Aug 11, 2006

Balochistan: The Baloch in Iran - A National Question

Below is an article written by Nasser Boladai and published in the journal Gozaar;

The latest events in Balochistan - clashes between the Baloch resistance movement and Iranian security and armed and intelligence forces - have made the Baloch nation’s grievances toward the current Iranian regime more immediate. They have raised some questions both inside Iran and abroad about the origin, structure, and demands of this movement. Since the Iranian government controls the flow of any information to and from Balochistan, it is not easy to learn about the Baloch national movement and to become familiar with its demands.

The Islamic Republic’s regime, in its propaganda to its domestic audience, accuses the Baloch resistance and political forces of cooperating with western countries and western media, and publicly portrays some parts of the Baloch resistance forces as Islamic extremists in the mould of the Taliban. The regime deliberately confuses the fight against drug trafficking and its operation against Baloch dissidents and political and armed forces. It often executes, hangs, or shoots to kill Baloch political activists, charging them as drug traffickers and executing them without a trial.

This paper, focusing on the Baloch situation in Iran, discusses these unique geopolitical and socio-economic factors and the Baloch people’s political aspirations: to integrate into Iranian politics, to safeguard its national identity, and to achieve political and economic rights in a federal Iran, based on parity of constituent parts.

Balochistan: Geography, Population, and a Brief History

Balochistan is located in south-eastern Iran, bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan, countries with their own significant Baloch populations. It is strategically situated at the eastern flank of the Middle East, linking the Central Asian states with the Indian subcontinent and the Indian Ocean. It occupies the northern part of the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea from the Strait of Hormuz to Gwater, a small village divided between Iran and Pakistan. Some estimates put the Baloch population in Iran at over four million[1].

Western Balochistan was annexed by Iran after the defeat of Baloch forces by Reza Shah’s Army in 1928. The reign of the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran was also the beginning of a centralized state structure with a unified national identity based on Persian national features, where the Persian language, Persian race, and Shiite religion were given prominence. The Pahlavi regime laid the political and constitutional foundations that have allowed subsequent regimes to discriminate on people based on ethnic differences, by adopting a policy of forced assimilation of other nationalities into the Persian national identity.

The theocratic regime, which replaced the Shah’s government, put more emphasis on the Shiite religion as the state identity and considered the Baloch as outside of the revolution and alien to their cause. The majority of the Baloch people are Sunni Muslim who also distrusted the new rulers and their emphasis on the Shiite religion. The regime’s unequal economic treatment of the Baloch people has increased the distrust between Baloch nation and the Islamic Republic.

Linguistic Discrimination

The use of the Balochi language is forbidden in formal and public places, and Baloch children are deprived of using their mother tongue as the medium of instruction at schools. The Iranian government does not allow any kind of press freedom in Balochistan. Baloch cultural activists have attempted to register Balochi-language publications many times. Each time these requests have been rejected or have been granted on the condition that most pages are published in Persian, with only one or two pages in Balochi. Some Baloch cultural activists accepted these conditions and published journals or newspapers such as Rooz Dra and Marz e Pourgohar. Both since have been banned and their editors have been intimidated and harassed.

Social and Economic Discrimination

Mahmud Khalatbary, who served as Director General of the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), in a discussion with well-known international affairs scholar Selig S. Harrison recalled that “In CENTO, we always assumed that the Baloch would attempt to create their own independent state with Soviet support some day, so it was desirable to keep them as politically weak, disunited, and backward as possible.”[i]

This policy was effectively implemented such that in the last years of the Shah’s regime Balochistan was the poorest province in Iran “with an estimated annual per capita income of $975, less than half of the national average of $2,200 for rural areas and less than one-fifth of the overall national average” [ii]. Balochistan is still the poorest province in Iran.

The Baloch face considerable discrimination in the job market as well as political exclusion. For instance, during the Shah's regime, only two Baloch were serving in the provincial administration in Zahedan, holding the lowest paid jobs. All others were non-locals. The situation has not changed under the current theocratic regime. During a tour by former President Khatami to Balochistan, he met with the provincial authorities. Of those present, only one was Baloch: the representative for Zahedan in the National Assembly.

