Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan province, is a nervous city. In the past, Quetta was a provincial capital where people were accustomed to taking leisurely walks on Jinnah Road, the main boulevard of the city, gazing at shop windows and haggling over the goods on display. Young men would sit in small groups on the pavement in front of the shops and gossip over cups of green tea or qahva. Today people walk hurriedly, buying things as quickly as they can, exchanging brief greetings if they meet friends and rushing home before dark. The air is thick with suspicion, conspiracy theories abound, and people look over their shoulder before sharing an opinion. The city is reeling from the combined fallout of an eight-year long Baloch nationalist insurgency and an even longer campaign of sectarian killings. While the rise of Baloch nationalism and the ensuing insurgency have received some attention in the national and international media, less attention has been given to the sectarian strife that has plagued Balochistan for more than a decade.

The recent spate of sectarian killings has claimed hundreds of lives in Quetta; the majority of victims have been from the Punjabi and Hazara ethnic groups. Militants killed several prominent Punjabi Shi‘i doctors, engineers and civil servants during the period 1998-2003. In 2001, eight Hazara Shi‘a were ambushed and killed in Quetta. In July 2003, a group of around 25 Hazara police recruits, due to graduate within a week, were targeted by sectarian militants when they were returning home from the police training school. Masked armed men on a motorbike targeted them in broad daylight on the busy Sariab Road, killing 12 cadets. A subsequent attack in the same month marked one of the worst sectarian incidents in Pakistan’s history: 58 people were killed and another 200 injured when a suicide bomber attacked a congregation at the Imam Bargah Kalan (a Shi‘i community center) during the holy month of Muharram. Similar attacks continue to take place at an alarming rate. In 2009, the targeted killing of Hussain Ali Yousufi, chairman of the secular Hazara Democratic Party, serves as perhaps the most prominent example. A clandestine militant organization, the Lashkar-e Jhangvi, which is believed by state authorities to be the militant wing of Sipah-e Sahaba, has claimed responsibility for most of these attacks.

The Pakistani government and the provincial police have responded to this sectarian violence by offering the usual condemnations followed by little to no action. The media and civil society denounce these incidents as anti-Islamic and government officials reiterate their resolve to take stern action against the culprits and bring them to justice. Once media attention subsides, these promises are quickly forgotten until the next incident of sectarian killing takes place. As a result of this pattern of public condemnation followed by inaction, the targeted groups, particularly the Shi‘a of the Punjabi and Hazara communities, seem to have concluded that the state is unwilling or unable to protect them from militants. Indeed, many believe that state authorities must be complicit in these incidents because they frequently take place in crowded, public places during daytime hours, seemingly too daring if there were not assurances of impunity. In the words of one local Hazara leader, the police in Quetta keep staging the same drama again and again. First, they afford safe passage to the real murderers while arresting innocent people in a public display of purportedly acting against the terrorists. Next they release those who were arrested on the grounds that there is no solid evidence linking them to the attack. The complacency shown by police officials in the face of sectarian killings lends credence to such claims. For instance, Usman Saifullah Kurd, a notorious sectarian militant believed to be the mastermind of the massive attack on Imam Bargah Kalan, managed to escape from the maximum security Anti-Terrorist Force Prison in Quetta along with his two accomplices in 2006. Although an inquiry was initiated after the escape, the results, if any, have not been made public. That the attackers remain at large while no high-ranking police official has been held accountable for the apparent negligence leading to the escape is an oft-cited example

Genesis of the Sectarian State

Shi‘i-Sunni conflict was largely unheard of in Pakistan, least of all in Balochistan, during the early period following Pakistan’s independence. Although Sunnis were in a clear majority at Pakistan’s founding, comprising around 70 percent of Muslims, there was relative communal harmony between different sects. Pakistan’s ethnic and socio-economic diversity has meant that the Shi‘i and Sunni communities do not constitute homogenous or internally unified groups and sectarian identity is not necessarily salient in the lives of many Pakistanis. Traditionally, much of the Pakistani Shi‘i community was relatively secular, while only a small minority of Pakistani Sunnis viewed Pakistani Shi‘a through a sectarian lens. Historically, it was customary for Sunnis to attend or watch Shi‘i processions commemorating the tragedy of Karbala, serve water and sherbet to devotees during Muharram, and distribute sweets on the days commemorating the lives of important Shi‘i saints.

