Amidst countrywide protests, and with political pressure snowballing, Prime Minister Imran Khan on Friday once again urged the Shia Hazara community in Balochistan to bury the bodies of coal miners killed in a gruesome attack in the Mach area over the weekend.
This would have been just like appeals many other political leaders have issued to the grieving Hazaras— except the premier's choice of words today, suggesting the protesters were "blackmailing" him by refusing to bury their loved ones until he visited them, sparked a fresh social media storm.
"We have accepted all of their demands. [But] one of their demands is that the dead will be buried when the premier visits. I have sent them a message that when all of your demands have been accepted [...] you don't blackmail the prime minister of any country like this," the prime minister said while speaking at a ceremony in Islamabad and as calls for him to visit Quetta grew louder.
"Anyone will blackmail the prime minister then," he emphasised, adding that this included a "band of crooks" — an apparent reference to the opposition. "This blackmail has also been ongoing for two-and-a-half years."
Imran also asked the protesters to first bury the miners' bodies, saying he would visit them as soon as they do so.
The remarks quickly set off a furore on social media where analysts, politicians, journalists and citizens alike criticised Prime Minister Imran for being "insensitive" and "lacking empathy" for the Hazaras who are continuing their protest for the sixth straight day on Friday. Besides other hashtags criticising the government response, #ApatheticPMIK was the top trend on Twitter in Pakistan.
Accompanied by the coffins of the slain miners and braving the biting cold, the mourners, including women and children, have refused to leave Quetta's western bypass area until the premier visits and the killers are brought to justice.
Following are some reactions to the prime minister's latest comments:
Journalist Amber Rahim Shamsi said Prime Minister Imran after suggesting he was being blackmailed had "negotiated" with the Hazaras, asking them to bury their dead first.
"As if the most marginalised mourners should be told how to mourn, how to protest, how to seek comfort," she wrote on Twitter.
She also shared pictures of the distraught protesters, saying the premier had equated these "blackmailers" with leaders of opposition parties.
Journalist and Dawn Islamabad resident editor Fahd Husain termed the prime minister's remarks "a very poor choice of words".
"Such framing lacks empathy and insults those already devastated by tragedy. PM should take the words back," he said.
MNA Mohsin Dawar said he was shocked by the premier's "callousness", but not surprised. "The Hazara community has suffered a lot, They continue being targeted & killed & when they mourn their martyrs our PM calls them blackmailers," he said.
Senior journalist Hamid Mir commented that the people participating in the protest sit-in along with the deceased miners' coffins were "no less than corpses themselves", asking "how could they blackmail anyone?"
Referring to Prime Minister Imran's remark that he would visit Quetta only when the protesters buried the miners' bodies, lawyer and legal adviser Reema Omar said, "Going by this logic, [it] appears as if it is the PM who is 'blackmailing' the families of the martyrs and the persecuted Hazara community by making his visit to Quetta conditional upon the burial of the deceased."
Author and columnist Nadeem Farooq Paracha said the government had suggested that "a besieged community asking for sympathy equals to it resorting to blackmail".
"What else has this community left — to be heard and seen — apart from refusing to bury its murdered members? Nothing."
Analyst and columnist Mosharraf Zaidi said the premier through his remarks had "[turned] the tables on the families of those killed in a terror attack".
"What great negotiating skills. What empathy," he wrote sarcastically.
TV presenter and journalist Saima Mohsin was also critical of Imran for suggesting the Hazaras were blackmailing him and for "aligning" them "corrupt politicians".
"Who is advising him and where is his own conscience? ill-advised," she tweeted.
Writer Sajjad H. Changezi said the prime minister had "insulted our bereaved mothers who have been sitting with the bodies of their sons whose throats were slit ruthlessly".
He also announced a hunger strike to protest the premier's remarks.
Journalist and TV host Zarrar Khuhro tweeted that Prime Minister Imran's comments reflected "not an ounce of empathy. Just narcissism it seems. What a fall from the strident tones of 2012."
Researcher and journalist Rabia Mehmood remarked that if Muslims in France or India had been targeted in an incident like the Hazara and demanded that French President Emmanuel Macron or Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visit them, Prime Minister Imran "by now, would have tweeted threads, issued statements [and] written to the UN over their refusal to go for condolence".
Academic and columnist Umair Javed said the prime minister could not "even feign empathy", terming his remarks "truly heartless".
Reflecting on the premier's remarks today, prominent religious scholar Allama Shahenshah Hussain Naqvi said: "Imran Khan has refused to budge against the oppressed."
Lawyer and activist Jibran Nasir in a tweet said: "The elder of a family is often awaited for the funeral of a deceased but the elder of our home is so ungenerous that he thinks of this wait as blackmail."
While commenting on the premier's choice of words, journalist and anchor Sana Bucha said: "The people who get blackmailed by lifeless bodies are those who are alive themselves."
Policy analyst and communications consultant Dawar Butt, while comparing Prime Minister Imran with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who was widely praised for visiting Muslims in Christchurch soon after the 2019 mosque attacks in her country, wrote sarcastically: "Jacinda Ardern got blackmailed. We won’t!"
Filmmaker and journalist Hasan Zaidi in a tweet said the prime minister "can’t manage economy. Can’t do governance. Now he doesn’t even want to do empathy. What exactly is his selling point, remind me again?"
Stand-up comedian Shehzad Ghias Shaikh said Prime Minister Imran allegedly thought of Hazara protestors as blackmailers "because he never believed in any of the causes he protested for. Imran Khan always used his protests as a way to blackmail the government, so naturally he thinks everybody else does the same."
Header image: Mourners from the Shia Hazara community gather next to coffins of the slain miners during a sit-in protest on the outskirts of Quetta on January 7. — AFP