Marginalised Hazaras hope for a more inclusive, tolerant Karachi

The youth in Karachi unite to make the city more tolerant and pluralistic by discouraging ethnocentric sentiments.
Published July 20, 2015
Participants paid tribute to terrorism victims.
Participants paid tribute to terrorism victims.

On a scorching morning at Karachi's Clifton Beach, a group of 20 youngsters are seen holding hundreds of red roses, securing them in the wet sand to form a peace sign.

The team, made up of youngsters from the Hazara, Pashtun, Baloch, Sindhi, and Punjabi ethnicities, stood hand in hand around the emblem in a gesture of unity, paying tribute to victims of terrorism.

This small group came together after efforts made by a group of Hazara youngsters who have taken it upon themselves to educate the youth in Karachi and promote the ideas of respect and tolerance among communities.

Karachi has been a host to a range of communities and ethnicities, making it a ‘multicultural’ city; but in this diverse population also rests the ugliness of stereotypes and mistrust.

Rose aligned on the beach in a peace sign.
Rose aligned on the beach in a peace sign.

This group of five men, all in their late 20s and hailing from Quetta’s ethnic Hazara community, are hoping to bridge these differences by having an open dialogue between members of different communities and dispel negative stereotypes that have become ingrained in people’s minds towards one another over years, if not decades, of misunderstandings.

With rising sectarian attacks in the country, Shia Hazaras are among Pakistan’s widely persecuted communities. And due to the continually worsening state of law and order, as many as 200,000 Hazara Shias have either relocated from Quetta to other major cities of Pakistan or moved out of the country altogether.

“When people think of the Hazaras, they instantly associate them with death, protests, tears and blood; and there is very little respect extended to us. There is much more to us than this perception, we have a talented set of youth, just waiting to be discovered and acknowledged. This event was a way to show just that,” says Ali Zaidi, one of the organisers.

One of the participants gives roses to a vendor on the beach.
One of the participants gives roses to a vendor on the beach.

He, along with Ali Waqar Changezi, Roohullah Rahimi, Saadat Ali and Mohammad Amaan are among thousands of Hazaras who have managed to shift to Karachi in pursuit of acquiring higher education and being able to live in a more secure climate. And although it is in this city that they have found a myriad of opportunities, they also find themselves confronting a constant tussle over turf and negative stereotypes.

“Through our efforts, we want to discourage ethnocentrism and bring about greater acceptance of other religions, customs and cultures,” says Ali.

“In Quetta, where I come, from there is no concept of intermingling; we are all restricted to our respective areas and communities. But this is not the case in Karachi and there are opportunities to understand and accept each other despite our different beliefs and practices. It is this culture of acceptance that we want to highlight.”

'Hamarung' — the many colours of diversity

Organisers and participants of 'Hamarung'.
Organisers and participants of 'Hamarung'.

The team came up with an idea to organise an event that would encourage dialogue between the youth. The aim of the dialogue is to eliminate age-old negative stereotypes and perceptions that communities have been holding about one another.

The programme was aptly titled ‘Hamarung’, which means celebrating the many colours of diversity.

To put the idea into practice, the team lined up a number of speaker sessions, games and activities to help break the ice between participants, allowing them to interact and share their life experiences.

Their concept was readily accepted by an events space called ‘HIVE’, which agreed to provide the group room to conduct the program.

The quintet then set out to recruit a group with diversified backgrounds.

After carefully selecting a 20-member team with people ranging between the ages of 18 to 24 through an online forum, the three-day program titled “Hamarung” was put into action.

With cups of green tea and Bosragh, a sweet delicacy found in Quetta, the participants huddled around Akhtar Baloch, a journalist and researcher who has written extensively on culture. Baloch spoke at length about how languages have the power to both incite hatred and build relationships.

Akhtar Baloch discussing the significance of languages.
Akhtar Baloch discussing the significance of languages.