The roots of current sectarian strife lie in the Islamization policies of Pakistan’s authoritarian president, Gen. Zia ul Haq, during his tenure through the 1980s. While claiming to implement a universal Islamic vision, Zia promoted a very specific Sunni school of thought. Specifically, he promoted Islamization based on orthodox interpretations of shari‘a rooted in the Sunni revivalist teachings of the Deobandi movement. Zia actively courted and gained the support of the Deobandi clerics who ran most of the madrassas in Pakistan with this deeply sectarian Islamization program. Zia’s goals were not in themselves necessarily sectarian; his principal aim was to legitimize his rule in the eyes of the Pakistani public by securing the backing of religious clerics and declaring himself amir ul-momineen (leader of the faithful).

Whatever his goals, however, the clearly sectarian import of Zia’s Islamization program quickly alienated the Pakistani Shi‘i community. His efforts to impose zakat — an Islamic tax equivalent to 2.5 percent of a person’s income — on all Pakistani Muslims through the promulgation of the Zakat Ordinance of 1980, and to apply Sunni interpretations of the inheritance laws met with stiff resistance from the minority Shi‘a. Until then, the payment of zakat was treated as a private matter in Pakistan. Shi‘i opposition to the imposition of zakat was driven by the differences in calculation and the manner of payment of zakat because Shi’a Muslims also pay khoms (another religious contribution equivalent to one fifth of a person’s income), which Sunnis do not pay. The Shi’a protests forced Zia to back down and exclude Shi‘a from the application of the Zakat Ordinance.

At the same time, the Islamic revolution in nearby Iran became a source of inspiration for the Pakistani Shi‘i community, which sought to become better organized and improve its position in Pakistan. Shi‘i organizations such as Tehrik-e Nifaz-e Fiqh-e Jafaria (Movement for the Implementation of Jafari School of Islamic Law) and the Imamia Students Organization were set up to advance the interests of Shi‘a in Pakistan as well as to enhance religious education within the community. The increased levels of organization within the Shi‘i community led to a backlash from sections of the Sunni population, particularly in the populous Punjab Province. Maulana Azam Tariq and Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, two firebrand Sunni clerics, with the support of Pakistani secret agencies, established Sipah-e Sahaba Pakistan in 1985, one of whose goals was countering purported Iranian propaganda in Pakistan.

A key source of popularity for the Sipah-e Sahaba was the exploitation of class resentment and kinship rivalries in the rural areas of Multan and Jhang. In these areas, a small clique of hereditary Shi‘i landowners ruled over a large majority of predominantly Sunni tenants and laborers. In his incendiary speeches from the mosque pulpit, Jhangvi blamed the Shi‘i-dominated feudal order in southern Punjab for endemic poverty among Sunnis. In order to fan the flames of sectarian anger, Jhangvi used his sermons to magnify cultural differences between Sunnis and Shi‘a, alleging, for instance, that Shi‘a showed irreverence toward the companions of the prophet Muhammad. The Sipah-e Sahaba’s name, featuring, as it does, the word sahaba (companions), is another reference to this claim.

In 1996, the more radical elements of the Sipah-e Sahaba broke away to form the militant organization Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (the Army of Jhang, named for their support of Haq Nawaz Jhangvi), with the goal of transforming Pakistan into a Sunni state and declaring the Pakistani Shi‘a a non-Muslim subject population. The organization seems to interpret this objective as involving a holy war against the Shi‘a until they convert to the “true” Sunni faith or, at the least, refrain from open display of Shi‘i rituals such as the Muharram processions.