The Iranian government explains the lack of Baloch in important posts in Iran as being due to their lack of skills and necessary competence. In fact, the Iranian constitution, which characterizes Iranian identity as based on the Shiite sect and Persian language, is the main obstacle. The prominence given to Persian identity in the country’s constitution is systematically and effectively used as a barrier against Baloch students entering into higher education systems in order to exclude them from the job market. Because of the discrimination that Baloch face on several levels in Iran, they feel that they are living in an apartheid system and treated as third class citizens.

Demographic Manipulations and Assimilation Policies

Successive Iranian governments have been engaged in demographic manipulations to systematically reduce the Baloch people to a minority in their own homeland. Furthermore, among the many repressive policies are the displacement of poor Baloch people in Balochistan and the destruction of their homes. This is done in order to provide the best land to non-Baloch workers, especially the security forces, brought into the province.  Government policy has been based on facilitating access for Shiite and non-Baloch people to set up businesses and purchase land cheaply.

In many parts of western Balochistan, the Baloch are rapidly losing their identity. The previously Baloch-dominated regions of Bandar Abbas, parts of Kerman and Sistan are the areas most affected by the assimilation efforts of the Persian-dominated Iranian state. The Baloch are now a minority in all these areas, including the capital city of Zahedan.

Drug Trafficking and Addiction

By the time Balochistan was annexed to Iran, the British had long since introduced opium to the Balochistan region. However, compared to other areas of Iran, its use was limited to a handful of tribal leaders, mostly in the Sistan area of Balochistan[ ]. Maghruldin Mahdavi, in an assessment of the education situation in Balochistan, Hormozgan, and Kerman regions in early 1960, pointed out that the drug was less used and relatively unknown in Balochistan, compared to other areas of Iran[ ]. When the Pahlavi regime was forced out of power by the Islamic Revolution, drugs were a growing problem in Balochistan and heroin had already been introduced to the society.

The Islamic Revolution and the new rulers, many of whom were newcomers to power and set out to become rich quickly, saw drug trafficking in Balochistan as a fast and easy way to make a fortune. Balochistan’s geographic location next to Afghanistan, where opium was grown, and Pakistan, where heroin was produced, made it ideal for these new officials, none of whom were local or Baloch.

The new rulers in Tehran turned a blind eye to these drug lords, who were government officials or their close associates, and concentrated their fight on petty drug dealers. They deliberately mixed the fight against drugs with the suppression of the Baloch national movement. Amnesty International reported in 1991 that “in Balochistan a clamp down on the Balochi national movement appears to have been coupled with the continuing campaign against drug-trafficking, blurring the distinction between prisoners detained for political activities and those arrested for participation in illegal smuggling activities.”  The regime still deliberately mixes the fight against drug trafficking with its operations against Baloch dissidents, political forces, and armed resistance. It continues to execute, hang, or shoot to kill Baloch political activists, accusing them of drug trafficking and executing them without any trial.

Islamic Extremism and the Influence of Neighboring Countries

Historically, the Baloch never gave either Zoroastrianism or Islam primacy in their social or political life. Instead, they have been guided by centuries-old cultural and traditional values in their national behavior. A liberal and tolerant mindset has evolved among the Baloch people over the centuries. In the early 18th century, when British entered the region and asked the people how civil cases should be decided, the Baloch, unlike their neighbors, who had replied “Sharia,” replied “Rawaj”[ ] (Baloch customary law).  E. Oliver, a British officer in the area in the 18th century, mentions in his book that the Baloch “has less of God in his head and less of the devil in his nature”[ ]. However, the secular Baloch tradition is in danger, mostly due to developments in neighboring societies, namely Punjabi, Pashtun, and Persian - the three dominant nationalities in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran, the three countries among which the Baloch are divided.

The regime eliminates moderate religious leaders who enjoy popular support and nationalistic credentials. Most prominent among them were Mr. Abdul-Malek Mulazadeh, who was assassinated while in exile in Karachi, Pakistan, in March 1996, and Molavi Ahmad Sayyad, who was kidnapped, tortured, killed  and was his body was dumped somewhere in Bandar-Abbas in February 1994. It lets many extremist groups that work under the guise of Tabligh Jamait (Religious Missionary Groups) propagate a radical interpretation of Islam.

The theocratic regime indirectly supports extremist religious forces and at the same time manipulates them to control and deter them from becoming moderate and uniting with moderate religious, liberal or democratic forces in Iran. This hinders democratic development in Balochistan and weakens the democratic forces in the whole country.

