By Rasa Sarwari
“Tajiks to Tajikistan, Uzbeks to Uzbekistan, and Hazaras to goristan [the graveyard] (Zabriskie, 2008). The latter is a profound slogan that has become a notion that a myriad of Pashtun militants adhere to. “Hazara” is a translation of the word “thousands” in Farsi, which derives its meaning from the hordes of Mongol warriors that the Hazara claim descent (Ewans, 10). The Hazara are a diligent and honest people, but they have been given the short end of the stick in the spectrum of Afghanistan’s people, as they have more often than not been the whipping boy of the stratified Pashtun elites.
To further understand the plight of the Hazara people we must look at how they came to be in such a stark and unwelcoming environment and to set the scene we must look to the symbolic year of 1218. In 1218, the Khwarizm sultanate encompassed all of modern Iran and the majority of central Asia. To the east of the Khwarizm sultanate was the newly-formed Mongol Nation, led by Chinggis Khan (Weatherford, 108). At the time Chinggis Khan was looking to enter into peaceful trade relations with the Muslim world, even sending the first Mongol caravan to Khwarizm to entice trade relations, but his gesture of goodwill was met with hostility, as the Khwarizm seized the caravan (Weatherford, 110). In response, Chinggis Khan sent three diplomats to the Sultan of Khwarizm to ease tensions and ask for the release of the caravan, but the Sultan of Khwarizm denied the Khan’s request and beheaded one of the diplomats and ordered the execution of all the people in the detained caravan (Weatherford, 111). Chiggis Khan’s army ensued, and in the preceding year of 1219, the Mongols arrived in the Khwarizm sultanate. “Before the year ended, the Mongols had taken every major city in the Khwarizm empire, and its sultan lay[ed] abandoned and dying (Weatherford, 108).” From then onwards the die had been cast and “nothing could slow, much less stop, the Mongol juggernaut (Weatherford, 109).” Subsequently, the Mongolian empire went on to become the largest contiguous empire in history, stretching from the Korean Peninsula to Poland at its height (Weatherford, 80), and from that empire, an imperial diaspora colonized modern day Afghanistan and become known as the Hazara (Bacon, 233).The armies of Chinggis Khan settled in Bamiyan and the highlands that encompass central Afghanistan (Weatherford, 118), and thereafter this area was referred to as “Hazarajat” or land of the Hazara. Though there are some theories that repute the correlation between Hazaras and Mongolian ancestry, recent genetic evidence has proved otherwise (Hartl, 308). As well, the Hazara would not qualify, under Robin Cohen’s definition of diaspora, because as a once nomadic people they have no “return movement.” The same could be said for the Roma people who are the epitome of diasporic peoples, but have no “return movement” to their Indian homeland (Arhin, 2013). Thus, Cohen’s definition of a diaspora is too constrictive as it does not take into account diasporas that originate from nomadic peoples. As a Mongolian diaspora, the Hazara were predisposed to an ethnocentric society that grouped into tribes constantly fighting one another, and this predisposition of society fit in exactly with Afghanistan’s tribal and ethnocentric mentality. The Hazaras also experienced immense pressures from Persian Shia Mullahs in the late 16th century, which led to their proselytization as they abandoned Tengriism to accept Islam, and in particular Shia Islam (Sarabi, 40).