Quetta was an important theater for these ideological wars because Balochistan shares long and porous borders with both Iran and Afghanistan. In the wake of the Soviet-Afghan War, Balochistan absorbed nearly 2 million Afghan refugees including both Sunni Pashtuns from the south and Shi‘a Hazaras, Uzbeks and Tajiks from the north. While Saudi money flowed to Sunni (Deobandi) madrassas located in the Pashtun belt along the Afghan border, Iran established a Cultural Center in Quetta to extend its influence among the growing Shi‘i community comprised of migrant Hazara and local Punjabi ethnic groups. The influx of Saudi and Iranian money set the stage for the waging of proxy wars in Balochistan, exposing and exploiting both class and ethnic fault lines in the underlying local society.

The Hazara community is a particularly promising potential recipient of Iranian support because their language was closely related to Persian. The Afghan Hazaras that arrived as refugees in Balochistan were vulnerable as migrants whose identity had been subjected to dislocation and whose kinsmen in Afghanistan enjoyed Iranian support in their fight against Soviet forces. Hazara youth, particularly those from working-class or lower middle-class backgrounds, traveled to Iran in large numbers during the 1980s, with scholarships to study Persian and even the possibility of Iranian citizenship for some. At the same time, a new generation of Shi‘i scholars from Pakistan were given the opportunity to study at the Iranian seminaries in Najaf and Qom. Their scholarly experiences in the Islamic Republic were often correlated with the radicalization and politicization of their sectarian identity.

These developments in the 1980s led to a transformation in the political discourse and outlook of the affected Pakistani Shi‘i community. Shi‘i congregations became more austere, with speakers exhorting participants to think of themselves as a vanguard of social and political change in society in the service of social justice. Shi‘i congregants were increasingly encouraged to see their sectarian identity as salient, enabling the refugee Hazara community to identify with a larger Shi‘i nation rather than seeing themselves as a displaced, minority ethnic community in Pakistan. The Iranian consulate in Quetta played a key role in this process by funneling money and supplying proselytizing literature to the Shi‘i activists in Quetta for distribution among the local Baloch. These books and pamphlets highlighted alleged differences between Hazrat Ali, the fourth caliph, and other companions of the prophet Muhammad over the right of succession to the leadership of the Muslim community after the death of Muhammad. They employed harsh and incendiary language against the other companions of the Prophet who were revered by the Sunnis.

Iranian propaganda had little traction in the predominantly Sunni Pashtun areas of Balochistan due to the prevalence of anti-Shi‘i sentiment in Pashtun society and the dominance of Deobandi clerics in local politics, under the banner of Jamiat Ulema-e Islam (Congress of Islamic Clerics). By contrast, the Iranian message had greater appeal among some Baloch families in Quetta and nearby districts such as Mastung, Bolan, Khuzdar and Chagai. These Baloch families own lands, have kinship ties, or are disciples of Sufi saints in southeastern Balochistan and the Sindh province where there is a culture of greater reverence towards the descendants of the prophet Muhammad, including Shi‘i imams and sympathy for their cause. Activists bought large tracts of land, set up proselytizing centers and established Imam Bargahs in these areas. In at least one reported instance, a prominent Hazara bureaucrat helped establish an Imam Bargah in the town of Khuzdar and encouraged the taking out of Muharram processions. Reports of conversions rang alarm bells among local Sunnis and some of the youth who had fought in Afghanistan alongside the Pashtun Mujahideen mobilized to form Sipah-e Sahaba Balochistan as an effort to defend the faith against alleged Shi‘i encroachment. Despite these low-level tensions driven primarily by the shifting demographics of the region resulting from the Soviet war in Afghanistan, it would take another decade for these tensions to boil over into open conflict.

