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This is the Shia sect that has faced endless persecution in Pakistan & Afghanistan

Hazaras were target of a blast in Quetta on 12 April, but this was only the latest such attack. ThePrint presents an overview of Hazaras, descendants of Mongol leader Genghis Khan.

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New Delhi: A bomb blast ripped through the Hazarganji market in Balochistan’s Quetta earlier this month killing at least 20 people. For Pakistan’s Hazara community the incident “carried the eerie sense of lurid déjà vu”, as a Diplomat report called it.

Last week, a Pakistani journalist tweeted a video of Muhammad Ahmed Ludhianvi, a radical Pakistani Sunni Muslim leader with close links to terrorist groups, calling for the genocide of Shias in Pakistan. Hazaras are a Shia Muslim ethnic group in Quetta, Balochistan.

With Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan meeting the victims of the attack amid incidents of continued violence and discrimination against the Hazaras, ThePrint presents a brief overview of the Hazaras and the persecution they have undergone in the country and its neighbour Afghanistan.

Who are Hazaras?

Predominantly concentrated in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, the Hazaras are said to be descendants of the Mongol leader Genghis Khan and his soldiers, with distinct Mongolian features of Hazaras, said a 2017 report by Landinfo, an independent body within the Norwegian Immigration Authorities.

Hazaras converted to Shi’ism during the rule of Iran’s Safavid Dynasty in the early 16th century. Most of them belong to the Twelver and Ismaili sects of Shia Islam.

Owing to Afghanistan’s topography, the ethnic groups have traditionally lived in isolation from each other, which resulted in each group developing in a unique way with their own distinct culture, said the Landinfo report.

The Hazaras followed a similar development trajectory, whereby they came to be concentrated in Hazarajat, the central highlands of Afghanistan. Today, Hazarajat comprises Bamyan, Dai Kundi and Ghor provinces.

Also read: It’s the moment of truth for Afghanistan

Persecution in Afghanistan

Hazarajat retained its regional autonomy until Pashtun King Abdur Rahman conquered it in 1893. In his attempt to consolidate modern Afghanistan, Rahman launched a brutal campaign against non-Sunni ethnic groups, targeting Hazarajat and Nuristan. Hazaras tried to provide resistance against Rahman’s campaign, but they were callously crushed, said the Landinfo report.

According to an Al-Jazeera report, citing anthropologist Thomas Barfield, this campaign left tens of thousands of Hazaras dead. This single incident reduced the population of Hazaras by half. Given the scale of violence, many Hazaras were forced to migrate to Iran and Balochistan — starting the never-ending cycle of migration Hazaras have gone through ever since.

Beyond killing and forced migration, Rahman’s treatment of Hazaras had another significant structural effect on their position in the Afghan society. During Rahman’s rule, Hazaras were sold as slaves and were consistently discriminated against. As a consequence, even after Rahman, Hazaras continued to be servants and cleaners and were permanently placed at the bottom of the social hierarchy, said the Landinfo report.

While slavery was abolished in Afghanistan in 1923, Hazaras continued to perform manual labour and unskilled jobs. They were systemically denied access to public services and were not allowed to take up positions in the government. It was only in 2004 that the newly drafted Afghan constitution granted them equal rights.

Hazaras suffered one of their worst persecution periods in Afghanistan during the Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001. Pashtun Taliban was responsible for carrying out several ethnic massacres and pogroms of Hazaras.

As a consequence, after the Taliban government fell in 2001, Kabul saw a massive influx of Hazaras.

As Taliban continues to control more and more of Afghanistan’s territory, the Hazara population — 15 per cent of the country’s 30 million people — increasingly fears its future in the country.

Zia and beginning of persecution in Pakistan

Today, after years of systemic persecution of Hazaras in Pakistan, the community has been reduced to living in two ghettos in Pakistan’s Balochistan: Mari Abad and Hazara town.

But this was not always the case.

Through most of the 20th century, though the Hazara migrants living in Pakistan did not see a dramatic reversal in fortunes, they were allowed to live there relatively unaffected.

But this changed once General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq came to power in 1978 and initiated his policy of Islamisation of Pakistan. Anti-Shia policies were a major part of the Zia’s Islamisation. This had a two-fold effect on Hazaras living in Balochistan.

First, as argued by academic and former Pakistani diplomat Hussain Haqqani, Zia used Islamisation as a means of national cohesion, but it gave rise to religious intolerance, violent sectarianism and a deeply polarised society.

Second, as a consequence of the policy and the Pakistani state’s support for militant groups to fight the Afghan war, there was a huge proliferation of radical and terrorist organisations.

One such radical Sunni outfit created in this period was the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP). Although SSP was banned in 2002, it changed its name to Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jama’at (ASWJ).

Currently, Ahmed Ludhianvi, who called for the Shia genocide, heads the ASWJ.

Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), an offshoot of SSP was the vicious anti-Shia terrorist organisation.

Also read: Trump’s bid for hasty Taliban deal risks repeating history in Afghanistan

‘Ethnic cleansing’

According to a 2018 report by Pakistan’s National Commission of Human Rights, more than 2,000 Hazaras have been killed in Pakistan in the last 14 years. It is believed that LeJ is responsible for most of these killings.

Though Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) has termed LeJ as one of the “most virulent terrorist organizations”, evidence still suggests that the state continues to support it.

LeJ uses madrasa cells to run its extremist militancy against the Hazaras. They not only conduct physical attacks against Hazaras, but also direct threatening and hateful slogans at the community, said the Diplomat report.

In May last year, Pakistan’s Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar acknowledged the dire plight of Hazaras, declaring that they were undergoing “ethnic cleansing” at the hands of extremist groups, and asked for immediate government intervention.

Recent violent incidents against Hazaras, however, show that Pakistan has not taken any meaningful action to prevent the never-ending persecution of the minority Shia sect.

Also read: If India wants to be a key player in Afghanistan, it has to engage with the Taliban


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