Earlier this year the clashes between the regime’s security forces and the Baloch resistance movement intensified. The regimes security forces suffered an increasing number of casualties at the hands of the Baloch resistance, who struck at the heart of the security intelligence apparatus. Some officials were quick to explain those clashes as a sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shi’as. These officials complained that the Shi’as were being killed by Sunnis and not being protected by a Shiite government.
Although the regime has killed many Baloch activists and Baloch Sunni religious leaders, the Baloch and their leaders have never talked of religious war and killing based on differences between Shi’as and Sunnis. The Baloch consider the suppression and discrimination that they are enduring a result of the regime’s chauvinistic and tyrannic policies, rather than religious differences.

In addition, the regime’s military officials accuse the Baloch resistance forces of cooperation with western countries, especially the United States and Great Britain. Similarly, some officials and their supporters abroad have been quick to connect Baloch resistance forces with the Taliban.

Although none of the regime’s claims and propaganda against the Baloch resistance movement is true, there have been some attempts by some extremist religious forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan to influence the Baloch resistance and to use it against their ideological rival in Tehran.  They have not been successful, since the Baloch political and religious leaders have been careful to distance themselves from those extremist groups.

Physical Violence against the Baloch People

Many of Iran’s army garrisons are permanently stationed in Baloch areas, giving the impression of a war zone. For most of the fifty years of Pahlavi rule, Tehran depended primarily on the use of overt military force to keep the Baloch areas under control, even when there were few coordinated insurgent activities. Militarization has intensified since the Islamic Republic regime came to power in 1979. The militarization of Baloch areas have coincided with increased human right violations. These, in turn, have intensified armed resistance against the Islamic Republic’s military force in the last twelve months.

The armed resistance movement in western Balochistan is an indigenous phenomenon with a history of over 70 years of struggle against successive governments of Iran. The Islamic Republic regime accuses the Baloch people of cooperation with the United States and Great Britain, instead of undertaking negotiations and other peaceful means to end the resistance. On 15 May, 2006, the regime used this accusation to launch a military operation in a large area of the northern and southern parts of Zahedan, Balochistan’s provincial capital.

The regime’s forces have shot civilian areas from helicopter, which resulted in the deaths of innocent Baloch people in both villages and the mountains.  More than 20 civilians were killed with many more injured, in addition to enormous property damage. In the cities, many young men have been arrested, accused of supporting the Baloch armed resistance forces.

In addition to many security forces and intelligent agencies, a paramilitary group, “Mersad”, which operates under direct order of Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei, is also active in Baloch areas. What differentiates this group from others is its licence to kill. They choose their victims randomly, creating a sense of terror and insecurity in Balochistan, especially among young men. In the recent months, it has been responsible for many shootings and beatings in Balochistan.

Whilst the international community and the world media focuses on the regime’s uncompromising stance on the nuclear weapons issue, the Islamic regime takes advantage of the crisis to suppress the Baloch people, which have collectively rejected the theocratic regime of Iran and its repressive policies.

National Struggle, Political Organizations and Representation

The emerging political situation at the end of the Cold War favored oppressed groups struggling for self-determination and sovereignty. This encouraged hard-core Baloch political activists to organize themselves into a new political party. This group began to take form in late March 1997 in Stockholm, where a group gathered to discuss the situation and agreed to lay the foundations to establish a new political party to achieve the Baloch people’s right to democratic rule, and to give a voice to the Baloch people’s struggle outside the country where it is unknown.

This group elected a committee to encourage political discourse by publishing a periodical called Tran. Its efforts resulted in the establishment of the Balochistan People’s Party [ ], BPP, on September 21, 2003. Balochistan People’s Party (BPP) is the first Baloch political party. It is a union of many different political views, its members were former activists from the Balochistan National Movement, Balochistan People’s Democratic Organization, former Baloch members of the group such as Fedayeen Khalq, Mujahideen Khalq, Peykar and independent political activists, who joined together to struggle to achieve sovereignty for the Baloch people within a federal democratic republic in Iran.

The Baloch people have resisted domination by the central government since its annexation by Pahlavi regime. Its resistance has always been an armed struggle, lacking strong political leadership. This political gap is now being filled by BPP.

