Written by Adam GonnPublished Monday, July 14, 2008
The Balochis are little known outside of their homeland. As a minority in three countries, they claim they have been brutally oppressed for generations. This past month was no exception, with reports of assassinations and hostage takings.
Probably the best way to describe the Balochis to someone who has never heard of them is to say that they are to Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan what the Kurds are to Turkey, Syria and Iran, that is, a people spilt by modern-day borders trying to maintain its identity and uniqueness in a hostile surrounding.
The Balochis are spread out through Pakistan where approximately six million live, with three million in Iran and one million in Afghanistan.
Balochistan is not only the name of the region where the Balochis live, it is also the name of a province in Pakistan, another in Iran and a third in Afghanistan. The Afghani region is often referred to as Newroz and the one in Iran as Sistan-Balochistan, says Abdulsatar Dokshi, an Iranian Balochi.
About 95 percent of Balochis are Sunni and belong to the Hanafi sect of Sunni Islam. Hanafi is one of four schools of law within Islam and is considered the oldest and most liberal of them; about 4% are Zegri Muslims who are similar to the Druze in the Shouf Mountains of Lebanon.
Ethnically, the Balochis are no longer homogeneous, since the original tribe that migrated from the Caspian has absorbed a variety of disparate groups along the way. Among these new Balochis were displaced tribes from Central Asia, driven southward by the Turkish and Mongol invasions from the 10th through the 13th centuries, and fugitive Arab factions defeated in intra-Arab warfare. However, in cultural terms, the Balochis have been able to preserve a distinctive identity in the face of continual pressures from strong cultures in neighboring areas
Balochs speak Balochi, part of the Iranian group of Indo-European languages. Linguistic evidence indicates the origin of Balochi to be in the pre-Christian Medean or Parthian civilizations. The modern form has incorporated elements from Persian, Sindhi, Arabic and a number of other languages.
Beginning in the early 19th century, Baloch intellectuals used Persian and Urdu scripts to transcribe Balochi into written form. Since Pakistan's independence and with the rise of Baloch nationalism, Balochs have favored the Nastaliq script, an adaptation of Arabic script.
The land of Balochistan is exceedingly inhospitable; geologists have even compared the landscape with Mars. A local expression, reflecting on ethnic relations as well as on geography, describes Balochistan as "the dump where Allah shot the rubbish of creation." If this saying is correct then Allah compensated Balochistan by making it rich in minerals and natural gas.
Despite its rough terrain Balochistan is the breadbasket of Pakistan. However, most of the food produced in the region is distributed to the other provinces and the oil and gas revenue stays in the capital Islamabad.
In order to understand the events of today one needs to travel back in time.
Throughout the 18th century, the Khans of Kalat were the dominant local power, with the Baloch tribes settled to the west and to the east of them being forced to acknowledge their suzerainty. The most famous of the Khans was Mir Nasir Khan (1749–1817), whose military success owed much to the regular organization of his army, with its separate divisions recruited from the Sarawan and Jhalawan areas, which constitute the northern and southern parts of the Brahui homeland.
The Khanate of Kalat became the nearest thing there has ever been to an independent Balochistan, with borders expanding beyond the borders of today.
To understand the complexity of the issue involved in the division of Balochistan, it is important to have some understanding of the historical circumstances involved. The nation has become a victim of its own geopolitical situation, Dokshi told TML.
The strategic position of Balochistan, Iran and Afghanistan in terms of commanding the principal trade routes among South-West Asia, Central Asia, and South Asia became important for Britain and Russia in the context of the geopolitical expansion of the two empires in Asia during the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.
In 1876 a treaty was signed that forced the Khan to lease the strategic Quetta region to the British but left him in control of the rest of his territories with the aid of a British minister.
In 1947 the British divided their India Empire into the largely Hindu India and the Muslim Pakistan. The ruler of Pakistan suggested to the Balochs that they join Pakistan in a federation, a deal the Khan of Kalat accepted in 1948. Following the signing of the necessary merger documents, he was formally removed from power and the state's boundaries were abolished in 1955.
The present shape of Balochistan was finally rounded out in 1958 when the Sultan of Oman sold Gwadar, given to one of his ancestors by the Khan of Kalat, back to Pakistan.
As the years have gone by, for the Pakistani Balochis the feeling of the need for independence has grown, says Dokshi. Over the years there have been three wars between the central government and locals, and over recent years a low intensity rebellion has been raging.
Although the Balochistan area is by far the largest province of Pakistan, it is also the most underdeveloped and poorest of the four main Pakistani provinces: educational standards are low; unemployment and poverty are on the rise and rampant corruption has virtually bankrupted almost all public and private institutions.
The Balochis in Iran face a similar situation to their brethren in Pakistan, but in Iran religion is the main reason for oppression. There, the Balochis are Sunni while mullahs in Tehran are Shi’ite, and label the Sunnis as second-class citizens, according to Hussein Bastani, an Iranian journalist with Roozonline.
“Since the presidency of Mr Ahmadi Nejad there has been in increase in the number of armed clashes and cases of assassination and executions of Balochi people, and we can say at the present moment this region is in a real crisis,” Bastani told TML.
Previously the fighting had been between drug traffickers and government forces, but recently the fighting has involved rebels with ethnic and religious backgrounds. There have also been a number of hostage takings and assassinations of local officials.
The response by the central government has not only included assassinations in Iran but also in Pakistan.
Like so many other conflicts in the region that involve minorities spread over national boundaries, there are claims and counter claims as to the legitimacy and rights of those involved. And, in the case of the Balochis it is even harder to get an accurate reading of the situation, given the lack of freedoms in the lands in which they dwell.
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