PPP chairperson Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and PML-N Vice President Maryam Nawaz arrived on Thursday at the site in Quetta where members of the Shia Hazara community have been protesting the killing of 11 coal miners in Balochistan's Mach area.
Taking to the stage, Bilawal and Maryam, who are currently part of an 11-party anti-government alliance, addressed the protesters along with other political leaders including Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah and former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.
Bilawal recalled that the Hazara community had protested with as many as 100 coffins after attacks during the PPP government's tenure.
"Then too, you had put forward your demands to us. We had even dismissed the [provincial] government," he told the protesters, regretting that attacks against the community had continued through the terms of subsequent governments.
In January 2013, amidst countrywide protests following three consecutive bombings targeting the Hazaras in Quetta, the then PPP government had dismissed the Balochistan government and imposed governor's rule in the province. The announcement by then-prime minister Raja Pervez Ashraf was welcomed by thousands of Hazara Shias who had been staging a sit-in in the freezing cold in Quetta along with the bodies of dozens of people killed in the attacks.
The Hazaras have been staging a similar sit-in outside Quetta for four days to protest the miners' killing. One of their demands is the ouster of the provincial government, which is trying to resolve the matter through talks.
In his speech, Bilawal said whenever he visited the Balochistan capital, it was not to celebrate or for political reasons, but to condole with Hazaras who were frequently targeted in terrorism incidents.
"Pakistan is a country where even our martyred and the dead have to protest," he said, adding that although basic utilities like gas and electricity had become expensive in the country, "the people's blood is cheap".
"The blood of our labourers is cheap, and that of political workers, police officers, lawyers, residents and the Hazara community."
The PPP chairperson said nearly 2,000 Hazaras had been killed since 1998, but "not one of them" had gotten justice, while the Hazaras' demand of "let us live" was resounding throughout the country.
"I too belong to a family of martyrs. We too have not been able to get our martyrs justice till date, like you. I promise you, the way we struggle day and night to get justice for our martyrs, we will struggle for our poor people's right to live till the day we do politics.
"What kind of justice is this where you are killed by [identification through] ID cards while doing labour or going to school? What kind of justice is this where the families of the martyred have to repeatedly protest along with their coffins?" Bilawal asked.
He said a state could not call itself a state until it ensured the security of life for its oppressed segments.
Bilawal said the Hazaras also faced discrimination when it came to government jobs and even educational institutions. "But we are not focusing on those issues [right now], we only demand justice and the right to live," he emphasised.
"On behalf of the PPP, we demand from the state that you had promised to implement the National Action Plan, and promised the children of APS (Army Public School Peshawar) to eliminate terrorism from Pakistan, and if today not only can terrorists launch attacks, but extremists can spread extremism, raise slogans of 'Kafir! Kafir!' and spread hate, then the NAP has failed and terrorists backs' have not been broken."
He said they did not want to hear from the state that foreign elements may have sponsored terror incidents in Pakistan. "But it is a failure of our state if a foreign conspiracy succeeds in killing our innocent citizens," he added.
"Until you catch the killer of a common man and assure citizens that you will protect their lives, not only will those citizens' lives remain under constant threat but the country and the federation will also be at risk."
'Is your ego bigger than their pain?': Maryam to PM
While condoling with the grieving protesters, Maryam said she was at a loss for words because while the entire nation shared the pain of the Hazaras, no one could truly feel the tragedy that had befallen the miners' families.
She said she was aware that the Hazara population in Quetta "has been limited to a two-kilometre radius" and that they could neither freely earn their living nor move about freely in their schools and colleges.
"I am sad that you are calling for an insensitive man and he doesn't have the time to come here," she said while referring to Prime Minister Imran Khan.
"Today I want to say while putting aside all political differences, please visit, for God's sake. The state's job is to protect its people, especially those who are under attack and vulnerable."
While a state is referred to as a "mother", Maryam told the protesters, "I am aware that this mother did not serve you rightfully."
She continued while addressing the authorities: "If you have failed in your duty [to protect the Hazaras], then have some courage, come here and sympathise with these people."
The PML-N leader said the protesters accompanied by their loved ones' coffins were "awaiting" the prime minister.
"Is your ego bigger than their pain and these bodies? And then you say politics should not be done on this issue. We never do that, but if you think you can dodge your failure and callousness by crying 'politics', we won't let that happen," she added.
She said the premier "will have to come here and put his hand on the [protesters'] heads", stressing that the community was not demanding anything major but only for the prime minister to visit and talk so they could bury the miners' bodies.
"If you are not coming because you are afraid of criticism, then it's not a big deal; come here and listen to the criticism for a little while. But it is your duty to take part in your people's grief," she told Imran.
Maryam said protest leaders had told her they would not bury the dead if the premier did not visit them "even for 100 days".
"And if this ruler does not visit this place, then he should listen, this nation will no longer allow him to sit on the chair in Islamabad," she added.
Maryam had announced her visit in a tweet on Wednesday, saying: "On the direction of Nawaz Sharif I’m going to my sisters and brothers [in Balochistan] with a request to hand over their dead to Allah Almighty. I am sure they will not reject my request. For the last four days the Hazara community has been calling the heartless in Islamabad."
On Sunday, armed attackers slit the throats of 11 miners in a residential compound near a mine site in Balochistan's Mach coalfield area, filming the entire incident and later posting it online. The gruesome attack was claimed by the militant Islamic State group.
Since then, thousands of Hazaras have staged a protest along with coffins containing the miners' bodies in the western bypass area in Quetta, while members of their community have also held protests in Karachi.
Despite extremely harsh weather as the mercury drops to below freezing point, the mourners, including women and children, have refused to leave until Prime Minister Imran meets them and the killers are brought to justice.
Nobel Prize-winning activist Malala Yousafzai also expressed grief over the miners' murder.
"This is not the first time that this has happened. But I hope it is the last," she wrote on Twitter, requesting Prime Minister Imran to meet with the victims' families "as soon as possible".
Investigation committee formed
Also on Thursday, the Balochistan government constituted a joint investigation committee to probe the miners' killing in Mach, Radio Pakistan reported.
The decision was taken at a high-level meeting chaired by Balochistan Chief Minister Jam Kamal Khan Alyani in Quetta.
During the meeting, Balochistan Chief Secretary retired Capt Fazeel Asghar gave a briefing about the attack on the coal miners. He said seven of the victims were Afghan nationals, however, the Afghan government had approached the Government of Pakistan for handing over three bodies to Kabul.
The meeting also decided to initiate an inquiry against the concerned departments for "negligence in discharging their responsibilities", according to Radio Pakistan.
Meanwhile, people have taken to the streets in several cities across the country as protesters express anger at the killing of the miners and demand protection for the Shia Hazara community.
In Karachi, protests continued for the third straight day with demonstrators blocking roads in the metropolis, causing traffic disruptions and delays in flight operations.
Protests were ongoing since 9am at 20 locations in the city, according to a statement by the Karachi Traffic Police.
A larger number of civil society activists also protested against the killings at Liberty Chowk in Lahore.
Holding placards and chanting slogans, the protesters demanded that Prime Minister Imran immediately visit the Hazaras in Quetta and that steps be taken to prevent such attacks in the future.
In Peshawar, protesters gathered at the Peshawar Press Club, saying their demonstration would not end until Prime Minister Imran went to Quetta.
They demanded that the perpetrators of the incident be arrested "soon" and an inquiry be launched.
With additional reporting by Imran Gabol in Lahore and Sirajuddin in Peshawar.