Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan on January 10 claimed that India is backing the Islamic State (IS) and facilitating attacks in the country. Khan’s statement came a week after 11 Shia Hazara coal miners were brutally massacred by IS affiliated militants. In the interim, the Pakistani premier labeled the mourning families as “blackmailers” for refusing to bury their dead until Khan visits them to hear their demands for justice and security.
Protesting with unburied coffins has become a means of expressing outrage against the state for the Shia Hazaras, thousands of whom have been targeted and killed since the turn of the century. The Hazaras, rooted in Uzbek-Turkic ancestry with a vast majority adhering to the Twelver Shia sect of Islam, have been victims of ethnic cleansing and pogroms in the region for almost two centuries, since they were recruited in the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842).
From being shunned by Mughals to being expelled at the turn of the 20th century by Afghan Emir Shah Abdur Rehman Khan from Hazarajat and the former Kafiristan, many Hazaras found refuge in the Balochistan province along the western front of what eventually became the state of Pakistan.
The Af-Pak border became the multipronged corridor for Afghan jihad in the 1970s and 1980s, giving rise to, among other jihadist groups, anti-Shia outfits like the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). These groups enjoyed Pakistan’s patronage, as the state also allowed itself to become a battleground for the Saudi-Iran proxy wars. That sectarian warfare fast metamorphosed into anti-Shia pogroms being carried out by jihadist groups proudly owned by the military and intelligence as “strategic assets,” an array of non-state actors designed to cause disruption and destruction in the region in line with a Sunni Islamist narrative.
Post 9/11, beginning with the 2001 Poodgali Chowk killings in Quetta, the Hazara population of Balochistan has been regularly targeted by the Taliban, LeJ, and SSP, the latter two having rechristened themselves into political fronts like Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) or the more recent Pakistan Rah-e-Haq Party (PRHP) after military ruler Pervez Musharraf was globally pressured by international leaders into outlawing numerous jihadist groups.
As Pakistan saw its worst bout of terror in the following decade, so did the Hazara population, with back-to-back Quetta bombings at the start of 2013 killing at least 165. From 2012 to 2017 over 500 Hazaras were killed in terror attacks in the capital of Balochistan alone; over 2,000 Pakistani Hazaras have been killed since 2004.
A spree of terror raids targeting the local Hazaras in April 2018 saw community members launch a hunger strike, which ended after reassurances from Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa. Less than a year after those reassurances, a bomb blast targeted the Hazara community in Quetta’s Hazarganji area, killing at least 20 and wounding 48 in April 2019. Attacks on the Hazara continued in 2020 as well, with the massacre of the coal miners at the start of 2021 pushing the community to once again demand what it has been repeatedly promised in hollow words.
Most of the attacks against the Shia Hazaras, and even other religious minorities like the Christian community, in Balochistan have been perpetuated by the LeJ and IS. The two groups converged in the immediate aftermath of the latter announcing its Khorasan faction in the region in 2015, starting with the Safoora Chowrangi massacre in Karachi, in which 46 Ismaili Shia were killed.
Before announcing its new wilayah (provinces) in India and Pakistan at the end of 2019, and until its eradication from the Middle East, the Islamic State’s operational capacity in South Asia was largely limited to a jihadist umbrella, under which foot soldiers belonging to groups like LeJ carried out operations.
In Pakistan, the goriest attacks claimed by IS — the 2016 Quetta hospital bombing, the 2017 Bethel Memorial Methodist Church attack, and the 2018 Mastung rally blast, the second deadliest attack in the country’s history — were carried out in a similar operational manner. IS, in tandem with fellow ideologues like LeJ, has upheld the anti-Shia jihadist inertia, especially in Balochistan, with the Hazara community being its most vulnerable prey.
While the target killings of the Hazaras continued last year, the state was simultaneously allowing anti-Shia hysteria to be propagated across the country. From the Punjab Assembly passing the blatantly anti-Shia Tahaffuz-e-Bunyad-e-Islam (Protection of Foundation of Islam) Bill in July to permitting anti-Shia rallies in urban centers like Karachi, the state was bystander at best, and accomplice at worst, in gory Sunni supremacism.
From Saudi subservience, to political parties forming Islamist electoral alliances, to the military creating Islamist pressure groups against civilian rulers, to the need for Sunni terror outfits to perpetuate jihad in Afghanistan and Kashmir, a wide array of causes has led to Pakistan adopting a decades-old policy of appeasement toward anti-Shia militancy.
The Pakistan Army has also actively deployed groups like LeJ to counter Baloch insurgency. Furthermore, given the jihadism long endorsed by the military, there are many sympathizers of anti-Shia terror outfits within the Army ranks as well. The spectacular failure of the state’s military-led policy in the province can be gauged by echoes of “occupied Balochistan” now reverberating in the National Assembly in Islamabad.
During the army chief’s meeting with Hazara protestors in April 2018, Bajwa even conceded the possibility of military collaborators in attacks on the community, saying “such a mindset has existed in the institution for 40 years.” Imran Khan too in the past has underlined how the military and intelligence fuel anti-Shia radicalism in Pakistan.
Indeed, blaming India for decades of anti-Shia killings in Pakistan is a preposterously duplicitous departure of both the army chief and prime minister from their own stated positions of the past. However, more than individual, or institutional, hypocrisy such a narrative in the aftermath of a targeted community’s massacre reaffirms that the state will continue to throw its Shia Hazaras under the bus.
For, as U.S. talks with Taliban are already encouraging the state into claiming a win in the yet-to-be-settled Afghanistan question, Pakistan is unlikely to abandon its “strategic assets” or the jihadist infrastructure that make it an inalienable stakeholder in the lucrative theater of bloodshed and militancy along the Af-Pak border.