Outright hostilities and militant activity in Balochistan only really emerged in the 1990s following the assumption of power in Afghanistan by the Taliban regime. The Taliban provided sanctuary to the most wanted Sunni militants from Lashkar-e Jhangvi — including such prominent leaders as Riaz Basra and Akram Lahori, who were accused of instigating and overseeing the massacre of hundreds of Hazara and Tajik civilians during the Taliban occupation of Mazar-e Sharif in 1998 in their battle against the Northern Alliance. Once Lashkar leaders took refuge in Taliban-governed Afghanistan, a small minority of Baloch youth and veterans of the Afghan war traveled back to Afghanistan to receive military training and ideological support under the tutelage of Riaz Basra. Having undergone such training, Baloch militants like Dawood Badini, Usman Saifullah and Shafeeq Rind returned from Afghanistan to unleash a reign of terror on the Shi‘a population in Balochistan, particularly the Hazara community. The arrival of Afghan-trained Deobandi Pakistani militants to Balochistan marked a tragic departure for the province, once known for its toleration of religious diversity. An era of sectarian strife began, which continues to claim lives and destabilize Baloch society to the present.

Natives, Settlers and Migrants in Balochistan

While sectarian violence in Balochistan is driven by organizations, movements and individuals inspired by Deobandi teachings, it can be described as much in ethnic terms as in religious ones. Sunni militants are almost exclusively from ethnic Baloch communities and their victims are invariably Hazara and Punjabi settlers who are viewed as outsiders. For instance, though the violence is purportedly driven by sectarian anxieties, local Baloch converts to Shi‘ism are not being targeted. The best explanation, then, for a sectarian conflict that appears to be selectively ethnic, may not lie in religious doctrine but in the more mundane, local conflicts over socio-economic resources and political representation. Balochistan’s changing demographic composition and the reapportionment of access to political, social and economic capital that has gone with it may be more pertinent in explaining the current spate of violence than the conventional wisdom regarding sectarianism itself as a source of conflict.

The history of the Hazara community in Afghanistan is marked by repeated episodes of ethnic persecution, sometimes verging on genocide and ethnic cleansing, at the hands of Pashtun and other ethnic groups. This historical experience has led to an enduring sense of insecurity among Hazara communities. Due to their persistent ill treatment in Afghanistan, Hazara migrants and settlers tended to see Quetta as a refuge that constituted a second home for the community. This sense of relative safety beyond the borders of Afghanistan gave rise to a desire in the community to establish themselves firmly in the provincial capital by building a strong and well-knit community and competing earnestly for job opportunities in the government. As the Hazara community succeeded in gaining government employment, local Baloch communities became resentful.

Local Baloch have been at loggerheads with the Pakistani government since Pakistan’s inception in 1947, as evidenced by four armed insurgencies (1948, 1958, 1977 and since 2003). In particular, the commanding presence of the Baloch Student Organization, a nationalist-leaning student movement in the educational institutions, led to the politicization and radicalization of Baloch youth; the educational sector became an arena of resistance to the Pakistani establishment. Repeated socio-economic disruption and dislocation caused by these insurgencies and the prevalence of separatist sentiments among the Baloch youth left them ill equipped to compete for job opportunities. As the indigenous population of Balochistan, the Baloch viewed themselves as “sons of the soil” with an entitlement to government jobs that should not be subject to competition from outsiders. The failure of the Pakistani government to accord positions as a right to the local Baloch further alienated the community.

The Hazara community took advantage of the opening in government positions afforded by Baloch rejectionism and rose to prominent positions in the bureaucracy, the military and even came to occupy political offices due to their growing clout within Pakistani governing circles. For instance, Gen. Musa Khan, a Hazara soldier from Quetta, served as the commander-in-chief of the Pakistani army from 1958 to 1966 under dictator Ayub Khan and was later appointed governor of Balochistan province by Zia ul Haq in 1987. Similarly, Sharbat Ali Changezi, another Hazara officer, rose to the rank of air marshal in the Pakistan Air Force. By the 1980s, Hazaras occupied a disproportionate share of government jobs relative to their population in Balochistan. They became allied with civil and military establishment circles in Pakistan that were historically opposed to the aspiration of Baloch and Pashtun nationalists for greater political autonomy. The increased presence of Hazara bureaucrats in senior positions in turn gave rise to a more prominent Shi‘i presence in Balochistan, including the construction of Imam Bargahs in predominantly Sunni areas and even the alleged funneling of financial support to newly converted Baloch families.

