Hazaras: Geographical Orphans

 By Col. Harsh Vardhan Singh

Pakistan’s ethnic cauldron boiled over again with the brutal killing of eleven Hazara miners who were kidnapped before dawn on 03 January as they slept near the remote coal mine in the southwestern mountainous Machh area; 60km southeast of Quetta[1]. Islamic State has claimed the brutal beheading and even uploaded the video on social media platforms. Hundreds of Hazaras have been killed in Pakistan over the last decade in attacks by Pakistani Sunni Muslim militant groups who see Shias as apostates, and also by Islamic State militants[2]. Attacks have included bombings in schools and crowded markets and brazen ambushes of buses along Pakistani roads. Iran has many holy shrines frequently visited by the Shia community of Pakistan including Hazaras. From the past many years Shia devotees face threats while travelling to Iran, through the areas of Mastung, Nushki, Dalbandin and Taftan border[3]. The Hazaras are prime targets for a very peculiar reason as they are easy identifiable due to their mongoloid features and are the most ostracized and neglected community of the AFPAK region.

One came across the idea of Hazaras while researching and writing on the ethnoscape of Afghanistan for a MPhil Dissertation in 2015, which was titled “Ethnic Fault Lines in Afghanistan and Impact on Indian Footprint” The ethnic ideas of the Shiite Hazaras, one of the region’s most disadvantaged populations, have changed enormously in the last 20 years. The etymology of Hazara is also disputed among the scholars. One common interpretation of the word Hazara is the Persian word “Hazar” which means “a thousand,” a replacement for the Mongolian word minggan (ming in Turkic), “a thousand-man unit of the Mongol army,”[4] which is attributed to a thousand Mongolian soldiers that settled in Hazarajat. The idea that the Hazaras descended from Mongols was spread above all by the British in the Ethnoscapes, National Territorialisation, and the Afghan War 19thcentury[5] and in the 20th century by the urban Afghan elite[6], among whom there were hardly any Hazaras. On this basis the Hazaras appeared to be interlopers who migrated into Afghanistan through the destructive conquests of Genghis Khan and who form the newest element of Afghanistan’s population. The area settled by the Hazaras was referred to in general usage as the “Hazarajat”[7]. It has negative connotations in Afghan usage and meant something like “stone aged”, “uneducated”, “poor” and “dirty” population group. Hazarajat otherwise was an independent community united by ethnicity and it remained so until the early part of the 19th Century. Hazarajat was ruled autonomously by several Hazara Mir who were big feudal land owners until the reign of Abdur Rahman Khan.

Figure-2: Hazara Ethnoscape[8]

Prosecution by series of regimes in Afghanistan commenced with Amir Abdur Rahman Khan (1880-1901) who attacked the autonomous Hazarajat[9] while supported by the British Government and defeated all the Hazara tribes bringing an end to the autonomy of Hazarajat. He managed to occupy and include Hazarajat into his government in 1893 and in doing so, he killed a number of Hazaras, enslaved others, and forced a large number of them to take refuge in Pakistan and Iran and even Central Asia. The Hazaras who fled to Pakistan and settled in Quetta at the end of the 19th Century because of being oppressed by Abdur Rahman Khan retained their strong identity as Hazaras and is today the reason for their targeting by Sunni terrorist groups. Among the first group that propagated Hazara nationalism in Afghanistan and especially in Hazarajat was the Tanzim-e Nasle Naw-e Hazara (Organization of the New Generation of the Moghol Hazaras)[10] that was established in 1960s based in Quetta, Pakistan. Unlike most other Hazara parties that emphasized the role of Shia Islam as the corner stone of their socio-political strife, the Tanzim focused on the rights of the Hazaras as an ethnic group. They later provided a refuge for the new wave of Hazara refugees in the end of the 20th Century due to the atrocities meted out by Taliban.

