For the Hazara, a graveyard serves as a community centre.
This is Behisht-e-Zainab. Here, amongst the memories of slain brethren, the Hazara have made a safe space from themselves. Afraid of the terror that lies if they stray too far from home, they stay close to one another and those who have gone before them.
Behisht-e-Zainab serving as both burial ground and community centre is a stark example of the surreal existence that this community has in Pakistan. A community that lives in constant fear of the next blast, the next strike, the annual cycle of violence.
This year, violence came to the Hazarganji vegetable market yet again. Nearly 20 people died this time in this site of past horrors where Hazara traders have to be escorted by armed FC personnel every day. Where in the past Hazara vendors have been offloaded from buses and shot in cold blood. So regularly are they targeted that their routine movement must be watched.
This is no way to live. It is a denial of the basic responsibilities that a State owes to its people. Decades of violence against the Hazara because of their Shia faith shows just how paper thin the promise of religious liberty has become in Pakistan. It is hard to deny the State’s total abdication of responsibility when talking about the Hazara.
Denial, though, is a close competitor with cricket as Pakistan’s national pastime. Anyone living in Balochistan would know. Violence in the name of religion and ethnicity in that once proud province rarely gets any attention. But the Hazara seem to face a special brand of denial. After the blast that took place last week, Balochistan’s Home Minister did an ostrich routine worthy of an Oscar and said no specific community was the target of the attack. This is being said while sectarian groups rejoice at yet another strike on members of the Shia community.
It is the Hazara that are under attack. Enough denial. It is the Hazara’s faith that makes them a target, the attacks on them part of a longstanding attempt to wipe out members of the Shia faith from Pakistan, or at least, force them to flee. As the State looks the other way, the very existence of the Hazara community is at stake.
Meanwhile, the terrorists are winning.
According to the HRCP, over 100,000 Hazara have left their homes in Balochistan to try to find a life where it is not normal to be afraid to leave your home. Where your daily commute to work does not involve an armed escort, and, where your children do not grow up playing in a graveyard. Thousands have in desperation tried to flee to places like Australia through treacherous paths. Thousands have drowned in the attempt.
As for those who felt that other parts of Pakistan would be more welcoming, they found that the malaise was nationwide. In Karachi, their places of worship are constantly attacked, while members of the community are routinely harassed and stalked if they are brave enough to leave their home.
The plight of the Hazara community has exposed the hypocrisy of Pakistanis. When the attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, happened we lauded Prime Minister Jacinda Arden’s compassionate reaction. Leaders were asked to take note and learn from her palpable grief. While we were busy dispensing this advice, we seemed to have missed the lesson for ourselves. As of the time of writing of this piece, Prime Minister Imran Khan has still not visited the family members of the deceased. Unlike Jacinda Arden, I have not heard him condemn the sectarian outfits, like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, who pride themselves on ridding Pakistan of members of minority religious sects.
But perhaps the biggest lesson we should have learned from New Zealand was how quickly the country mobilised to tackle the root causes of the attack. A new law was in the works to control gun ownership, social media companies were forced to face a reckoning, and measures against hate speech were considered. After decades of violence against the Hazara, what solutions have we implemented? Think about it, I’ll wait.
What is happening to the Hazara community in Pakistan is a national disgrace. A total failure of the social contract that binds a State to its people. In Pakistan, we love talking about how Islam grants the most freedom to religious minorities — but nobody practises this. Look at the state of religious minorities in Pakistan. Would any Sunni Muslim want to trade places with them?
We may never be able to redeem ourselves. But we can’t just sit back and watch the Hazara community vanish from Pakistan in our lifetime. The government should ensure that the State machinery does not have any sympathisers of sectarian outfits. That means ending their participation from politics and branding them terrorists of the same kind as the ones that we have been fighting after the APS attack. That also means you don’t let them act like they are reborn just because they change their name. The same force by which terrorism against Pakistan was eliminated needs to be brought down on the people who are massacring members of the Shia community. The State must accept that the killing of Hazaras over decades has been a complete failure on their part and they must now mobilise to rehabilitate the community — that doesn’t involve simply announcing cash grants which are never given.
Of course, it is important that our leaders learn empathy as well. As the Hazara sit-in goes on, Imran Khan is nowhere to be seen. I give him the same advice he gave Nawaz Sharif in 2017 when he did not visit Quetta: “Unfortunate PM only chose to visit Bahawalpur. Our people are in mourning in Quetta and Parachinar also. Is [Nawaz Sharif] not PM of Balochistan and FATA?”
Well Mr Prime Minister, are you?