young Baloch are openly supportive of the Jewish state. They have taken part in pro-Israel demonstrations in Western capitals and can be seen proudly posing with Israeli flags on social media.

“I am the first Baloch activist who raised the flag of Balochistan and Israel together,” explains Ashraf Sherjan, junior vice-president of the Baloch Republican Party (BRP) in Germany. “Today, many Baloch activists are taking up both the flags. This shows a very clear signal that many Baloch want Israel to support us the way Israel is supporting the people of Kurdistan.” The exiled leader of the BRP, Brahumdagh Bugti, who now resides in Switzerland, has also openly called on Israel to support the Baloch independence struggle.

One might think that Baloch opinion would naturally side with fellow Muslims and other stateless people like the Palestinians rather than with Israel, but many of the secular Baloch cannot find common ground with Islamist groups like Hamas.

“In an independent Balochistan we will have friendly relations with all free nations, including Israel and India,” Marri asserts. “Baloch have sympathy for Jewish people and Israel because their worldview is secular. Moreover, the Jewish population and their extraordinary achievements in state-building also inspire our younger generation.”

His views are shared by Sherjan:

Israel is the only democratic country in Middle East. In Israel everyone has the full right to practice their religion no matter what religion you belong to. Because we Baloch are secular Muslims, we respect all religions in Balochistan.

Both men feel that Balochistan and Israel are tied together by the crimes committed against their people. “Israel is a nation that suffered a lot like the Baloch and we reckon that one victim nation can better understand the problems and sufferings of another nation. We feel that we are victim of similar atrocities that were once faced by the Jewish people,” Marri explains.

Marri also welcomed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s support for an independent Kurdistan and says that a free Balochistan could be just as valuable a partner. “I have appreciated the Israeli prime minister’s statement about the independence of Kurdistan because that was the right thing,” he says. “Kurds, like the Baloch, have a right to statehood. We hope other states and their media will soon realise that an independent Balochistan is inevitable and…will be an important ally of the world in the global war against extremism.”

Due to a tragedy of geography, the Baloch have found themselves lost in an ocean of sectarian hatred, violence, and corruption. Their culture has been negated, their politics frustrated, and their people put to the sword over and over again in a miserable struggle that is internationally ignored.

Nevertheless, the Baloch remain committed to building an open, peaceful, and democratic society that accepts people from all backgrounds, regardless of ethnicity, race, or religion—a democratic experiment similar to what we see in the Kurdish regions of Iraq and Syria—providing a strong contrast to the mullahs in Iran and the Pakistani government.

The Baloch are our natural allies, and we should be working harder at nurturing a mutually beneficial relationship. Their style of inclusive, rational, and secular, politics would create fertile ground for trade in their plentiful natural resources, and would work as a powerful antidote to religious extremism.

Emphasizing the ethical necessity and moral obligation to protect a minority from being ethnically cleansed by an oppressive regime, the international community should stand in solidarity with the people of Balochistan and put an end to the crimes committed against them.

Ultimately, if we want democracy to triumph over dictatorship, we have to support those that want democracy, because those who want to govern in a climate of terror are putting every resource they have into doing so.

For too long, the Baloch have suffered in silence. We owe them. Everyone owes them.

Banner Photo: Beluchistan / flickr