Quetta deadlock ends as protesters assured of PM’s visit

Published January 9, 2021
ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks at the launching ceremony of the Special Technology Zones Authority on Friday. — APP
ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks at the launching ceremony of the Special Technology Zones Authority on Friday. — APP

• Families begin burial arrangements
• Rashid hints at security concerns for delay in visit
• Alyani removes DC, DPO; forms JIT to probe massacre
• HDP says bodies ‘forcibly’ taken to western bypass
• MWM announces end to sit-in across country

ISLAMABAD: Protests over the brutal killing of Shia Hazara workers ended on the seventh day as the grieving families in the early hours of Saturday morning announced the burial after two federal ministers along with the chief minister of Balochistan in their second visit to the Quetta protest camp assured them that the government had accepted their demands and clarified the remarks of Prime Minister Imran Khan that stirred a controversy earlier in the day.

The announcement to end the sit-in came from the Shuhada Action Committee and Majlis Wahdat-i-Muslimeen representatives, as federal cabinet members Ali Zaidi and Zulfi Bukhari along with CM Jam Kamal Khan Alyani and Deputy Speaker National Assem­bly Qasim Suri assured the mourners that the prime minister was ready to visit them anytime ‘soon’ and meet all their demands.

The grieving families were informed that the prime minister, Interior Minister Shaikh Rashid Ahmed and Chief of the Army Staff Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa were expected to visit Quetta on Saturday.

The decision ended the weeklong deadlock between the protesters and the government over the prime minister’s decision not to visit the mourning families until their burial. The situation had worsened earlier in the day when Mr Khan at an event in Islamabad remarked that the prime minister could not be ‘blackmailed’ by the protests. He said visiting Quetta before burial would set a precedent for anyone in future to blackmail the PM.

His remarks not only drew sharp criticism from almost all religious and opposition parties but also enraged the mourners, some of whom decided to go on a hunger strike until death. Almost all mainstream religious parties, except the banned Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, criticised Mr Khan for his “immature” statement and termed it his “stubbornness”.

While Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid in an attempt to pacify the situation told a presser that the reason for delay in Mr Khan’s visit and relevant information could not be disclosed at the moment and hinted at ‘security concerns’, the opposition Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) gave a call for a countrywide protest asking party workers to join the sit-in of the Hazara community.

In his address at the launching ceremony of the Special Technology Zones Authority in Islamabad, Prime Minister Khan said: “We have accepted all of their demands, [except] one 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.”

He said he would visit the Hazara community the day they would bury the slain victims. He said if he visited Quetta before burial, it would set a precedent and then he might be blackmailed by anyone in future.

“This should be clear. All of your demands have been met but you can’t impose a condition. So first, bury the dead. If you do it today then I guarantee you that I will come to Quetta today.”

The PM said he had already informed the cabinet and then gave public statements that India was trying its level best to spread chaos in Pakistan. “I laud our intelligence agencies for the fact that they thwarted four major terrorist events. Despite this, a high-profile Sunni scholar was killed in Karachi [...] with great difficulty we managed to quell the flames of a sectarian divide.”

Similarly, he said, soon after the Mach incident, he first sent the interior minister and then two federal ministers — Ali Haider Zaidi and Zulfi Bukhari — to speak with the mourners and assure them of the government support.

The prime minister’s remarks came as the Shia Hazara community supported by the Majlis Wahdat-i-Muslimeen (MWM) continued their protest in different parts of the country, including Sindh, Punjab and Gilgit-Baltistan, refusing to bury those massacred the last weekend. On Jan 3, armed attackers had slit the throats of 11 miners in a residential compound near a mine in Balochistan’s Mach coalfield area, filming the entire incident and later posting it online. The attack was claimed by the militant Islamic State group, also known as Daesh.

After the PM’s statement, the interior minister told the media that intelligence reports suggested that Indian spy agency RAW was behind the fresh wave of terrorism and there were threats for Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi, Quetta, and Peshawar from the enemy continuously conspiring to destabilise Pakistan.

“Twenty political personalities, including religious figures, were also under threat and they had been informed about it,” he added.

Information Minister Shibli Faraz also responded to the criticism of the premier’s statement that he would not be blackmailed by the members of Hazara community.

‘Spoiler’

Calling the prime minister Bayhis (insensitive) Khan, PML-N vice president Maryam Nawaz on Friday sought the establishment’s take on the worsening situation after she said Imran Khan and his government spoiled all the efforts being made to deal with the human crisis amid widening protests against the targeted killing of Shia Hazara people and asked if he was the only soghaat (gift) they could find among the 220 million Pakistanis.