While open political opposition is not possible, the Baloch resistance movement has increasingly organized itself underground and for the first time enjoys the leadership of a political party. BPP has been successful in representing the Baloch national struggle for the first time both in national and international forums. It has established close contacts with resistance groups in Iran, providing them with information and political guidance which they lacked in the past. In recent months the Baloch resistance forces have increased their activities in Baloch dominated areas in the four provinces of Sistan-and-Balochistan, Kerman, Hormozgan, and Khurasan.

Thanks to the efforts of the BPP, Balochistan became a member of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO)[ ]. By using UNPO’s good offices, BPP has succeeded increasingly to make awareness in international forums including the United Nations and the European Union about the current theocratic regime’s suppression against the Baloch. BPP also presented Balochistan’s case to the Danish Parliament on 19 January 2004 and to the Swedish Parliament on 18 November 2004. BPP recently participated in a symposium in the United States Senate on 3 June 2006, in the French Parliament on 16 June 2006, in the Berlin Parliament on 4 August 2006 and on 28 September 2006 in the Canadian Parliament.

BPP is one of the founding and most active members of “The Congress of Nationalities for a Federal Iran” (CNFI). The CNFI consists of nine parties and organizations belonging to different nationalities that live in Iran: Arab, Azerbaijani, Baloch, Kurds and Turkmen. All of these political organizations struggle to establish in Iran a secular, democratic republic with a federal structure based on parity of its constituent parts.

Consequences of Repression of Baloch Society

Repression experienced by the Baloch touches historical, social, cultural and economic spheres. Balochistan has been at the crossroads of extremist influences from neighboring societies. At the same time, it has been confronting a religious theocratic extremist Shiite regime in Iran. While the Iranian regime harasses and eliminates Baloch moderate religious leaders, it is letting an extremist group pave the way for the suppression of the Baloch on religious pretexts.

In its effort to weaken Baloch society, the regime utilizes any means. It does little to fight the drug trade in Balochistan. The lack of job opportunities and the bleak future that Baloch young women and men face in Iran draw them to use drugs. At the same time, the regime deliberately links the Baloch national resistance movement with the drug trade to damage the movement’s reputation. The regime has concentrated its fight in Balochistan on petty drug dealers and lets the drug traders working on a much larger scale (who are often high ranking government officials or their close associates) work freely.
While the theocratic regime has been very anxious to break Baloch society’s internal structure, cultural resilience and its secular character, Baloch society has been fighting back and still stands resolutely up to demand its rightful national and cultural rights in Iran as a nation equal in collective rights and duties to other groups in Iran.

Towards a Resolution on the Baloch National Question

Latest events in Balochistan have shown the Baloch people’s strong resolve to change the current political structure to a system that accommodates its aspiration for self rule and shared sovereignty in Iran.

The Baloch national question cannot be addressed in bits and pieces. The Baloch nation must be recognized within its boundaries as a people distinct from others, equal in collective rights and duties. In the new millennium, a new scenario of national governance should prevail. The attributes of the new system of governance should be harmonious partnership in a republican liberal democratic system with a federal structure and national autonomous provincial governing mechanisms. This will appropriately address the problem and offer the prospect of a positive new partnership of trust and coexistence. A mechanism based on the acceptance of genuine demands of the constituent groups should generate participation, shared responsibilities, and offer opportunities to all nations and provide a foundation for stronger, civilized, prosperous and proud peoples in a multinational state with a new vision.  

End notes:
1. The Economist, 1 June 2006.
2. Selig S. Harrison 1981, pp 159.
3. Selig S. Harrison 1981, pp 99.
4. There is no fact to support this claim, people in the area claim that opium was first introduced by the British which had opened a Garrison in Sistan. The British officer introduced it to local people and even encouraged locals to use it. Baloch history does not give any indication that Baloch people used opium before the British arrived.
5. Mughruldin Mahdavi, 1342, Akhareen Mahmoriyat, uzahee kerman va Balochistan va Banader, chapkhaneh Bahman.
6. Amnesty International,  Februari 1991, Written Statement to the 47th session of the United nations Commission On Human Rights.
7. Charanjeet Lal, Tawarikh Dera Ismail Khan, pp. 251-287.
8. E. Oliver, Across the Border, p.24.
9. -