Friday, January 1, 2021

The Plight of the Hazara People of Afghanistan and Pakistan

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Raya Tripathi

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The Plight of the Hazara People of Afghanistan and Pakistan


Global Views 360

Publication Date

January 1, 2021


Hazara Children at Bamyan, Afghanistan

Hazara Children at Bamyan, Afghanistan | Source: Sgt. Ken Sca via Wikimedia

The Hazara People, who are mostly found in some regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, are a mixed race community who are one of the most persecuted ethnic groups in the world. Their situation is not getting better even to this date.

Who are the Hazara people?

The term ‘Hazara' was first used in the 16th century in the memoirs of Babur, to describe people in the region towards the west of Kabul, till Gor or Ghazni. The origins of this community remains disputed, although there are three theories to suggest it. According to the first theory, the Hazaras could be of Turko-Mongol ancestry, descendants of Genghis Khan's army which was left behind by him in Afghanistan.

The second theory goes two millennia back, to the Kushan Dynasty, when Bamiyan in Afghanistan was a Buddhist centre. Supporters of this theory claim that the facial structure of the Hazaras is similar to that of the Buddhist murals and statues (later vandalized by the Taliban) in the region. The third and the most widely accepted theory is that they are mixed race. According to this, certain Mongol tribes travelled to modern-day Afghanistan (then Eastern Persia) and then got integrated into the indigenous peoples, because of which the Hazaras still have some Mongoloid features.

They settled in central Afghanistan, where by the 19th century, half of their population had either been killed or exiled.

Hazaras during the British Raj

Amir Abdul Rahman of Afghanistan | Source: Welcome Collections

Their homeland in the central highlands was invaded by the Pashtun Amir Abdul Rehman, known as Afghanistan's ‘Iron Amir' by the British, forcing them to leave their lands and go into exile in Balochistan.

There were already some Hazaras who had started entering British India, searching for labour jobs such as mining. They also came to Quetta, to work in the construction of the Indian railways. But, due to Rehman's ethnic cleansing, they had to leave.

But one interesting fact is that in 1907, British officer Colonel Claude Jacob made a regiment specially for the Hazaras. The Hazaras had got an image of having martial strength, as the British liked to imagine, because of their possible lineage to Genghis Khan.

The remaining Hazaras, who didn’t qualify for the army, used to go for unskilled labour then, because they did not own any agricultural lands in this new country.

In 1935, there was an earthquake in Quetta, which caused many Hazaras to leave the city for other places. This proved to be a blessing in disguise for them as they started doing semi-skilled labour there and were able to become tailors, mechanics and shopkeepers. Even the Second World War proved to be helpful to them as more Hazaras were recruited as soldiers, some even getting a better position like General Musa Khan, who led the Pakistani army during the 1965 war with India.

What is Hazaras' situation today in Pakistan?

A Kid protesting against genocide of Hazaras in Quetta | Source: Hazara-Birar via Wikimedia

Since partition, the Hazaras have remained an underprivileged minority. In Quetta, they are spread in two slums in the east and west of the city. The two areas are called Mari Abad and Hazara Town. Most of their income is remittance payments from Iran, the Gulf, Europe and Australia.

There are thousands of new Hazara migrants in Quetta escaping the terror of the Taliban in Afghanistan. But in Pakistan, they are persecuted and seen as an alien community, because of two reasons—firstly, because they’re Shia (a minority in Sunni dominated Pakistan), and secondly, because of their facial features which look Central Asian. A third reason has a geopolitical context, a belief that the Hazaras might be having Iranian support.

There are around 900,000 Hazara living in Pakistan, yet this is a vulnerable community. For decades, they have been targeted for being different by the extremists through suicide bombings and shootings. There are regular attacks on their mosques, even on festive days such as Eid. The Pakistani authorities' response to the violence against Hazara community has been to build walls blocking streets leading to their areas, or placing military checkpoints along them. Although it makes at least the Hazara areas relatively safer, it traps them inside these areas which are like Ghettos now.

In an article by the BBC, one resident, Haji Mohammed Musa, said, “Yes, violence here has come down, but we can't go anywhere else in the city. We can't do business any more. We're living in a cage.”

And if they do go outside, there are really rare chances of them coming back alive. Hazara people are scared of going out of their area, and don’t even send their family members out for the fear of being attacked.