Even the security officials, who were also engaged in talks with the protesting Shia Hazaras and were likely to reach an agreement, would have been embarrassed by Mr Khan’s fresh statement describing their sit-in and the visit of opposition leaders for showing solidarity with the families as ‘blackmailing’, she said.

“Are they blackmailers?” questioned Ms Nawaz while showing photos of the protesting families during a press conference at the residence of senior party leader Miftah Ismail. “I can only pray for such arrogant, ruthless and egoistic man. This Bayhis Khan has once again proved his selection wrong. And today I question the selectors if that is the only soghaat among the 220 million people they could find. If the arrogance has any face today, it’s Imran Khan.”

During a few-hour stopover in Karachi after landing from Quetta in the afternoon to catch the connecting flight to Lahore, Ms Nawaz used the opportunity to address the media where she forcefully denied taking any question about the “politics” and the affair of 10-party opposition alliance Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) calling her presser “solely” to show solidarity with the Shia Hazara community and condemn the rulers for their “irresponsible and inhuman approach”.

“Does our army know that how much damage he [PM Imran Khan] has done to this country?” she said in her brief address before taking the questions from reporters. “Does our army know what his incompetence is costing to every segment of the society and everything of national value? Do the selectors know how much the country is suffering after his policies have cost us some of our best friends and allies in the world? The question is absolutely justified for the selectors.”

Accompanied by senior party leaders Ahsan Iqbal, Rana Sanaullah, Marriyum Aurangzeb and Sindh leadership of the party including Nasiruddin Mahmood and Khawaja Tariq Nazir, Ms Nawaz appealed to the families of the victims and protesting Shia Hazara community to bury their loved ones instead of waiting for the prime minister’s visit.

She sounded furious when asked about weight in PM’s stance for not visiting Quetta. “Is he [PM Imran Khan] competing himself with the bodies,” she replied to a question. “We also had security issues. We were not given security clearance but we decided to go and meet the families. The ruler of a country is always like the guardian of a family. And the guardian in such testing times always comes forward to console the victims’ families, giving them courage to move on, but here the nation awaits an answer as to what has been preventing him from meeting those awaiting him in chilling cold of Quetta for nearly a week?”

JIT formed, DC, DPO removed

To probe the Mach massacre, Balochistan Chief Minister Jam Kamal Khan Alyani set up a joint investigation team (JIT), asked it to fix responsibility on the departments concerned for negligence in the protection of Mach coalfield workers, issued orders for compiling the database of coal workers and implementation of labour laws. He also ordered removal of deputy commissioner and district police officer of Kachhi district from their posts.

Addressing a press conference in Quetta, chairman of the Hazara Democratic Party (HDP), who is also adviser to the CM on Culture, Abdul Khaliq Hazara claimed that the bodies of the slain coal miners were ‘forcibly’ taken to the western bypass against the will of the grieving families and said those elements were using the bodies for achieving the anti-Pakistan agenda.

Earlier in the wee hours of Friday, Balochistan MWM president Syed Agha Raza addressing the media in the presence of the families of the victims rejected the reports about “forcibly taking away the bodies and staging sit-in against the will of the Hazara families”. He said the protest would end followed by the burial if the heirs demanded it.

On Friday evening, the Shia Hazara community members condemned the statement of the prime minister and termed it “Insult of the mothers, who were sitting along with their slain sons in the sit-in for six days”.

A group of political and human rights activists of Hazara community, including a female, went on to observe hunger strike till death in front of the Quetta Press Club. They demanded that PM Khan should apologise to the Hazara community.

“Our unto death hunger strike would continue until the apology from Prime Minister Imran Khan,” Sajjad Hussain Changezi at the hunger strike camp told Dawn.

Mr Hussain, who was on hunger strike with Amanullah and Siddiqa Hazara, said the PM’s remarks were not only insulting for the mothers of the victims but also for the entire Hazara community.

Meanwhile, Liaquat Ali, the convener of the Shuhada Committee, said the families of the deceased were not ready to bury their martyrs until the visit of Mr Khan to the sit-in camp. He said, “We are not doing any politics or blackmailing anyone, we are just demanding assurance from the Prime Minister for justice for the slaughtered coal miners and implementing our demands.”

The emir of Jamaat-i-Islami Senator Sirajul Haq also visited the sit-in camp of the of Hazara community along with party leaders and expressed regret over the attitude of the federal government for not listening to the demands of the families of Mach victims.

Syed Irfan Raza, Kalbe Ali and Munawer Azeem from Islamabad, Imran Ayub from Karachi and Saleem Shahid from Quetta contributed to this report.

Published in Dawn, January 9th, 2021

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