The Hazaras suffered under the Taliban regime more than any other ethnic groups in Afghanistan. The Taliban massacred hundreds of Hazaras in several places including Yakawlang, Mazar Sharif, and Robatak Pass[11] which demonstrated their intent of extermination of the Hazaras in Afghanistan. The Taliban regarded the Hazaras as infidels and were trying to use any means to get rid of the Hazaras in Afghanistan. Pushed into exile opened avenues to further migration and once the democratic regime change took place in Kabul, it gave many Hazaras access to improved education, something from which they had been continuously excluded by the hostile policies of the Afghan and Pakistan government. This new Hazara elite insisted that the presence of Hazaras in Afghanistan could be traced back over 6,000 years. They claimed that Hazaras were the original inhabitants of the country and not descendants of Mongol raiders. Secondly, they extended the boundaries of the Hazarajat, as an ethnoscape claimed by the Hazaras, up to the borders of Shiite Iran and blamed Pashtuns for wrongful appropriation of land in previous centuries, which had caused the Hazarajat to shrink. Since 1990s Hazaras have called the territory they claim Hazaristan(fig-2).

Quetta has become a melting pot of ethnic strife with the provincial government of Balochistan and the Federal Government of Pakistan has carried out an organized marginalization of the Hazara population. Hazaras were holding 50% seats in civil service in 1971 on merit basis but it decreased less than 5% in 2012 due to quota system. Afghan Taliban and Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan has also stepped up their activities in Quetta city on the behest of “Quetta Shura”[12]. They are directly helping Lashkar-e-Jhangvi as they both have same sectarian views. In this situation government has failed to stop the increasing network of Taliban in Quetta. In the early stages of Pakistan’s coronavirus outbreak, Shia Hazaras were blamed for bringing the virus from Iran. Many were racially profiled and stigmatized as carriers of the infection. Hazara Shia community has always been condemned to death by Sunni hardliners as they published stickers, pamphlets on the well-known notion of Wajib ul Qatl (Religiously Justified Murder)[13]. The existing situation of Hazara community is precarious, who are facing enormous difficulties in exercising their fundamental human rights i.e. right to life, freedom of movement, right to higher education, and right to participate in the earning of their daily living and access to necessities of life. They are also having limited social opportunities due to fear of violence and have been ghettoized within Quetta where anti Shia terrorist groups can target them with impunity and secure from the fact that they would not face any prosecution from the government of Imran Khan.

Hazaras believe that their affiliation to to Shia sect and consequently to present day Iran, a declared Shia State brings them on collision course with the Wahabi theology emanating from Saudi Arabia and manifests itself in the proxy wars amongst the Shia and Sunni communities in Pakistan. Hazaras have so far been submissive and languished at the bottom of the food chain in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, but things have begun to change with the IRGC in Iran mobilizing recruits to fight the Islamic State in Syria. Pakistani Shias were already keen to join the fight as a consequence of IS campaign of destroying Shia holy shrines in Syria and Iraq[14]. The 2013 rocket attack by IS on the Sayeeda Zainab mosque in central Damascus[15], which destroyed the outer walls of the shrine of Zainab, the sister of Imam Hussain and granddaughter of Mohammed, provided the catalyst; a new militant unit of Pakistani Shias, the Zainabiyoun Brigade, was raised with Iranian support. The Zainabiyoun Brigade has been fighting in and around Damascus where scores of its fighters were supposedly killed while defending the shrine of Zainab. These battle hardened fighters would make their way back to Pakistan as the situation in Syria tilts in favour of the Asad regime and IS begins to lose ground, the retribution of Hazaras would then be met with an equitable response from them and the civil strife in Balochistan would have another dimension which the Pakistan government would have no option but to use the heavy hand of military force.

Historically, Pakistani Hazaras are known to be patriotic, peaceful and progressive. The aforesaid attributes and the fact that Hazaras are a minority have made them vulnerable and a soft target for the militant outfits to convey their message of hate and terrorism. The past two decades of atrocities committed against the Hazaras has negatively impacted their education, health, livelihood, and mobility. They are migrating abroad for their survival and joining militant groups and becoming battle hardened and would be used as leverage by Iran to assert its influence on Pakistan. The persecution of Hazaras stems from a combination of complex factors including geo politics, security, ethnic rivalries, sectarian extremism and spillover of militant religious extremism from across the border in Afghanistan as well. Most alarming is the fact that perpetrators of the recent barbaric attack on Hazaras have not been brought to justice.