The number of Hazara students in Quetta's universities outside Mari Abad and Hazara Town, is said to have decreased in recent years. The Hazaras, trapped inside their Ghetto-like towns, are finding other ways to get rid of their frustration by keeping themselves busy in sports. A form of gymnastics, called Parkour, is getting increasingly popular here. The Hazara boys say it gives them “a feeling of freedom” and that they “forget all their worries”.

The people of Mari Abad are not able to meet the other Hazaras living on the other side of Quetta, in the Hazara Town. They can’t travel there without the fear of being shot or killed.

Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan and Lashkar-i-Jhangvi are two sectarian extremist groups which have targeted the Hazaras.

People of Hazara diaspora protesting against discrimination in Quetta | Source:

Around 70,000 Hazaras have fled, mainly to Australia, while hundreds may have drowned during this perilous sea journey.  Even after settling in Australia, the Australian Hazaras are concerned about the 'Talibanization' of Afghanistan. They also held demonstrations in support of the people of their community who have remained behind.

Hazaras' present situation in Afghanistan

The Hazaras have always been persecuted in the predominantly-Sunni Afghanistan, especially by the Taliban. The worst form of violence started when, on August 8, 1998, the Taliban attacked and captured the Mazar-i-Sharif, which was then the only city controlled by the United Front, which is opposed to the Taliban. Within hours, it had started killing people in a frenzy and literally killed “anything that moved”. There were reports about women and girls, especially in the Hazara neighbourhoods, getting abducted and raped. The killings of Hazara men and boys was mainly done out of revenge by the Taliban for the Hazaras’ failed attempt of attacking them in 1997. Hazara fighters killed thousands of Taliban fighters and prisoners in the north in 1997. When Hazara strongholds fell the following year the regime massacred entire communities in revenge.

The Hazaras are confined to a huge open-air prison in central Afghanistan called Hazarajat. They can’t venture out, as there is fear of being killed.

ISIL in Afghanistan | Source: Najibullah Quraishi and Jamie Doran via Al Jazeera

IS-Khurasan, a group affiliated to the so-called Islamic State, is another terror group in Afghanistan which has also proved to be a threat for the Hazaras. In 2016, at least 80 Hazara people died after dual suicide bombings by IS-Khurasan, during protests which were held for electricity transmission line to be routed through Hazarajat. IS-Khurasan stated that it attacked the Hazaras because of their involvement in the war in Syria. Most of the Hazaras, who happen to be Shias, have been recruited in the Iranian army which is an ally of the Al-Asad government. An IS-Khurasan commander told Reuters, “Unless they (the Hazara Shias) stop going to Syria and stop being slaves of Iran, we will definitely continue such attacks.” Poor Afghan Hazaras residing in Iran are offered Iranian citizenship to fight in Syria. Some are even forced to join as fighters. But, this is just an excuse, as the IS-Khurasan would have attacked the Hazaras even had they not joined the Iranian forces fighting for the Shias, because, just like its parent organisation, ISIS, this organisation sees the Shias as 'infidels' or outsiders who are against Islam and therefore, worthy of death.

There were mass graves of Hazaras who were the victims of the Taliban bloodbath in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. A UN team went there to see those graves in 2002, just after the fall of Taliban.

Hopes from the US

The Hazaras, Hindus, Jewish, and other minorities—especially women of all ethnic and religious groups—in Afghanistan, were relieved that finally their nightmares are over, when the US forces started bombing the Taliban in 2001. Hazaras see the US as their liberator. Their hopes will be destroyed if the US withdraws from Afghanistan without completely finishing up the Taliban.

The situation in several places in Afghanistan has become better, where the Taliban is no more. People are able to attend colleges and schools and have more freedom. But the remaining states still suffer at the hands of the Taliban. There are deep scars still left in the country, which are difficult to heal even if the Taliban fades away.

Hazaras in the Covid-era

In Pakistan, the Hazaras were blamed for bringing the virus in their country. Their movement was restricted and they were targeted time and again for spreading the virus in their country.

They even had to face discrimination at workplaces. Mohammad Aman, a prominent Hazara activist, told Institute of development studies, “Places like Civil Hospital and The State Bank of Pakistan have unofficially asked their employees belonging to the Hazara community, including doctors, not to come to work.”

