The Hazara Ethnic Minority in Pakistan
Author: Kirsten O’Connell
Department: Pakistan Team
Most definitions describe an ethnic group as a group “of people classed according to common racial, national, tribal, religious, linguistic, cultural origin or background” (M.W., n.d.), a “group or category of the population that is set apart from other groups in a society” (Britannica, n.d.), or “a group that regards itself or is regarded by others as a distinct community by virtue of certain characteristics that will help to distinguish the group from the surrounding community” (NYCI, 2019). The term ethnic group is not mentioned within the 1973 Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, but the term ‘minorities’ is, and such minorities have often been described as ‘ethnic and linguistic’ and ‘religious’ in Pakistan. The successive federal governments have taken the position that minorities within Pakistan are religious and that there are no ethnic or linguistic minorities. However, while the Pakistani government does not recognize ethnic or linguistic minorities, there are several, including Sindhis (14.4 percent), Pashtuns (15.42 percent), Saraiki (8.4 percent), Muhajirs (7.57 percent) and Baluchis (3.57 percent) and Others (6.3 percent). The Hazaras, an ethnic group of Mongolian-Turkic origin, are among the most marginalised groups in Pakistan (MRG, 2020).
About the Hazaras
The overwhelming majority of Hazaras are Shi’a Muslims, although a small number are Sunni Muslim. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) 2019 Annual Report stated, “While other ethnic groups in Pakistan are also Shi’a Muslims, the Hazaras have a distinct appearance and have established their own neighbourhoods and enclaves around the country. These two factors make Hazaras prime targets for sectarian extremist groups who target Shi’a Muslims (HO, 2019). The Hazaras are distinct from other Shi’a Muslims because of their language and facial features. The Hazaras are known for their music, poetry, and proverbs from which their poetry stems, having been passed down orally through generations (MRG, 2020). They speak a dialect of Dari (Farsi-a Persian language). The European Asylum Support Office (EASO) 2015 report on Pakistan stated “Those living in rural areas speak Hazaragi, an eastern dialect of the Persian (Farsi) language, while many Hazaras in urban areas of Pakistan also speak other languages including standard Persian, Urdu and English. They have distinctive facial features owing to their Mongo-Turko ancestry. A 2013 BBC News report noted that the Hazaras “are ethnically Mongolian, with oriental features and light skin, different from much of Pakistan’s population” (HO, 2019). However, World Atlas noted in its description of Hazaras, that researchers “cannot fully reconstruct the origin of the Hazaras, but due to their physical appearance, it is believed that they might have a close relationship with the Turkic and Mongols” (HO, 2019). Their facial bone, culture, language similarities, and general appearance closely resemble those exhibited by Central Asian Turks and Mongolians (HO, 2019).
In recent years due to their ethnic identity being easily identifiable, the Hazara ethnic group has increasingly been targeted by Sunni militant groups such as the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and the Taliban (MRG, 2020). The National Commission on Human Rights in Pakistan has reported data between January 2012 and December 2017; stating that at least 509 Hazaras were killed and 627 wounded in targeted attacks in Quetta alone – although community representatives state that the actual figure is much higher (MRG, 2020). These sorts of attacks have continued unabated, with a targeted bombing of a vegetable market in Quetta in April 2019 leaving at least 24 people dead and many others injured (MRG, 2020). These targeted killings have continued to exist, but they reached unprecedented levels in 2013 with approximately 700 Shi’a murdered, many of which were Hazaras in Baluchistan. The bombings in 2013 also claimed numerous Hazara lives, and such violence eventually led to protests by the Hazara ethnic group including refusing to bury the deceased bodies until the Pakistan government took action (Mawani, 2021). The conflict between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims derives from a varying interpretation of the Holy Qur’an and the distinct lineage both sects choose to recognise (Mawani, 2021).