This failure of the state machineries in Afghanistan and Pakistan is bound to have an impact on the aspirations of Hazaras to live as equal and dignified citizens and force them to resort to violence to reclaim their rightful position in the societal calculus of AFPAK region a path similar to that adopted by Kurds who as an ethnic group divided by geographical borders are fighting multiple state sponsored genocide. London-based Minorities Rights Group (MRG) has identified the Hazara as the ‘most under threat minority group’ in Afghanistan and Pakistan[16]. The Hazaras, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, have been persecuted because of their religious and/or ethnic heritage and are particularly fearful of the peace talks with Taliban that are being brokered by USA. These talks may lead to the release of a particularly ruthless anti-Hazara Taliban commander and former deputy defense minister in their regime, Mullah Muhammad Fazl from Guantanamo Bay[17], who is known for his pernicious attacks on Shias. For peace to prevail in Afghanistan and Pakistan, assuring security of the Hazara minority is essential. The United States and all interested states must not compromise on the security of this persecuted minority population in their peace talks. The Hazaras constitute a vital indigenous culture that has survived for centuries and is threatened. While all groups must try to promote sectarian harmony internally, the responsibility of protecting the fundamental human rights of the Hazaras remains with the Afghan and Pakistani states and their allies who purport t support peaceful pluralism.


[1] https://www.dawn.com/news/1599441 accessed on 03 Jan 2021.

[2]https://theprint.in/opinion/why-hazaras-in-pakistan-have-been-been-victims-of-sectarianism-ethnic-conflict/582519/ accessed on 10 Jan 2021.

[3] Understanding the Agonies of Ethnic Hazaras in Pakistan. National Commission for Human Rights, Pakistan, Graphics Point. Islamabad, pg2.

[4] Jamal, Abedin, “Attitudes Toward Hazaragi” (2010). Thesis. Paper 217, Southern Illinois University Carbondale, pg6

[5]  H. W. Bellew, The Races of Afghanistan; Being a Brief Account of the Principal Nations Inhabiting thatCountry (Calcutta: Thacker 1880).

[6]  M.G.M. Ghobar, ‘Le role de l’Afghanistan dans la civilisation islamique’ Afghanistan 1 (Jan.-March 1946)pp.27-34.

[7] Conrad Schetter ,Ethnoscapes, National Territorialisation, and the Afghan War1 https://www.zef.de/uploads/tx_zefportal/Publications/3083_Afghanistan_English_geopolitics_draft.pdf accessed on 12 Jan 2021.

[8] ibid pg 50.

[9] Niamatullah Ibrahimi,Divide and rule: state penetration in Hazarajat (Afghanistan) from the monarchy to the Taliban, Crisis States Research Centre January 2009, https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/95939/WP42.2.pdf pg 5.

[10] Niamatullah Ibrahimi, The Failure of a Clerical Proto-State: Hazarajat, 1979 – 1984 Crisis States Research Centre, Sept 2006, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/57a08c47ed915d3cfd0012b4/wp6.2.pdf ,pg 9 accessed on 13 Jan 2021.

[11]https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/eoir/legacy/2013/06/14/afghanistan_0201.pdf accessed on 12 Jan 2021.

[12]https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/legacy_files/files/publication/120709_Mufti_ReligionMilitancy_Web.pdf accessed on 12 Jan 2021.

[13]https://www.dawn.com/news/730474/hope-fades-away-for-hazaras-of-pakistan accessed on 12 Jan 2021.

[14]https://jamestown.org/program/the-zainabiyoun-brigade-a-pakistani-shiite-militia-amid-the-syrian-conflict/ accessed on 14 Jan 2021.

[15]https://tribune.com.pk/story/579429/rocket-attack-kills-custodian-of-zainabs-shrine-in-syria accessed on 14 Jan 2021.

[16]https://blog.nationalgeographic.org/2012/01/16/helping-the-hazara-of-afghanistan-and-pakistan/#:~:text=London%2Dbased%20Minority%20Rights%20Group,threat%20minorty%20group’%20in%20Afghanistan.&text=The%20Hazara%20constitute%20a%20vital,for%20centuries%20and%20is%20threatened. accessed on 12 Jan 2021.

[17]https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/laws-wars/guantanamo-bay/110E6D65C6C918EA057207D4F851F781 accessed on 14 Jan 2021.