The Hazaras have been quarantined in their areas, Mari Abad and Hazara Town, and are not allowed to move out. Further, no other Pakistanis except the Hazara Shias are quarantined at airports. There is a belief among the Pakistani people that it’s the Hazaras who are bringing the virus from Iran.

Even after so many decades of persecution and mass killings, nothing much has changed in the situation of the Hazaras. They continue to live a life full of fear and abandonment. They left their homelands in Afghanistan, because the Pashtuns and the Taliban persecuted them. They came to Pakistan, where again, they are persecuted for the same reason. Those who left for Iran, were bullied for their Central Asian ancestry or had to fight in wars. Then the remaining who left for Syria, are now stuck and left to die in the Syrian war. There’s no place called home for the Hazaras.

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July 19, 2021 12:00 PM

The Blasphemy Law of Pakistan and its Implications

In Pakistan, Blasphemy results in a capital punishment in majority of cases. It is perhaps considered a crime worse than terrorism. A crucial case in point is the fact that the Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Court gave around 15 years jail term to two close aides of Hafiz Saeed—chief of the terrorist organization—Lashkar-e-Taiba—and mastermind behind 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks—where at least 150 innocent people lost their lives.

Similarly, Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi—Lashkar-e-Taiba’s operation commander and another important figure involved in the 2008 Mumbai attack—was sentenced to 15 years in jail period. Not to mention—this happened amidst the international pressure on Pakistan for letting terrorists to function and roam freely within their country.

While something as violent as terrorism is dealt with lenient punishments, there are draconian laws for blasphemy in the country. Moreover, one can be accused of committing blasphemy—doesn’t matter if they did it or not—and might not even face a fair trial.

This article discusses what are the blasphemy laws and what are their implications while looking at some specific cases.

What are Pakistan’s Blasphemy laws?

What's called Blasphemy law today has its origins in the colonial era. The “offences relating to religion” were introduced by British in 1860, and were later expanded in 1927. These were sections 295 and 295-A from the Indian Penal Code. The laws were made to avoid religious disturbances, insult religious beliefs, or intentionally destroy or desecrate a place or an object of worship. Under the 295 and 295-A, the convicted were to be given a jail term from one year to ten years—with or without a fine.

Pakistan ended up inheriting these laws after the partition of India in 1947.

The laws were amended in 1982 and another clause was added which prescribed life imprisonment for desecration of the Quran intentionally. Another clause was added in 1986 to punish blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad through imprisonment for life or death. These clauses, were added under General Zia-ul-Haq’s military regime, in an order to make the laws more “pro-Islam.”

Since then, this law has often been used to persecute people from minority communities—such as the Ahmadiyas, Shias, Christians, and Hindus—they have been accused of blasphemy without much evidence.

Infamous cases and implications of blasphemy in Pakistan

One of the famous cases was of Asia Bibi, which grabbed international attention as well. Asia Noreen—known as Asia Bibi—was a Pakistani Christan and a farm laborer in Punjab province. Her husband, Ashiq Masih, was a brick laborer. A dispute with her Muslim neighbours turned into an accusation of blasphemy—leading to her arrest and imprisoned. There were a lot of protests in Pakistan, demanding death penalty for Asia Bibi.

Two politicians—Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti—who supported and tried to help Asia Bibi, were murdered. Taseer was shot by his own bodyguard named Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri in broad daylight. Qadri was tried and sentenced to death. He was executed in 2016. Mumtaz Qadri became a hero for millions and hardliners praised him as a martyr. He is regarded as a saint and a mausoleum has been built over his grave in his village near Islamabad, where even devotees come to offer prayers.

Asia Bibi was first sentenced to death by a trial court in 2010, however was later acquitted by the Supreme Court in a historic judgement of 2018. In 2019, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled that she was free to leave Pakistan and was given asylum in Canada where she moved along with her family.

Although after a long struggle, Asia Bibi still got justice and was able to start a new life—unfortunately many others didn’t. Many met with Mob Justice.

In 2017, a journalism student at a Pakistani University was lynched to death by fellow students in Mardan—in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The student—Mashal Khan—was a Shia Muslim and was falsely accused of blasphemy. The mob was enraged by a rumour according to which he had promoted the Ahmadi faith on Facebook. In a similar instance, a man named Tahrir Ahmad Naseem was killed by vigilantes in July last year for blasphemy. He was a former Ahmadi, and was in Peshawar Central Jail since 2018 for claiming to be a prophet. He was shot dead inside the courtroom during trial in the Peshawar Judicial Complex.