Historically, the Hazara ethnic group migrated to Pakistan from central Afghanistan. They were forced to migrate following their persecution by Afghan King Abdur Rehman in the late 1880s. At this time over 60 percent of the total Hazara population was killed or displaced during his reign, with thousands fleeing to Quetta, Pakistan and adjoining areas (Zargar, 2021). Some families origins in Quetta can be traced back to the late 19th century, though the majority of the community immigrated in two waves, the first during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 onwards, and the second in 1966, when the Taliban regime in Afghanistan began to target the Hazaras (HO, 2019). The population of Hazaras living in Pakistan is estimated to be between 600,000 and 1 million according to a February 2019 report by the DFAT. In January 2014, Syed Mehdi Hassan Moosa, chief of the Hazara ethnic group in Pakistan, was reported saying there were one million Hazaras, the majority of whom were settled in Karachi and Quetta. Furthermore, approximately half a million Hazaras live in Quetta, Balochistan, the majority of whom are concentrated in the Hazara Town and Maribad (Mari Abad), enclaves which are protected by high walls and security checkpoints guarded by federal paramilitary troops. There are also communities living elsewhere, including Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore and Rawalpindi (HO, 2019).
The Constitution of Pakistan provides for the protection of minorities under Article 36 which states the “State shall safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of minorities, including their due representation in the Federal and Provincial services.” In Article 28 of the Constitution of Pakistan it provides that “any section of citizens having a distinct language, script or culture shall have the right to preserve and promote the same and, subject to law, establish institutions for that purpose.” In Article 25 (1) of the Constitution of Pakistan it states that “all citizens are equal before the law and are entitled to equal protection of law.” Furthermore, according to the report on Freedom in the World 2016, Freedom House noted that there are constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and protection of minorities, but these protections have not provided effective checks to discriminatory legislation, social prejudice, and sectarian violence (HO, 2019). According to an undated article on freedom of religion or belief, by the Minority Rights Group International (MRGI) it stated that while ‘in the Pakistani Constitution references are made to ‘minorities’ there is no clear definition for this term set out which results in ambiguity regarding what constitutes a ‘minority’. However, ‘minority’ in the Pakistani context is commonly understood to refer to religious minorities specifically, thereby limiting the constitutionally recognised minority groups such as ethnic groups. The particularly vulnerable group is the Hazara ethnic group, who face intersectional discrimination on account of their ethnicity and religious identity, all of which falls outside the commonly accepted definition of ‘minority’ in Pakistani context (HO, 2019).
Current and past circumstances
For six days at the start of 2021, hundreds of protesters from Pakistan’s Hazara ethnic community staged a vigil on a major highway in the southwestern province of Balochistan, where unknown armed assailants had killed 11 coal mine workers belonging to the ethnic minority group. The coffins of their kin were on the ground and the families of the victims refused to bury their bodies, demanding that the authorities initiate a serious effort to punish the perpetrators. The demonstration took place in the freezing cold weather on the outskirts of Quetta, the capital of Balochistan. The women and children of the Hazara ethnic community also took part, because it was an important symbolic act of defiance against the persistent killings that target Hazara Shi’a, who have suffered unprecedented and relentless sectarian violence for the past two decades. The demonstrations over the killings also spread to other Pakistani cities, including the country’s economic centre Karachi. The sit-in protest was finally called off on January 9th, after federal ministers along with Balochistan Chief Minister Jam Kamal, convinced the protestors that the now former Prime Minister Imran Khan accepted their grievances and would meet them personally. The grieving Hazara community had demanded Khan to visit the region and address their concerns. They also wanted a judicial probe into the incident and the dissolution of the provincial government (Zargar, 2021).
The 11 coal miners were sleeping at their residential compound in the Mach coalfield, about 50km east of Quetta, when gunmen attacked them in the early hours of January 3rd (Zargar, 2021). The assailants pulled the coal miners out of their sleeping quarters, blindfolded and shackled them and then executed them. Most of the victims were seasonal migrant workers from an impoverished area in neighbouring Afghanistan. The gruesome act was filmed by the perpetrators and posted online. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the killings in a post uploaded by its propaganda arm, the Amaq News Agency. The picture accompanying the claim showed two armed men standing over three bodies lying face down on the ground, with the group’s flag hanging in the background. Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper reported that as news of the incident spread, a large number of people from the Hazara ethnic community took to the streets and disrupted traffic by burning tyres and using rocks to block the road. The protestors also did not allow officials from the local government to move the bodies. The former Prime Minister Imran Khan called the attack “yet another cowardly inhumane act of terrorism” and ordered the security agencies to bring the killers to justice (Zargar, 2021). He further stated, “I share your pain & have come to you before also to stand with you in your time of suffering,” he tweeted, adding that he will come again very soon to offer prayers and console with all the families personally. The cricketer-turned politician sent his ministers to convince the demonstrators to bury the victims and withdraw from the protest site, but they did not accede to these requests. Khan then called on the demonstrators to refrain from ‘blackmailing’ him, a remark that provoked widespread criticism because it was seen as ‘insensitive’ and ‘lacking empathy’ for the Hazaras. In the hours after the victims were finally buried, Khan made a visit to Quetta and met with the families of the slain coal miners as well as members of the Hazara community. He assured them that the government would not abandon them, and said that his government had reached the conclusion that India was backing the Islamic State to cause turmoil in Pakistan and the killings were done at Delhi’s behest. Khan said according to intelligence briefings in March 2020, India wanted to “inflame sectarianism” in Pakistan by killing Shi’as and Sunni’s (Zargar, 2021).
