What sort of reaction would you expect from the international community if more than a thousand people belonging to a particular ethnic group were targeted for violent attacks within the span of a few months? Would it bring the international upholders of peace and harmony to the region? Would it spark a mass public awareness campaign for the rights of those targeted? Well if it were the Hazara people in Baluchistan, it apparently would do nothing of the kind.
In the most recent incident, an Imam Bargah (a place of worship for Hazara Shiite Muslims) in the Aliabad area of Hazara Town in Quetta was targeted last Sunday in an attack that left almost 28 dead and over 60 injured. The attack was carried out by a suicide bomber and was followed by gunfire in the nearby area. It was not the first: two horrific incidents in January and February 2013 left nearly 200 dead and over 450 injured in the Hazara Town area of Quetta, Baluchistan.
The civil war-ridden, mineral-rich province of Baluchistan – already a target for all kinds of physical and social abuse – has long been known for military atrocities against the Baluch separatists. The increasing number of missing Baluch people has prompted their families to launch campaigns against the government of Pakistan on both national and international fronts. But now something more powerful and more damaging to the government has emerged: the Hazara genocide and the conspiracy theories that surround it.
The persecution of Hazaras is not a new phenomenon. Hazaras are historically residents of Afghanistan, where they form almost 19 percent of the population. Nearly one million Hazaras live in Iran, while more than 650,000 reside in Pakistan, mostly in Quetta. Almost all Hazaras belong to the Shiite Muslim community. Shiites form the majority in Iran but are amongst the minorities in Sunni-majority Pakistan and Afghanistan. Now the Hazara Shiite community find themselves at the center of an extremely volatile region, where the extremist Taliban and other fundamentalist sectarian terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and Sipah-e-Sihaba were already quite active.
Hazaras have also been a target of ethnic cleansing, targeted killing and genocide in Afghanistan. The Afshar Operation, Mazar-i-Sharif massacre, the Robatak Pass massacre and the Yakawlang massacre of Hazara community in Afghanistan by the Taliban represent just a small slice of the historic ethnic grudge against the Hazara community.
Theories suggest the persecution of Hazaras in Quetta and Baluchistan are a continuation of these extremist sentiments, given that Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), the group claiming responsibility for most of the attacks on Hazara community, has had strong ties with al-Qaeda. Moreover Lashkar-e- Jhangvi (LeJ), though considered a terrorist organization by the Pakistan and U.S. governments, is believed to have some support among right-wing political parties in Pakistan. The support may also extend to Pakistan’s military, which has not taken any strong action against the terrorist groups and is rather busy with its own covert operations in Baluchistan.
Yet another aspect of the issue is the regional importance of Baluchistan for India, the U.S., Iran and Afghanistan. RAND scholar Christine Fair, a leading American expert on South Asia, said in a recent discussion carried by American journal Foreign Affairs that Pakistan has legitimate concerns about India’s involvement in initiating unrest in Baluchistan. She further contended that “Indian officials have told me privately that they are pumping money into Baluchistan. Kabul has encouraged India to engage in provocative activities such as using the Border Roads Organization to build sensitive parts of the Ring Road and use the Indo-Tibetan police force for security. It is also building schools on a sensitive part of the border in Kunar — across from Bajaur. Kabul’s motivations for encouraging these activities are as obvious as India’s interest in engaging in them.”
India’s vested interests in Baluchistan are no secret, given its historically tense relations with Pakistan. But why the sectarian tinge? The persecution or alleged genocide of Hazara people in Baluchistan has the potential to not only stir internal tensions but create international pressure on the Pakistan government. In 2012, for instance, a U.S. congressman moved for a House resolution on Baluchistan’s right to self-determination, angering Pakistan’s leadership.
Ultimately, any of the theories could prove correct, but what matters is the plight of the Hazara community in Baluchistan and the humanitarian crisis they face. Without appropriate action for the stakeholders, the crisis will only get worse.
Malik Ayub Sumbal is an award-winning journalist based in Islamabad. He tweets @ayubsumbal