These developments were not taken well by local Baloch and Pashtun ethnic groups. Viewing the Hazara community as outsiders who had usurped jobs and benefits that should have been reserved for indigenous Baloch and Pashtun communities, these groups grew increasingly resentful. Many perceived the Hazara community as a comprador class which assisted the Pakistani establishment in undermining the interests and aspirations of the native people. Indeed, the association of Hazaras with the ruling establishment in Balochistan goes back to the colonial period. In the late nineteenth century, the Hazara Pioneers detachment of the Indian Army helped the British in maintaining their occupation of Quetta and during World War I, Hazaras played a key role in British campaigns against Baloch tribesmen on the Iranian border.

The Baloch also came to view the settlement of the Hazara community in Quetta as part of a wider conspiracy by Pakistani state authorities to effect a deliberate demographic change in Balochistan, turning the Baloch into a minority in their own land. For instance, the Marriabad neighborhood of Quetta was traditionally populated by Baloch tribes such as the Marri, Pirkani and Shahwani. The arrival of large numbers of Hazara settlers and migrants, however, has turned Marriabad into an almost exclusively Hazara neighborhood. Similarly, some Baloch allege that the land now comprising the locality of Hazara Town originally belonged to the Syed and Kiazai Baloch tribes. Perceptions of such demographic shifts as part of a deliberate government strategy have served to fuel both anti-Hazara sentiment and increasing Baloch nationalism. Against this background, any proselytizing activities by Hazara Shi‘a in Baloch areas only exacerbated the underlying ethnic conflict, giving the violent backlash a veneer of sectarianism that may obscure more than it explains.

Overcoming Sectarianism

The Hazara community in Quetta lives in fear today. Hundreds of educated youth are packing their bags to emigrate to Western countries like Australia in search of safety and a secure future. There is growing concern among leaders of all ethnic communities in Quetta that the ongoing sectarian strife in Balochistan will consume the province in an ever widening conflict. Baloch nationalists fear that Pakistani intelligence agencies may be abetting a sectarian civil war in order to undermine the Baloch struggle for self-determination by portraying the Baloch as allies of the Taliban.

Some leaders in the Hazara community worry that their efforts to establish firm roots in Quetta may have been too inward-looking, without the necessary emphasis on integrating with existing indigenous communities. In a similar vein, Hazara leaders are also seeking to dispel perceptions of their community as either proselytizing or particularly sectarian in their Shi‘i identity. Hazara attempts to forge broader alliances and express solidarity with democratic struggle of Baloch and Pashtun nationalists are one example of recent measures taken by the Hazara community to address some of the grievances against them. The formation of the Hazara Democratic Party, which has been demonstrating against ongoing military operations in Balochistan in solidarity with the Baloch nationalists, is a clear instance of such efforts.

The sources of the apparently sectarian conflict in Balochistan are not primarily a result of Shi‘i proselytizing, Sunni Deobandi revivalism or Baloch nationalism. Accordingly, while local efforts to tamp the violence are important, they are not enough without concerted support from the Pakistani government. The real sources of the current violence in Balochistan, as we have seen, can be traced to the centralized Islamization policies of the 1980s under Zia ul Haq and the demographic and socio-economic pressures on Balochistan that are a collateral effect of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, compounded by Afghan civil strife under the Taliban and now the American-led military operations in Afghanistan. Helping Balochistan overcome the sectarianism that is the bitter legacy of these pressures will require support from Pakistani state authorities, especially the powerful military, to local civil society efforts at reconciliation and toleration.

Of course, in the final analysis an effective policy against sectarianism in Pakistan also requires a peaceful resolution of the ongoing war in Afghanistan. This crucial requirement for Baloch stability depends on international efforts as much as, if not more than, those of local communities in Balochistan or the Pakistani government. Until the government and the international community commit themselves to reversing the damage of national Islamization policies and to stabilizing Afghanistan, prospects for calming violence in Balochistan remain dim despite the best efforts of local communities seeking to mend the torn social fabric of their province.

How to cite this article:

Stephen Dedalus "The Bitter Harvest," Middle East Report Online, June 12, 2009.
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