However, it is not the first time that extremist militants have attacked the Hazara community in Balochistan or elsewhere in the country. The vigil was seemingly a desperate attempt to shine a light on the failure of both the provincial and federal governments to do something about the terror attacks that are specifically targeting the Hazara community. The authorities have often failed to apprehend attackers or prosecute the groups claiming responsibility for such terror incidents, with critics suggesting they are either incompetent or indifferent towards the Shi’a Muslims. For the past two decades, the ethnic Hazaras have been targeted for their Shi’a Muslim faith, often facing killings, suicide attacks and bombings that have killed hundreds of them. This has wreaked havoc on their daily life, education, businesses as well as religious activities. Their lives are essentially under a perpetual siege and confronted by the apathy of the authorities. The persistent violence and prevailing security situation has resulted in 70,000 Hazaras emigrating from Pakistan in recent years. The targeting of the Hazara ethnic community first began in 1999, when a top Hazara leader, Sardar Nisar Ali, was gunned down in Quetta. One of the first major attacks on Hazaras took place in the city of Quetta in July 2003 when gunmen entered a mosque during Friday prayers and killed 53 people and wounded over 50 more. In April 2010, a suicide bomber killed 12 people and injured 47, including a journalist and two police officials in an attack at Quetta’s Civil Hospital. The attack took place after the body of Ashraf Zaidi a Shi’a bank manager who was killed earlier in the day by gunmen, was brought to the same hospital. Furthermore, in September 2010, a suicide bomber killed 56 Shi’a demonstrators and wounded at least 160 others who were attending a rally in Quetta (Zargar, 2021).
In August 2011, an alleged suicide bomber from the militant anti-Shiite group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) attacked a mosque in Quetta’s Murriabad area, killing 11 Shi’a Muslims (Zargar, 2021). On September 9 the same year, gunmen forced 40 Hazaras to disembark from a bus when they had been travelling to Iran to visit Shia holy sites (Zargar, 2021). The attackers killed 26 of the Shia passengers and wounded six in what came to be known as the Mastung massacre. The LeJ claimed responsibility for the attack and there was a significant spike in attacks on the Shia community the following year in 2012, with at least 125 Shi’a Muslims most of whom were Hazaras killed in Balochistan. However, the bloodiest attacks, resulting in the highest death tolls recorded in sectarian violence in Pakistan since 1947, occurred in 2013 when two bomb attacks in Quetta killed at least 180 Hazaras. The LeJ claimed responsibility for both attacks. Furthermore, according to a 2018 report titled Understanding the Agonies of Ethnic Hazaras, released by Pakistan’s National Commission for Human Rights, as many as 509 members of the Hazara community were killed and 627 were injured in various incidents of terrorism in Quetta between January 2012 and December 2017. However, Pakistan has long faced problems of militancy in different stages of its history, for instance Islamabad has both supported foreign militant groups such as in Afghanistan and Kashmir, and confronted many other domestic extremist groups like the radical Tehrik-i-Taliban also known as the Pakistani Taliban (Zargar, 2021). So, there does not seem to be a clear end in sight to alleviate the plight of the Hazara community (Zargar, 2021).
In conclusion, the Pakistan government needs to start acknowledging the persecution of the Hazara Muslims and find a way to actually eradicate these acts of terrorism that are being justified by extremist groups with the overarching term, jihad. The years of persecution of the Hazara ethnic community need to come to an end and the Pakistan government needs to act on the constitutional guarantees that the Hazara community can claim from in the Constitution of Pakistan, like the freedom to profess one’s religion, equality of all citizens and protection of minorities (Mawani, 2021).
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