The cold-blooded killing of 11 Shia Hazara miners in Geshtari area of Machh, Balochistan on 03 January 2021 by the Islamic State (IS) refocused attention on the brutal persecution of minorities in Pakistan in recent decades. However, even among the minorities, ‘the targeting of the Shia Hazaras of Balochistan is one of the most violent and persistent persecution of any community in Pakistan on account of religious beliefs.’
By Tilak Devasher
Despite the freezing temperatures of minus 8 degrees Celsius, the grieving families of the miners staged a sit-in protest on the Quetta-Sibi Highway (Western Bypass) near the Hazara Town blocking traffic and refused to bury the bodies till the prime minister came to Quetta. ‘We are requesting the Prime Minister as children would ask for help from their father when in pain and misery. He is like our father and he should come here not as the head of the government but as a father to console with his children,’ said Ali Hasnain, one of the leading representative of the protesting Hazaras. Apart from the symbolism of the PM’s visit, the protestors wanted assurances that the culprits would be caught and punished, the ouster of the provincial government and a judicial probe into the tragedy.
The government did what it has always done in the past: empty promises of quick justice, compensation for the affected families, visits by provincial and government ministers pleading with the family members to bury the dead so that life could get back to normal- till the next incident.
Imran Khan’s initial reaction was to Tweet that the government was taking steps to prevent such attacks in the future knowing that “our neighbour is instigating this sectarian terrorism.” This was a thinly veiled reference to India even though the IS had taken responsibility. However, as the protests continued, his absence became noticeable and an embarrassment. The spin given was that the date and time of his visit were being kept secret due to ‘security concerns’, but the PM would pay a surprise visit very soon. Whispers in Islamabad, however, suggested that a superstitious Imran Khan had been advised not to go near dead bodies or attend funerals.
Making matters worse was Imran Khan’s insensitive speech on 08 January 2020 where he accused the grieving families of being blackmailers insisting on his visit before burying the dead. He insisted: ‘You bury the bodies first and then I will visit.’ He claimed his visit would set a new precedent and if a terror attack took place tomorrow in any part of the country, then the people would make a similar demand that they wanted to see the Prime Minister before burying the victims. However, the Hazaras gauged his priorities from the fact that when they were sitting in freezing cold, he was meeting the team of the Turkish drama serial Ertugrul.
The Hazaras moved into what is Pakistan today in three distinct waves. The first was a trickle when some Hazaras came to British India, largely to seek employment as manual labourers in construction projects like the railways, mining and quarrying. During the first Anglo-Afghan War (1838-1840) some Hazaras from Afghanistan enlisted in the British-Indian Army as scouts and infantrymen and served in Broadfoot’s Sappers’. The second wave that was much more substantial was induced by the Hazara persecution by Amir Abdul Rehman (1880-1901) in Afghanistan. Almost half of the Hazara population was either killed or forced to flee. It was during this time, especially after 1893, that pockets of Hazara refugee population started forming in Quetta. The third wave, after Pakistan was created, was during the Taliban persecution of the Hazaras in the 1990s and thereafter. The Taliban, who view the Shias as blasphemers, targeted the Hazaras for supporting the Northern Alliance, forcing them to seek refuge in Pakistan, Iran or Central Asia. In August 1998, when Taliban forces entered Mazar-i-Sharif, they slaughtered at least 2,000 civilians, the majority of them Hazaras. The newly installed Taliban governor, Mullah Manon Niazi, in a public speech termed the Hazaras “infidels” and threatened them with death if they did not convert to Sunni Islam. These events caused many Hazaras to flee.
The targeting of the Hazaras has to be seen in the wider context of the growth of intolerance and sectarianism in Pakistan and the large-scale killing of the Shias in different parts of the country. Over the years, the minorities in Pakistan have become victims of hate speech, frequently accused of blasphemy and subject to attacks on their person and places of worship. Today, not only are non-Muslims like Hindus, Christians and Sikhs the victims but also the Sufis, Ahmadis and Shias. As the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) notes “pervasive intolerance [is] widely tolerated” and the “religious and sectarian minorities [pay] the price for that with their blood.”
The initial attacks on Hazaras targeted individuals. Thus, between 1999 and 2003, 17 high-profile members of the Hazara community were assassinated in broad daylight in Quetta. Hazara professionals such as doctors, engineers, lawyers, businessmen, bureaucrats and students were the key targets. In what was to become a pattern, not a single perpetrator was brought to justice.
The current phase of violence is characterized by a continuation of high-profile assassinations together with an increasing number of Hazara mass-killings. The first such mass-killing happened on 08 June 2003, when 12 Hazara police cadets were gunned down while they were going to the police training academy. Less than a month later, on 04 July 2003, three terrorists entered an Imam-Bargah during Friday prayers and opened fire with AK-47s and hurled grenades on the more than 500 worshippers gathered there. The attack led to the death of 47 Hazara men and boys and injured more than 65.20 The Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) claimed responsibility. Eight months later, on 24 March 2004, the LeJ slaughtered 36 Hazara men and boys, including a five year old, as their procession was going through Liaquat Bazar, near the Balochistan Governor’s house. The deadliest attacks, resulting in the highest death tolls recorded in sectarian violence in Pakistan occurred in January and February 2013, when bomb attacks in Quetta killed at least 180 Hazaras. Attacks thereafter have continued.