However, the solitude of Hazarajat was coming to an end with the rise of Pashtun power in the mid-18th century. Afghanistan became its own autonomous state in 1747, by taking advantage of the power vacuum in neighbouring Persia due to the collapse of the Afsharid dynasty. This newfound freedom was introduced by the Sunni Pashtun tribes, who currently make up the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan (Ewans, 32). Though the new Afghan state encompassed Hazarajat, the Hazara chiefs remained able to rule autonomously. Unlike the Tajiks who have Persian origins, the Uzbeks who have Turkic-Mongol origins, and the Hazara who have Mongol origins, the Pashtuns are known as the natives of Afghanistan. Throughout the years “Afghan” has become synonymous with “Pashtun”, as they claim their origins from the Aryans who invaded and settled these lands 6,000 years ago as mentioned in the ancient Veda texts, making them the oldest known natives of Afghanistan (Erwan, 5). However, the Hazara were in the Persian sphere of influence through direct contact with Persian merchants, Mullahs and a wide variety of Persian speaking people, such as the Tajiks who make up Afghanistan’s second largest ethnic group after the Pashtuns (CIA, 2013). Subsequently, the Hazaras abandoned their Mongolian language and adopted the lingua de Franca of the region, Persian, but added their own Mongolian loan words into their dialect of Persian, which is known as Hazaragi. The most salient Mongolian loan words in Hazaragi are Khatu (wife), Abgha (uncle), and Nilgha (Baby), which are directly taken from the Mongolic vocabulary (Sarabi, 33). As well, though few in number there are still Hazaras who speak a Mongolic language called Mogholi, near the city of Herat (Ethnologue, 2007). However, the rise of a Pashtun-led state was a surreal experience for the Hazara, as it signalled the dawn of their isolated pastoral and agrarian way of life. In their newfound power, the southern Pashtun tribes in Helmand and Kandahar engaged in skirmishes with local Hazara herders, which forced them deeper into the Afghan highlands (Iranica, 2003). But these skirmishes were the least of the Hazara’s worries, since Afghanistan’s Pashtun Shah, Abdur Rahman Khan was looking to undermine the autonomy of Hazarajat and bring the Hazara as well as other non-Pashtun peoples under his rule. Notably, after the second Anglo-Afghan war, Shah Abdur conducted a campaign in Hazarajat, but was met with fierce opposition by Hazara tribal leaders.
The first uprising was conducted in correlation with Shah Adbur’s cousin, Mohammad Eshaq who sought to overthrow the Shah. This revolt of Hazara nationalists and anti-Shah partisans was brief, as Shah Adbur astutely used sectarian strife to divide the Hazara Shias and Sunni partisans, thus allowing him to easily defeat his foes (Iranica, 2003). The defeat of the Hazara in their first revolt allowed Shah Adbur to impose taxes on Hazarajat for the first time, and it severely impeded the autonomy of Hazarajat, as numerous Pashtun soldiers and government officials were garrisoned in Hazarajat to ensure its compliance to the Pashtun run state. Subsequently, the Pashtuns garrisoned in Hazarajat, treated the local Hazaras inferiorly and often committed arbitrary acts of cruelty and brutality towards them. This caused great unrest and a deepening hatred between Hazaras and their Pashtun rulers, causing the Hazaras to reach their tipping point in 1892. When a local Pashtun garrison searched the home of a Hazara chieftain for arms, but the pretext was false, the garrison subsequently tied the chieftain up and made him watch while they raped his wife (Mousavi, 124-25). The outrage that followed allowed the Hazaras to unite once again to overthrow most of the local Pashtun garrisons in Hazarajat. This newfound zealous fever fermented fierce resistance against Shah Adbur and his forces. Witnessing the rising tide, Shah Adbur felt he had no choice but to wage a jihad against the Shia Hazaras, and under this casus belli Shah Adbur was able to muster around 150,000 troops (Mousavi, 126). The resulting conflict was brutal and led to a great loss of life on both sides. The Hazara fought with vigour but the attrition they faced due to lack of rations, led to their demise at the uprising’s epicenter of Oruzgan (Mousavi, 126). The aftermath of the uprising was a genocide at the hands of Shah Adbur, who wiped out more than half of the entire Hazara population, and caused a myriad of people to be driven out of their villages (Mousavi, 136). Prior to the genocide, Hazaras made up more than half of Afghanistan’s total population. Although once the largest ethnicity, they were now a minority, constituting roughly 9% of Afghanistan’s total population (Minority Rights Group International, 2008). Accordingly, in order to stifle Hazara influence Shah Adbur fragmented Hazarajat and demarcated it so that it would encompass numerous other provinces, where the Hazara are now a minority.
