Last Saturday, Pakistan’s Hazaras finally ended a protest and agreed to bury the bodies of 11 coal miners from the community killed by the Islamic State on January 3. The stir came to an end only after Prime Minister Imran Khan visited the mourners in Quetta and promised compensation for the dead.
However, persecution of the Shiite Hazaras is nothing new in Pakistan or neighbouring Afghanistan. They have been frequently targeted by Taliban and Islamic State militants and other Sunni Muslim militant groups in both countries.
James B. Minahan, in his book Ethnic Groups of North, East, and Central Asia: An Encyclopedia (2014), says this targeting might have started around the 18th century.
Around 1773, the mountainous region of Hazarajat in modern-day central Afghanistan was annexed and made a part of the territories of Afghan Empire under Pashtun ruler Ahmad Shah Durrani. The Sunni Muslim majority under the Pashtun ruler resulted in further marginilisation of the Shiite Hazara community, to the extent that in the 18th and 19th century, they were forced to leave fertile lowlands in central Afghanistan and make the dry, arid mountainous landscape their new home.
Research indicates that their unique identity, ethnicity and religion always made the Hazaras stand out among the other communities. Hazaras speak Hazaragi, which is close to Dari Persian, the official language of modern-day Afghanistan. The community also shares physical similarities with the Mongols and their speech, specific terms and phrases, reflect strong Central Asian Turkic influences, setting them apart from their neighbours in Pakistan and other communities within Afghanistan.
According to Minahan’s research, in the 19th century, the Hazara community constituted approximately 67 per cent of Afghanistan’s total population. Since then, primarily due to violence, oppression and targeted massacres, that number has come down to a little as 10 to 20 per cent of the population now. But Minahan explains that these figures are only estimates due to a lack of census statistics.
The attacks reached a crescendo in 2013, when three separate bombings killed more than 200 people in Hazara neighbourhoods of Quetta. In the aftermath of this incident, the Shia community in Pakistan had erupted in anger over the Pakistani government’s lack of protection of the city and had refused to bury the dead till the government made steps to improve security. The Sunni militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi claimed one of the three deadly attacks.