Most of the attacks on the Hazaras have been claimed by or have been linked to the Islamic State (IS) and the LeJ jointly. There is a clear understanding between the two: LeJ providing the operatives who carry out the attacks while using the IS moniker to enlarge its appeal and reach. The ideological common ground between the two terror outfits is violent anti-Shia bigotry. The LeJ has had a close working relationship with the Taliban and the Haqqani network. Its targeting of the Hazaras started initially in Afghanistan when almost its entire leadership, with the prompting of the Pakistan Army, fought alongside the Taliban against the Northern Alliance in the 1990s. In 1998 it aided the Taliban in the massacre of hundreds of Hazaras living in Mazar-e-Sharif. There was a spike in Hazara killings in Pakistan after 9/11 when a large number of Taliban moved into Quetta.
The philosophy of the LeJ was outlined in an Urdu document written in July 2011. It stated: ‘All Shi’ites are worthy of killing. We will rid Pakistan of unclean people. Pakistan means land of the pure and the Shi’ites have no right to live in this country. Just as our fighters have waged a successful jihad against the Shi’ite Hazaras in Afghanistan, our mission in Pakistan is the abolition of this impure sect and its followers from every city, every village, and every nook and corner of Pakistan. As in the past, our successful jihad against the Hazaras in Pakistan and, in particular, in Quetta, is ongoing and will continue in the future. We will make Pakistan the graveyard of the Shi’ite Hazaras and their houses will be destroyed by bombs and suicide bombers. We will only rest when we will be able to fly the flag of true Islam on this land of the pure. Jihad against the Shi’ite Hazaras has now become our duty.’
Immediately after the circulation of the letter there was a spike in terrorist incidents: at least 16 incidents of assassination and mass-murder in which 53 Hazara men, women and children were killed and at least 75 were injured. No efforts were made by the law enforcement agencies to investigate the incidents, apprehend known suspects or bring them to justice.
The objective of the organized and systematic violence against the Hazaras in Quetta is nothing less than their complete extermination in the country. According to Farahnaz Isphani, “while human rights experts quibbled over whether the numbers of dead merited the use of the term ‘genocide’, other convincingly argued that the purpose of the anti-Shia attacks in Balochistan was, in fact, similar to that of genocide – to eliminate an entire people.”
Several elements of the targeted killing of the Hazaras are worth noting.
– These attacks have continued and the roots of terrorism targeting the community have not been traced despite the deployment of a large number of security personnel and all shades of intelligence agencies in Quetta. The law enforcement agencies have done little to investigate the terrorist attacks or taken steps to prevent the next attack. As has become standard practice, the police round up several alleged suspects after an incident though few stand trial and are released due to lack of evidence. All this raises questions about the failure and inability of the state to protect half a million people in a single urban concentration. As the Dawn put it, “Clearly either the state is complicit or its security policies are flawed.”
– The attacks themselves are well-planned and coordinated and are not random. This would indicate availability of sufficient advance information.
– The federal and the provincial governments have mostly responded to the sectarian violence with mere condemnation and condolences, reiterating their resolve to take stern action against the culprits and to bring them to justice. However, there is little or no follow up action in terms of catching and charging terrorists. If anything, they have suggested that the Hazaras accept open-ended ghettoization, ever increasing curbs on movement and religious observance, and ongoing economic, cultural, and social discrimination as the price for staying alive. Yet the LeJ still finds ways to attack and kill them.
– Media and civil society denounce the terrorist incidents but once the hype subsides, the incident is forgotten until the next one takes place. Moreover, for the media, neither the violence against the Hazaras nor the Baloch is mainstream news, except when there is a really horrendous incident. All the national media houses are based in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad with very little coverage of news from Balochistan.
– The Hazaras also suffer from the lack of international attention. A report by the Human Rights Watch (“We are the Walking Dead”) and the BBC (“Hell on Earth”), as well as Hazara Diaspora staging protests in international capitals has not so far attracted eyeballs internationally.
– The situation is compounded by elements within Pakistan’s security agencies who view the Hazaras with suspicion. Speaking on condition of anonymity, retired members of the Frontier Corps, described the Hazaras to HRW as ‘agents of Iran’ and ‘untrustworthy.’
– Finally, the judicial system has been unable to provide relief to the Hazaras. So far none of the attacks on Hazaras have been accounted for, very few sectarian terrorists have ever been convicted and even when convicted, they have managed to inexplicably escape.
Faced with the insensitivity of the Prime Minister and his refusal to go to Quetta until the dead were interred, the frustrated and shell-shocked families had little option but to bury their dead after waiting six days for sympathy and sharing of their grief that never came. As Allama Baqir Abbas Zaidi of the MWM put it “We as a nation feel ashamed that the loved ones of those who were slaughtered for no reason are not heard even in these testing times. It was the test of the rulers to prove their character, meet their promises and take the first step forward to make this country a welfare state. But they are failing miserably.”32 A face-to-face interaction with the PM could well have lessened the Hazara feeling of vulnerability and eased some of their pain and anger.
This, however, was not to be. Imran Khan visited Quetta after the burial and met the relatives in the university. Most analysts are agreed that his visit post the burial was too little too late. While the immediate deadlock was resolved, the burial has not resolved the basic question of sectarian terrorism against the Hazaras.
If at all Imran Khan sees this as a victory for his stance of not being ‘black-mailed’ it would be a bitter and a pyrrhic victory. In fact, this could well be the defining moment of his government- everything here on will pale into insignificance compared to his callousness, arrogance and his hubris.
A fitting epitaph in the words of Dawn would be: ‘The Hazaras have suffered for too long; like the souls of their dead, the living must also find peace.’
But is anyone listening? Certainly not Imran Khan
This article first appeared in www.vifindia.org and it belongs to them. The author is a research associate with VIF.