“We make fun of languages that we can’t speak and have high regard for our own language because we are repeatedly told that it’s the best,” said Baloch during the event.

‘I admit..’

One of the most interesting games that the participants were made to play was ‘I admit’ in which each participant opened up about the kind of discrimination they personally faced. Following that, they also revealed how they themselves were biased towards other communities.

“I used to think Sindhis fight too much, I admit that I personally did not like them at all and my mother told me to stay away from them,” confesses 23-year-old Samia Gill.

“But I made a Sindhi friend here, and they are not what I had thought,” she says.

Samia does not feel that there has been any discrimination against her on account of her being a Christian.

“My family moved to Karachi from Lahore a few years back and we were warned about the security situation here. But I never felt like my life was in danger.”

During the game 'I admit'..
During the game 'I admit'..

Twenty-two-year-old social activist Vishal Anand who is an active member of the Pakistan Hindu Sehwa says he had never thought he’d meet a Hazara in his life.

When he interacted with the Hazaras, he was surprised to know that the Hazaras he met had never come across a Pakistani Hindu either. They, too, had only heard of Hindus existing in Pakistan but had never gotten a chance to interact with them.

“After meeting him, I felt that we are all so disconnected from each other; we remain confined to our communities and never venture to explore and interact with members of other communities.”

Vishal attributes this to the elders in each community who deter the youth from openly engaging with people from different religious or ethnic backgrounds, leaving little room for them to form their own perceptions.

“The generation of our parents does not want to end this undying circle of discrimination, but we do,” says Vishal.

Vishal feels that NGOs have also failed to play their due role in this regard and believes that they cater to a specific segment in society instead of being of assistance to all communities in general. He says that since no organisation had been working for the rights of Pakistani Hindus, he decided to start his own called the Pakistan Hindu Youth Council.

Vishal does not think he would ever leave Pakistan, for India or elsewhere.

“It’s my country, I was born here,” he says determinedly and denies the claims that surfaced recently about mass migration of members from Pakistan's Hindu community.

“The Hindus that are leaving for India are only doing so because of their businesses,” he says, adding that the majority of Hindus who do go to India actually go for pilgrimage and then return to Pakistan.

“India would never accept us; they don’t consider us as their Hindu brothers. For them, we are Pakistanis.”

From Quetta to Karachi

Irrespective of their identities and backgrounds, the youth shared similar sentiments of wanting peace in Karachi.
Irrespective of their identities and backgrounds, the youth shared similar sentiments of wanting peace in Karachi.

Mohammad Amaan, 29, moved from Quetta to Karachi three years ago for higher education and subsequently stayed on in order to take up a job. Both quality education and employment opportunities are scarce in his hometown.

“I got to meet a lot of different people in this city; something that was not possible in Quetta. But even here, there are stereotypes attached to every ethnicity.”

Being an ethnic Hazara, the foremost challenge that Amaan faced in Karachi was managing effective communication and adjusting to a climate that he felt was much different from his hometown.

“It took a lot of time for me to adjust; the language barrier was the biggest hurdle,” says Amaan.

Back in Quetta, there are no jobs for educated youth which is why most people do not seem to encourage their children to study beyond high school and acquire a university degree.

“When I go back to my town and talk about education and literacy, people often ask why I am stressing on it particularly when there are hardly any employment opportunities,” says Amaan.

The Hazara community in Quetta is now restricted to two areas; Alamdar Road and Hazara Town. In between these towns is Sariab Road which Ali describes as ‘the hub of all terrorist activity’. Hazaras who cross this part of town are often attacked and several of them have been shot dead in the said area on numerous occasions in the past.

A number of these young Hazara men who have made their way to Karachi find themselves fortunate for that reason but not everyone in their hometown has the financial means to be able to move to the bigger cities.

“In Quetta, we live in our enclaves with our movement restricted; one toe out of the line means paying in blood…there's no sense of homogeneity and we don’t want Karachi to be the same.”

All photos by Saadat Ali