With British India to its Eastern corridor, Qajar Persia to its West corridor and the Russia Empire to its Northern corridor, the beginning of the 20th century signalled a shift in Afghanistan’s conservative way of governance, into a more liberal and modernizing approach. This increased development in Afghanistan during the 20th century resulted in a greater emphasis on the manufacturing sector, which the Pashtun had a firm grip on. Subsequently, this placed greater pressure on the sedentary Hazara farmers, who were forced to enter into unfair trades and dealings with the ruling Pashtuns for loans and manufactured goods (Iranica, 2003). This development also led to the urbanization of Afghanistan’s cities such as Kabul, Kandahar, Herat and Mazar E Sharif. Accordingly, the Hazaras were at the forefront of this migration into urban areas as they sought out “employ[ment] as domestic servants or in basic manual jobs”, due to deteriorating living standards in Hazarajat (Saikal, 4). This new epoch also ushered in a sense of a single Afghan identity as Shah Habibullah granted “a general amnesty to all who had been exiled by his father [Shah Adbur] (Iranica, 2003).” But some of the seeds of resentment proved too deeply entrenched between Hazaras and their Pashtun rulers, as hatred boiled over in 1932 when Afghanistan’s Shah was assassinated by a Hazara student at an award ceremony. In order to produce an ad-hoc sense of an Afghan identity however, this epoch also allowed for the proliferation of some cohabitation between ethnicities in Afghanistan. In addition to the external resources used for the research of the Mongol Hazaras and their correlation with Afghanistan, an interview was conducted with Mr. Huessein, an ethnic Shia Hazara from Afghanistan, born in 1963. Mr. Huessein indicated he was born in the town of Beshud, which was in Afghanistan’s Wardak province; since the fragmentation of Hazarajat, its regions have been engulfed by other provinces, as is the case of Beshud which is to the east of Hazarajat. Upon being asked about the demographics and standard of living in his home village, Mr. Huessein stated that it was a homogenous society constituting only Hazara people that were farmers and herders, situated in a valley that was close to the Helmand River, the largest river in Afghanistan. Overall Mr. Huessein described life in Beshud as “hard and busy, but at the end of the day it was calm and peaceful.” Mr. Huessein also pointed out that his family moved to Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, when he was around the age of seven. When questioned why his family decided to move, Mr. Huessein commented that his father was “an ambitious man, who wanted a better and more modern life for his family,” and that “Kabul offered these kinds of opportunities, for a better education and better paying jobs.” Once his family had moved to Kabul, Mr. Huessein describes life in the city as “bustling and crowded”, he also said the “city was more [ethnically] diverse”, at this time Mr. Huessein seemed more nostalgic and joyful. Subsequently, Mr. Huessein was asked of his fondest memories in Kabul, and his response was that he “loved to go to the cinema to watch Iranian and Hindi movies with [his] best friend.” Furthermore, Mr. Huessein was asked about his best friend and if he was “Hazara”, Mr. Huessein said that his best friend was not “Hazara”, rather he was half a Pashtun, half Tajik boy, who was a Sunni. In terms of the historical grievances between Hazaras and Pashtuns, Mr.Huessein was asked if this past resentment had any effect on his friendship, to which he sternly stated that “it didn’t since [they] were both Afghans.” Mr. Huessein illuminated to me that ethnocentrism and narrow-mindedness was not a vice that the people in Kabul inherited, rather they saw each other as “equal countrymen.” In accordance to Mr. Huessein’s testimony, it seems that a single Afghan identity was arising in the late 20th century, and that Hazara people like Mr. Huessein were coming to define “Hazara” as synonymous with “Afghan”, thus propagating their assimilation.
