“I am a double target because I am a woman and I am Hazara”

The Hazara are a Shia minority who face constant persecution in Pakistan. Ruquiya Hashmi - the first female Hazara candidate for the national assembly - faces death threats daily.

Muhammad Ahmed stands at his small kiosk on the street in a working class district of Islamabad, selling tea and making conversation with the punters. He laughs and serves up cup after cup of steaming chai, made in the traditional Pakistani style with boiled milk and cardamom. His cheerful exterior does not give it away, but just a few months ago, Ahmed fled his home in fear for his life.

“I left everything in Quetta – my house, my shop,” he says. “But you cannot put a cost on your life, or your family’s life. It is not safe for us there. Every time my son stepped out to school it was a trauma wondering if he would come home. It is not a good place for us.”

Ahmed is a member of Pakistan’s beleaguered Hazara community. The Hazara are a Persian-speaking Shia minority who emigrated from Afghanistan more than 100 years ago. They have long been the target of a campaign of terror by sectarian Sunni militants. All Shias face a threat, but the Hazara are easily marked out by their distinctive central Asian features.

Around 500,000 Hazara live in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan, a lawless province in Pakistan’s south-west. They have been mercilessly targeted by violent militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, who continue to operate with impunity. According to the Human Rights Watch, 375 Shias died in 2012, with at least 100 of those from the Hazara community. In Quetta, as well as elsewhere in the country, individual Hazara have routinely been shot dead by gunmen on motorbikes, meaning that in certain areas, simply leaving the house is a major risk.

That death toll has already increased dramatically in 2013. On 10 January, two massive suicide bombs ripped through a snooker hall on Alamdar Road, in a predominantly Hazara area of Quetta, killing nearly 100 people. After the bombing, the community refused to bury their dead, sitting in the streets in sub-zero temperatures with the coffins until the government took action. The cabinet of the provincial assembly was dismissed and governor’s rule announced but on 16th February, another huge bomb was detonated near Hazara Town, this time killing 73.

Since then, security has been significantly tightened up in the main Hazara areas of Quetta, but this has had its own negative effects. Ahmed describes how these areas, already ghettoised, have been even more cut off. This affected business for shopkeepers, as people from other communities now avoid the area. University students also face problems getting out of the area to attend their lectures. “Fear was our constant companion, so I have brought my family to Islamabad,” says Ahmed.

He was not alone. Zaman Hussain, head of the central office of the Hazara Democratic Party (HDP) in Quetta, says that many Hazara have fled Balochistan. Many have sought refuge in Australia, America, or the United Kingdom, while others have left behind their property moved to other areas of Pakistan. There is no data to back it up, but he estimates that as many as 100,000 have left their homes.

Despite the grave threat to their lives, those Hazara who remain are refusing to be silenced. Pakistan is gearing up for a general election on Saturday 11 May, the first democratic transition in its history, and this incredibly vulnerable community is determined to take part.

Ruquiya Hashmi, 62, is Quetta’s first ever female candidate for the National Assembly. She is also Hazara. The first few times I call her mobile phone, she doesn’t answer. When we do speak, she is full of apologies: she has been wary of taking calls from unknown numbers because she has been receiving death threats for the last 10 days. “They call my phone and say, ‘don’t participate in this election’. Threatening letters have also been sent to my office, and my workers get calls too,” she says. “I am a double target because I am a woman and I am Hazara.”

She has not been given much state protection. “The government has totally failed to provide us security. They have given us one policeman and he barely knows how to use a gun, so I have my own personal security guards.”

Hashmi, a member of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-Q), is standing for both the National Assembly and the Provincial Assembly (in which she has already held a seat for some years). Despite the very serious threats, she is undeterred. “I want to stand in this election for the people of Quetta – not just the Hazara. We want peace.”

Inevitably, the terrible law and order situation, and the high threat faced by her community in particular, has impacted on her ability to campaign. Unable to hold any campaign rallies or public meetings, Hashmi has been going door-to-door in the Hazara areas. For the last fortnight, she has been unable even to do that. “I try to go to one or two houses a day, but I cannot move around much. No-one is safe here, but I will raise my voice.”

She is not the only member of the Hazara community to defy the odds and stand in elections. Mohammed Raza, spokesperson of the HDP, says that from his party, there are five candidates standing for seven seats in the Provincial and National Assemblies. “Our party was already on the terrorists’ target list before the election period, so our movement is very restricted,” he says.

On 23 April, a suicide bomber blew up his car at a checkpoint at the entrance to a Hazara district. Six people were killed. Raza, and other HDP members who I speak to, believe that the target was their nearby campaign office. Many party members were gathered there when the bomb went off.

“We had some government security after the January bombing, but four months ago, they took it back,” says Raza. “At the start of April, the intelligence services told us not to even go to our local market because of hit men targeting our community.”
Hussain says that although security has improved since the bombings early this year, the government has stopped short of a targeted operation. “They know where the terrorists are but they are not doing anything about it,” he says.

Individual residents of Hazara areas have been receiving threatening phone calls, and there is the possibility of attacks on polling day. But Hazara politicians and community leaders are confident that people will come out to vote, despite the very real risks. “We want to raise our voices,” says Hussain.

At his kiosk in Islamabad, Ahmed, who has registered for a postal vote, is cautiously optimistic. “We Hazara are Pakistanis too and it is our right to cast our votes. Most of us have lost relatives and friends. When we protested peacefully on the streets, we had the provincial government dismissed. So who knows what we can do at the ballot box?”

Click here to read more from Samira Shackle on the run up to the general election on 11 May and the place of minority communities in Pakistan

National Assembly candidate Ruquiya Hashmi at an election campaign meeting in Quetta. Photograph: Getty Images.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.