AFTER nearly a week of sitting by the roadside in sub-zero temperatures with the bodies of their loved ones so cruelly murdered on Jan 3, the Shia Hazara protestors in Quetta finally laid them to rest. And, as he had promised, Prime Minister Imran Khan came to condole with them only after the burials took place on Saturday.

The government has, he said, given them written guarantees about their security and promised to address their other demands. The grieving community could do little but receive him with good grace, and hope that this time the state follows through. However, what transpired since the day the bodies of the Hazara coal miners were discovered with their throats slit and when Mr Khan visited Quetta cannot be papered over or dismissed as a ‘misunderstanding’.

First the prime minister displayed an inexplicable reluctance to go to the provincial capital when the mourners said they would not bury their dead until he came to meet them in person. But worse was to come. At an event in Islamabad, Mr Khan, in a shocking display of callousness, told the persecuted community not to “blackmail” him. And he went further still, saying that a “band of crooks”, referring to the opposition leaders, had “also” been blackmailing him for two-and-a-half years. Even as he spoke, the Hazara men, women and children he was addressing were spending the sixth straight day out in the freezing cold amidst the coffins, each bearing a photograph of the young man lying within.

By his thoughtless words, for which he offered no apology, the prime minister rubbed salt into the Hazaras’ wounds. The community has contended with years of sectarian violence, and although the latest attack came after a lull, it was a grisly reminder that despite the state’s claims of having triumphed over militancy, Shias are still being targeted for their faith. The Hazaras, with their distinctive features, are particularly vulnerable.

Some PTI leaders denounced Maryam Nawaz and Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari for ‘doing politics’ on the community’s pain by going to condole with them in person. Those with an iota of political sense, not to mention empathy, know that was absolutely the need of the hour. Be that as it may, Mr Khan now has a chance to make good on his words. Armed escorts and better-secured enclaves only address the symptoms of militancy; they are not the cure.

Going by the premier’s own words, behind these attacks is a group of only about 40 individuals, former Lashkar-e-Jhangvi operatives now allied with the militant Islamic State group. The government must order the security forces to hunt down these violent extremists, who can apparently still strike at will in Balochistan, and bring them to trial. As long as they are free, they pose a threat to minorities across the country.

Published in Dawn, January 11th, 2021

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