Furthermore, in a case similar to that of Asia Bibi, a Christian couple—Shahzad and Shama Maseeh—were accused of blasphemy as well. They were then beaten and burned alive by a mob in 2014. Shama was four months pregnant. The mob, which also included a local cleric, believed that the couple had burned some pages of the Quran along with some rubbish, although the couple’s family still denies this. Five people including the cleric were sentenced to death, while the eight others were given two years imprisonment.

Last year, former Foreign and Defense Minister Khawaja Asif as well was accused of blasphemy for merely stating that “all religions are equal.”

Why is this happening?

According to data by Pakistan’s Centre for Social Justice, there have been 1549 known cases of serious blasphemy in the years 1987-2017, out of which 720 were Muslims, 516 Ahmadis, 238 Christians, 31 Hindus, and the rest 44 are unknown. 75 out of the total cases ended in the person being murdered before their trial.

There are 13 countries in the world which punish blasphemy by death penalty and Pakistan happens to be one of them. But unlike countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia where they are executed judicially—as mentioned earlier—accused in Pakistan are often killed in mob violence or assassination. While Saudi Arabia and Iran continue to top in terms of the highest number of executions, most of them for sacrilege or crimes against Islam, Pakistan’s total ‘judiciary’ killings stand at zero.

The problem of this mob mentality in Pakistan, especially when it comes to religion, is actually deeply rooted in its constitution. The country’s aspiration to become a democracy as well as an Islamic state is in itself contradictory. The people want the right to freedom and expression and the hanging of a person committing blasphemy at the same time. The constitution denies criticism of Islam while claiming to allow freedom of speech and religion. The elevation of one religion over others in itself is principally undemocratic.

Another interesting point is the fact that the people supporting these ideas haven’t been aware of how things can backfire. Muhammad Din Taseer—father of Salman Taseer—supported Ilam Din, who murdered a Hindu publisher over blasphemy in 1929. An ancestor’s support for radicalism ended up in his own offspring being assassinated in the name of blasphemy.

Mental illness and blasphemy

In Pakistan, often some mentally ill people are punished to death by mobs for unknowingly ‘committing’ blasphemy. In 2012, a man widely reported by the media and police as ‘mentally unstable’ was arrested for blasphemy in Bahawalpur district, Punjab province. A mob gathered outside the police station, dragged him outside, and burned him to death. There have also been cases of misuse where such vulnerable individuals were subjected to sexual abuse and later accused of blasphemy by the abusers to cover up their crimes.

Such abuses towards mentally unsound people would have been a criminal case and the abusers would have been punished—unless they use the blasphemy law—as the mentally unstable victim cannot defend themselves.

Role of Anti-Terrorism courts

Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism courts were set up to ensure quick justice in cases such as terrorism, sectarian violence, targeted political killings, hijacking, kidnapping, extortion and even arms trafficking. Earlier gang rape was also included in it—but removed later.

They are also key to controlling mob attacks on blasphemy accused as such trials are held here.

Yet, these courts have been facing several problems due to lack of basic resources and understaffing. The posts of judges often remain vacant for months, and the state prosecutors complain of poor working conditions—with no offices, stationery, clerical staff or legal resources. These problems may have risen due to the fact that there are not sufficient funds allotted for the ATC infrastructure, one of the major challenges in Pakistan’s legal system. Due to this, these courts are not able to fulfill their primary objective—to provide ‘quick’ justice.

Moreover, these courts lack independence and are vulnerable to political influence—the judges are held accountable to the executive. Sometimes the witnesses often refuse to testify against the accused, as they fear assassination by terrorist groups the accused belongs to. The judges, state prosecutors and others also have personal security concerns which also lead to delays in trials.

Also, these courts deny terrorism suspects the right to equality before the law. They are not even tried in a public place with full defense and are not presumed innocent. Peshawar High Court advocate Ghulam Nabi even challenged the Anti-Terrorism (Amendment) Ordinance 2009 under Article 199 of the constitution in December 2009, saying that it violated basic human rights.

The blasphemy laws of Pakistan need to be repealed in today's Global civic society. People are fighting for equality everywhere around the globe. And now it is up to Pakistan to choose—whether to become a democracy or continue with a pseudo-democratic authoritarian regime which is based on extremist interpretation of religion.

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