The Hazara community in Pakistan: a test for Imran Khan

By Sonia Qadir and Junaid S. Ahmad

Pakistan recently witnessed yet another brutal slaughter of the Hazaras, this time of their coalmine workers in Quetta. The community has been targeted mercilessly time and time again by a variety of forces – in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, and even in Iran. The notion that the Hazara community is targeted solely because of its sectarian affiliation (being Shia) in Sunni dominated Pakistan, as so much prevalent analysis claims repeatedly, is slightly reductive and fallacious. 

The Hazara community is a distinct ethnic community whose physical features can often easily be recognised. Originally from the Hazarajat region of Afghanistan, the community faced brutal repression at the hands of the Amir of Afghanistan Abdur Rehman Khan in the 1880s and 90s, during his attempts to modernize Afghanistan and extend his administrative control into the region, in the aftermath of the Anglo-Afghan Wars. Because the Hazaras organised large-scale and successful rebellions against his policies – excessive taxation, interference in local administrative structures, assault by his officials against Hazara women, etc. – the Amir resorted to genocide and displacement. A large part of the Hazara population was massacred, their agricultural and cattle-grazing lands were slowly handed over to Pashtun nomadic communities, and many were enslaved. As the author Sayed Askar Mousavi argues, it was also Abdur Rehman Khan who first weaponised the fact that the majority of Hazaras were Shia, to mobilize both Pashtun and even some Hazara Sunni forces to attack the larger Hazara community and quell the rebellion against him.

This persecution in Afghanistan is precisely why the Hazaras are now located in Pakistan. Such a significant section of this community fled Afghanistan to seek refuge in Iran and Pakistan that now you have more than double the amount of Hazaras in Pakistan than in Afghanistan itself. And they have continued to suffer wherever they are. 

This is then a complex history, one that (i) underscores the intersection of ethnic, sectarian, political, economic and geographic violence over two centuries across Central Asia and the Subcontinent and (ii) takes place in the shadow of direct and indirect European colonial presence in the region, with its attendant pressures to modernise and create homogenous and centralised nation-states. These aspects though are rarely engaged with in a meaningful way. Rather, the tragedy of the Hazara community is either met with complete silence and dis-interest by the mainstream; or is highlighted within a strictly liberal framework of a theocratic, extremist deep state’s targeting of yet another minority religious community.

The Hazaras have no doubt become victim of the larger geo-sectarian battles that we have seen unfold in Pakistan, starting somewhere in the 1970s and peaking in the 1990s but continuing to date. They have in fact borne the brunt of it. But their story is not only one of anti-Shia violence – it is also one of ethnic and political conflict, and the way in which the boundaries between these have been blurred in modern colonial and post-colonial formations. This is important to remember, not simply for historical accuracy, but in order to imagine the ways out of this mess. 

Hazara grief is not blackmail

After this latest gruesome massacre, the outrage by the grieving families and the larger Hazara community – as well as many, many of us in the country as a whole – was palpable. After witnessing the sheer powerlessness of their community in the face of periodic instances of butchery, our Hazara sisters and brothers more than justifiably protested and cried out loud in front of the slain bodies of their brethren. The sheer frequency of such vile attacks on their community had legitimately caused them despair and a level of resentment and frustration unimaginable to most of us. 

According to our Prime Minister, it seemed like there was a basket of demands by the Hazara community that ostensibly the government had met. What demands the PM kept referring to though remained largely mysterious. One could imagine that the main demand of the community would have been to please just let them live! And one could then hypothesise that the PM may have certainly promised to *try* to fulfill that demand as best as he could, and to be fair to what he actually articulated, at least seemed empathetic to their historic plight as a targeted community. However, the constant mantra being regurgitated by the PM, of having addressed the demands of the Hazara protestors, makes it sound like he had already managed to ensure that no Hazara will now be targeted, and they were simply being ungrateful in response.

A real shame that the PM kept recycling this phrase, not realising how foolish it sounded. 

But of course, we know there was another major demand the Hazaras really expected the PM to fulfill, i.e., to be with them at that very moment, and to grieve with them the yet more corpses of their community laying in front of them. They may not have been in any rush to bury their loved ones since they are forced to say goodbye so frequently.

This indeed was the demand: for the PM to come and comfort, to bear witness to the pain of mothers and sisters – a role that ought to be expected by the nation’s highest public servant. Does the PM remember his praise of the New Zealand PM on her immediate response to the Christchurch bombing: of comforting, one by one, each of the Muslim families affected? Does he remember being one of the few Muslim leaders to specifically spend time with PM Arden at the UN General Assembly meeting in 2019, expressing his incredible admiration for her genuine empathy for any and all communities of her nation, at that terrible moment? It was after all sincere solidarity, not political opportunism or mere performance, which had characterised PM Arden’s behavior then.

If in this instance PM Khan or others may want to claim that other political forces are opportunistically using this tragedy and the Hazara protests for their own political mileage, the only answer to that ought to be: who cares? And if you do care more about the political shenanigans of others than the actual carnage and the devastated Hazara community itself, then you, too, are complicit.

What speaks for its obscene self is the PM’s statement that he, as the PM, cannot be blackmailed by the Hazaras to physically join them in their grief, to witness their pain and acknowledge their slain, before the latter are buried. The PM has made many a foolish remark before, but this one is in a despicable league of its own. 

The PM’s deplorable remark just raises two simple questions. Was it sensible and sensitive to term what the devastated and broken Hazara community was asking of him – as him being ‘blackmailed’ by them? And secondly, is this some grand principle that our PM lives and dies by, of not being blackmailed into doing anything, of being a so-called ‘real man’ whose masculinity and power emanates supposedly from not taking orders from anyone?

Others may want to cite other instances, but the one that stands out like an elephant in the room is when our PM was blackmailed not once, but twice, and probably many times more than we even know, by his ‘brotherly Muslim countries’ on various issues. Do we recall when Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS) summoned PM Imran Khan two days before the Kuala Lumpur summit where PM Dr. Mahathir of Malaysia, had eagerly awaited his arrival – only to be notified that MBS blackmailed PM Khan left, right, and center? Indeed, PM Khan was so easily blackmailed into prostrating himself before the madman royal that he betrayed the commitment he had made to attend the Summit. Even now, while the PM may speak openly about US pressure on Pakistan to normalise relations with Israel, there is hardly a murmur about ‘brotherly Muslim countries’ perhaps exerting just a tiny bit of pressure as well. Why was the term ‘blackmail’ so patently missing in any of these issues of enormous significance to Pakistan’s foreign relations, and economic stability? 

It appears, then, that PM Imran Khan, who has claimed to be the champion of the poor and the marginalised, can only deploy the term of being ‘blackmailed’ against those he putatively champions, and never in front of those that actually do blackmail him and get away with it – because the latter are powerful and responsible for creating the conditions of impoverishment and oppression in the first place. 

In this instance, PM Imran Khan owed the Hazaras not just the visit he finally made on his condition that the massacred corpses be buried first, but an unequivocal apology that seeks their forgiveness for the obscenity and callousness of his remark that must have poured barrels of salt on their very painful and deep wounds. There can be no redemption without it. 

Sonia Qadir is a PhD candidate at the University of New South Wales, Faculty of Law and Justice.

Dr. Junaid S. Ahmad is Professor of Religion and Global Politics and the Director of the Center for Islam and Decoloniality, Islamabad, Pakistan.