OSLO – The world remembers 1948 as the year of Israel’s birth and the year the Israeli-Palestinian conflict took on its present proportions. But it was also the year another decades-long conflict first erupted, one that has claimed tens of thousands of lives but attracts far less attention: the Baloch independence movement.
Like the Kurds, the Baloch are Sunni Muslims, and like them are spread across national borders. Historical Balochistan is today located in (or as Baloch nationalists insist, occupied by) Pakistan and Iran, with a smaller portion in Afghanistan. And like the Kurds, the Baloch are eager to cultivate any regional allies who will have them – including Israel.
“It’s in both our interests to join forces,” says His Royal Highness Khan Suleman Daud, the exiled Khan of Kalat. “The world has interests – yours is that Iran shouldn’t be nuclear, and also that Pakistan be weak. I have my interests – independence.”
Kalat is just one of the historic districts of Pakistani Balochistan, but the Khan, who fled Pakistan for Wales six years ago, is now determined to lead all Baloch territories – including those in Iran – to independence under his leadership.
“We are not racial or religious enemies,” he told The Tower on the sidelines of the Oslo Freedom Forum human rights conference. “Whomever is the enemy of our enemy is our friend and we’ll take help wherever we can get it. I’d love to come to Tel Aviv someday – hopefully soon.”
The Baloch, the Khan insists, are the region’s only secular people and disgusted by the Shiite extremism of Iran and the Sunni variety practiced in neighboring Pakistan (the country’s official name is, after all, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan). But there is one issue on which he is not willing to compromise: The provinces of both countries that are Balochi-inhabited will and must revert to their natural owners.
“It’s not Iran or Pakistan or Afghanistan; it’s Baloch land. We existed centuries before Pakistan, which is just the illegitimate child of the British,” he says. The Khan reserves special scorn for the Punjabis, inhabitants of Pakistan’s richest and most populous province, whom he blames for stealing half of Balochistan in what he describes as a forced marriage.
The British made Balochistan part of their Indian Empire, but allowed it to retain its khanate and relative autonomy, even while ceding its western part to Persia as a buffer against czarist Russia. When India was partitioned, the Baloch were promised independence, while sharing a currency and foreign and defense policy with the new Muslim state of Pakistan. After six months Pakistan invaded and forcibly annexed the area.
Since then some 17,000 people are believed to have been killed over six decades of Baloch opposition to Pakistani and Iranian rule.
As Britain’s Independent newspaper wrote in a 2009 profile of the khan: “Forgotten by the West, Baloch separatists have since fought five insurgencies to try to claw back their independence from Pakistan’s central government, which has responded with massacres, large scale disappearances and torture.”
Islamabad continues to fight what The Guardian has called a “secret dirty war,” one that fails to garner the media attention remotely close to the attention paid to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Syrian civil war, or even the Kurdish independence movement.
And yet as dire as is their situation in Pakistan – where half of their total world population live – the Baloch in Iran have arguably fared worse still. Like Pakistani Balochistan, Iran’s Balochistan province is its country’s largest. And like its Pakistani counterpart, it is also poor, neglected, and underdeveloped.
Amnesty International reports that in Iran, where Baloch make up just 1.5 million of the country’s 80 million people, they account for 55 percent of hanging victims.
Mehrab Sarjov, an assistant to the Khan, hails from Iranian Balochistan. Like the monarch, he sees his land becoming a model, moderate secular Muslim polity at peace with all the region’s states. That means all of them:
“We believe no state is granted by God – it’s people who make states,” he told The Tower in Oslo. “We believe Israel has a right to exist and to full security. We don’t live in the age of empire or religious supremacism but that of the nation-state. If the Greeks can form a country from their part of the crumbling Ottoman Empire, then what’s wrong with the Jews doing the same? The whole world order is based on nation-states, and history shows the Jews need protection.”
And yet Baloch nationalists know that the same great-power politics that denied them a country will be essential if they hope to secure one. At the initiative of California Republican Congressman Dana Rohrbacher, the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee last year held its first-ever hearing on Pakistani human-rights abuses in Balochistan.
Baloch nationalists are convinced that Israeli and Western opposition to Iran’s nuclear program can help win them support. The CIA estimates that Shiite non-Persian Azeris make up 16 percent of Iran’s population, with the Sunni Kurds another 10 percent, and the Baloch 2 percent.
“If Azeris, Kurds and Baloch revolt against Iran, the country is finished,” Sarjov says. “We believe Baloch, Kurds, Azeris and Jews are natural allies.”
Sarjov’s hitherto jovial expression turns flat when asked whether Iran has him in its sights.
“They want to kill me,” he says, deadly serious, and recalls a recent invitation he received for a “business meeting” in Dubai by people he believes were Iranian agents.
“The business they wanted to discuss,” he says, his smile returning, “was that of securing my head on a plate.”
For his part, the Khan is convinced the most effective way to deal with a nuclear-determined Iran – and a Pakistan that is already there – is not through sanctions but fomenting unrest among disaffected minorities.
“Baloch independence will not just weaken, but break, both Iran and Pakistan,” he says. “You Jews are just not even 15 million, and only half live in Israel, but every time the Israelis do anything the whole Arab world screams but does nothing.”
“I’ll tell you something: We Baloch are 30 million,” he says, inflating the actual number by as much as half. “One Baloch can handle one hundred Punjabis, and the same goes for those Persians.”
[Photo: Theworldvideos1 / YouTube]