This sense of a single and united Afghan community was further proliferated during the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. Though the residents of Afghanistan have always been prone to internal ethnic and tribal warfare, they have always been able to put such quarrels behind them when faced with a greater external threat, which was the case in the three Anglo-Afghan wars, and accordingly the same notion applied in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Mr. Huessein describes the early periods of the Soviet occupation as a “complicated time.” Many of the urban areas in Afghanistan were the first to be occupied by the Soviets, and were used as strongholds, therefore they did not witness the amount of conflict that mostly took place in the rural areas. During the Soviet invasion Mr. Huessein actively opposed the Soviet occupation and even participated in protests against the Soviet aggressors. However, as the war in Afghanistan continued, Mr. Huessein fled his country for Iran. When asked why he fled, Mr. Huessein cordially stated he “would rather flee than be conscripted into the Soviet army or Mujahideen [resistance], because either way [he] would be forced to kill [his] own countrymen.” The war also signalled a unification of Shia Hazara militias and the Mujahideen forces, and in the winter of 1989 the Soviet army withdrew from Afghanistan, conceding their defeat to the fierce resistance of Afghanistan’s freedom fighters. Subsequently, the power vacuum created at the end of the Soviet occupation led the country to a civil war, that witnessed the rise of the Taliban regime that were the victors (Sarabi, 72-78). Once the Taliban came into power in 1996, they lashed out against all non-Pashtun people, especially the Hazara. The Taliban are notorious for their atrocities against the Hazara people, which were exemplified by the massacres of Mazara E Sharif and Bamiyan. The Taliban also proceeded to destroy the Buddha’s of Bamiyan, the largest hand carved Buddhist statues in the world (Sarabi, 76-80). During the epoch of the Taliban regime Hazara militias aligned themselves with the Northern Alliance, a Tajik led opposition force. Upon the NATO-led invasion, the Taliban regime was toppled in 2001, and the Northern Alliance came into power (Sarabi, 82).
The end of Taliban regime ushered in the Karzai government, and has brought Hazaras back into the forefront of Afghan society. Currently many Hazaras have moved to Kabul in search of better opportunities and “they make up nearly half of the city’s population” (Larsion, 2008). Hazaras have also become more politically active in Afghanistan, both because Afghanistan’s vice-president is an ethnic Hazara, and because of the 2010 parliamentary elections that granted Hazaras 61 of the 249 seats, making them the second largest seat holders after the Pashtuns, who hold 96 seats (CIA, 2010). The Hazaras have also represented Afghanistan internally, since Rohullah Nikpai, an ethnic Hazara, won Afghanistan’s first Olympic medal in taekwondo at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and another medal in the 2012 London Olympics, subsequently becoming Afghanistan’s national hero. The prospects for Hazarajat have also become promising due to Afghanistan valuing its natural mineral deposits at $3 Trillion USD (Najafizada, 2011), and many untapped minerals lay in rural areas that are inhabited by Hazara people, which promises new jobs and an influx of wealth in the community. In lieu of the Mongol Hazaras coming to Afghanistan as an imperial diaspora, with an exceptional understanding of martial and administrative abilities, subsequently outnumbering all of Afghanistan’s other inhabitants. The question is raised as to why they did not aspire to become the elites of Afghan society. Why instead were they forced into submission to those around them? Why had the Mongol Hazaras ultimately allowed themselves to become assimilated into a single Afghan identity, rather than creating their own fully sovereign nation state? These were the questions that confronted Mr. Huessein at the conclusion of the interview, to which he responsed: “at the end of the day, it’s easier to wash dirt off your hands, than blood.”
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Rasa Sarwari is an undergraduate student in International Development Studies (IDS) at the University of Toronto. His research interests include ethnic conflict, post-conflict development, as well as diaspora and migration. Aside from his research, he is interested in Middle Eastern policies and politics, as well as collective participation in marginalized communities. He is a Queen Elizabeth Scholar, and will be conducting a research internship in Ghana in the summer of 2016, to help facilitate the security of small entrepreneurs and foster active participation throughout local economies.