By Zeeba T Hashmi
July 10, 2015
Once a harmonious and tolerant society, Balochistan is now marred by religious bigotry, faith-based violent attacks and kidnappings for ransom. The deteriorating law and order situation is forcing a large number of people to flee the province, thus stalling the economic, religious and cultural vibrancy of the province. In 2014, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) reported a large number of people migrating from Balochistan over the past decade. A rapid migration of about 3,000 to 4,000 people took place in the last three years alone with an average of about 1,000 people leaving per year.
Migrations from Balochistan are comparatively lower in number compared to Sindh and Punjab but this is a recent cause to worry about because minorities here have historically felt safer and more well-integrated into society. Even though the figures of people fleeing the province gathered from rights organisations and different news sources are disputed by state officials, there is unanimous acknowledgement by the government that mass migration has been taking place in the province owing to security concerns over the last two decades. According to activists, the major migration is taking place from Dera Bugti, Kalat and Khuzdar districts, and Hazara Shias are leaving mostly from Quetta.
Religious discrimination faced by the minorities has resulted in their second-class treatment. They are also fast losing the support of the local people. Growing rogue and extremist elements are leaving the minorities extremely vulnerable to threats, kidnappings and attacks on them or their places of worship. A majority of those fleeing the province are Hindus and Shias whereas others, Zikris and Parsis, whose numbers have dwindled over the years, have also joined the mass exodus. Internal displacement to other provinces of Pakistan is also a cause of great concern for the well being of the people as they have to integrate themselves within society economically and without discrimination.
Religious minorities are facing the brunt of violence exerted against them by armed groups. Since January this year, about 15 Hazara Shias were killed in six separate incidents of violence against them. Last year, 81 people were killed in 10 separate incidents of targeted attacks against them, including the killings of eight Zikri worshippers who were gunned down by assailants in their mosque in Awaran district. Between 2010 and 2015, 681 people, mainly Shia Hazaras, were killed in sectarian attacks with the highest number of deaths recorded in 2013. It is believed that the growing number of madrassas (seminaries) and increased activities by banned jihadi outfits like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) are responsible for the growing number of attacks against religious minorities. The increased attacks on Shias and communities of other sects are forcing many to leave the province. The flight of Hazara Shias came into the international spotlight when a boat of refugees capsized near Australia drowning 60 people. It is reported that nearly 30,000 people belonging to the Shia sect have left Balochistan over the last few years.
Kidnappings are another reason why minorities are fleeing from the province. Hindus comprise about two-thirds of the minority population in the province. Being financially sound, Hindu lawyers, doctors, traders and businessmen are in constant fear of abductions for ransom. In May last year, five children of a Hindu trader were kidnapped in Jaffarabad district for ransom. A renowned educationist, Dr Manoj Kumar was abducted in Quetta in December 2014 and was released two months later after the family paid a hefty amount of Rs 14 million in ransom. It is reported that those abducted are mainly taken to Khuzdar district bordering Sindh because of almost zero presence of the police there. The Levies are also too ill equipped to confront the kidnappers. Since 2008, there have been more than 50 cases of abductions in the Hindu community of the province, which has raised the level of fear in Hindus who feel compelled to leave their homes. Around 10,000 Hindus have relocated themselves abroad or to other parts of the country where they feel relatively safer.
Politically, the minorities have largely been under-represented in the National Assembly as well as the provincial government. There are merely three seats reserved for minorities in the Balochistan provincial Assembly. One minority MPA, Handrey Massieh, from NM-65 constituency, was gunned down by his own guard last year in Quetta, which was a major setback for minorities in the province. For the portion of the population that feels discriminated against and marginalised, their indigenous problems need to be addressed more rigorously through their effective representation in parliament. This cannot be done unless more proactive security is provided to the minorities’ representatives, enabling them to raise the concerns of the minorities in the Assembly.
There is a state of urgency to provide security to the minorities living in the province as they have made important contributions to the economic and cultural landscape of Balochistan. With the absence of a coordinated security approach, the conditions of minorities appear to be bleak here. Places of worship of the minorities are at great risk of attack by armed groups. Last year, the government of Balochistan declared 35 out of 60 churches across the province as “sensitive”. According to sources, the Balochistan government has declared 16 temples as “extremely sensitive” and 39 as “sensitive” out of a total of 76 temples across the province. However, despite security risks and acknowledgement by the government of the need to protect minorities and their places of worship, security measures are seriously inadequate to address the growing issue of extremism against the minorities.
A holistic approach needs to be rationalised by the government to deal with the issues of intolerance and militancy that are adversely affecting the demography of Balochistan. There is a need to uniformly implement rule of law in all districts and to improve the surveillance of the groups that are known for their hardline sectarian views. It is extremely important for the government to take urgent steps to provide security for the minorities so they feel confident to live here without any sense of fear.
Zeeba T Hashmi is a freelance columnist and may be contacted at email@example.com