Young Hazara women wear blindfolds at a sit-in, the way 10 coal miners from their community were blindfolded before they were killed by militants | Habib Qasimi
Young Hazara women wear blindfolds at a sit-in, the way 10 coal miners from their community were blindfolded before they were killed by militants | Habib Qasimi

The haggle Prime Minister Imran Khan had before flying to Quetta to commiserate with the families of the 10 miners who had been brutally slaughtered, amounted to rubbing salt into the Hazara people’s wounds. In light of their past experience, they understandably expected a more sympathetic response from the head of the government.

The butchering of 10 human beings was more serious a matter than a natural calamity which obliges all heads of government to rush to the scene of disaster, without anybody inviting them.

Just as murder is a cognisable offence and the state has to take action, regardless of an appeal or otherwise by the victims, the Mach incident was a cognisable disaster and the state had every duty to take notice. The prime minister, thus, had a clear obligation to respond to the killing of the miners, regardless of anyone inviting or not inviting him.

There were precedents to guide the government. In 2013, the Hazaras had also become victims of a terrible disaster. There was an explosion inside a snooker club in which two persons were killed. In a second explosion, 84 persons in the crowd that had gathered at the site of the incident were killed. Eventually, the casualties increased to 93 killed and 300 injured.

The government’s response to the slaughter of 10 coal miners raises serious questions about its capacity to deal with the matter. The Hazaras have been targeted for years. To regain the vastly marginalised community’s trust, those in power need to send a firm message

The Hazaras were devastated. They declined to bury the dead and started a dharna. Eventually, Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf flew out to Quetta, sacked the provincial government and imposed governor’s rule. That this did not end wanton violence against the Hazaras should have warned the government and its successor authority, subsequent to the general election, of the need for a firm follow-up action or for a search for alternative strategies.

This is how governments build upon their past experiences or learn to avoid administrative mistakes and to shun sterile policies.

The response of the present government to the horrible butchering of 10 coal miners raises questions about its capacity to comprehend the gravity of the matter. The culprits had challenged the law and the authority of the state. It was not an issue between the Hazaras and some criminals; it was a matter that directly concerned the state. Regardless of the feelings of the victims, the state, which meant the provincial and federal governments both, was duty-bound to offer a befitting response.

It is relevant to remember that the Hazara community has been smarting under a grievance that, while they have suffered around 1,500 casualties, not a single culprit has been arrested and the two persons detained many years ago were helped to escape.

Their experience of similar incidents over a long period had convinced the Hazaras that the matter merited intervention by the head of the federal government. However, they should have taken into consideration Imran Khan’s known policy of not joining funeral ceremonies.

WHO ARE THE HAZARAS AND WHY HAVE THEY BEEN TARGETED FOR YEARS?

A man gives naans to mourners during the sit-in on the outskirts of Quetta | AFP
A man gives naans to mourners during the sit-in on the outskirts of Quetta | AFP

The Hazaras had been settled for centuries in the Afghanistan province of Hazarajat. A series of setbacks forced one of their groups in the 19th century to seek safety in Balochistan, where they were treated as aliens for decades, before they were considered entitled to citizenship rights.

Since they were not landlords, they distinguished themselves in military service, and one of them (Gen Muhammad Musa) became the second Pakistani chief of the army. They also took 70 percent of the posts in the provincial secretariat. They made a significant contribution to the provincial economy; they bought mines and opened large departmental stores, amongst other initiatives.

The butchering of 10 human beings was more serious a matter than a natural calamity which obliges all heads of government to rush to the scene of disaster, without anybody inviting them.

Circumstances started becoming adverse for the Hazaras with a sharp rise in religiosity after the arrival of militants, mostly from Punjab. The marble mosques built by Arab potentates, which had been lying empty for long years, started attracting large congregations, among whom armed Afghan Taliban and their Pakistani associates were prominent. When the Taliban high command established its headquarters in Quetta, the city came largely under their control and the Shia Hazaras’ misfortunes increased many times over.

Their tribulations acquired a set pattern. They were attacked by militants whose identity was known to the Pakistan authorities, but the latter took no action and not a single attacker was apprehended. The Hazaras would stage dharnas and the authorities would persuade them to stop their agitation, but promises made to the aggrieved party would soon be forgotten.

At first the Hazaras complained of the administration’s indifference to their harassment and bloodletting, but they were soon convinced of its complicity. It is impossible to refute the Hazara argument that the state has abandoned them.

PAKISTAN’S ‘FULL’ CITIZENS?

The latest episode has added insult to injury, as the Hazaras have been accused of blackmailing the government and the official denials in this regard have failed to convince anyone. Most of the crimes committed against the Hazaras are cognisable and, yet, no criminal is hauled up. The view that the Hazaras’ tormentors are the government’s strategic allies and it is finding it difficult to ditch them for the sake of the Hazaras needs to be rebutted to the common citizens’ satisfaction.

If the government wants to disprove this proposition, all that it is required to do is to arrest some of the culprits, whose names must have been entered in the lists of omnipresent and omnipotent intelligence agencies, and earnestly prosecute them in the manner enemies of state ought to be prosecuted.

A child holds up a sign at a protest in Karachi, following the killing of 10 coal miners in Mach | AFP
A child holds up a sign at a protest in Karachi, following the killing of 10 coal miners in Mach | AFP

A firm message should be sent out that anybody who commits violence against the Hazaras will be strictly dealt with in accordance with the legal procedures. Obviously, the Hazaras will meet the same fate if they are found by an independent authority to be guilty of unlawful acts against any party.

It is relevant to remember that the Hazara community has been smarting under a grievance that, while they have suffered around 1,500 casualties, not a single culprit has been arrested.

The point the federal government apparently doesn’t wish to appreciate is that it is a federal service, the Frontier Constabulary, that has been made responsible for security in Balochistan, and it is supposed to be free from the shortcomings and handicaps that plague the police and the levies.

Under the security arrangements devised for Balochistan, it is the federal government that is in the driving seat. For this reason too, the prime minister has a special obligation to ensure that his wards do not continue to pay for officialdom’s incompetence, or sloth, or sheer meanness.

Ultimately, the plight of the Hazaras throws up the question whether they are at all considered Pakistan’s full citizens. Not that citizens elsewhere in the country are fully enjoying their rights, but the Hazaras are suffering under a double jeopardy; they are at the bottom of the ladder amongst the hugely deprived people of Balochistan. Perhaps it is time a high-powered commission was set up to draw up a long-term plan, say for 10 years, for the Balochistan people’s social development.

If the matter is taken up with due seriousness, a much useful body of suggestions and recommendations will be found in the store-house of provincial records. The focus of the exercise must, of course, be on discovering a method of justly accommodating the legitimate needs and aspirations of the various communities, and the protection of their right to freedom of belief and culture.

Above all, the privileged people of Pakistan should stop pitying the population of Balochistan in general, and a vastly marginalised community that the Hazaras have been turned into, and treat them as equals in a shared struggle to ensure due respect for the inherent and inviolable dignity of the human person.

Whether Islamabad likes it or not, the ball will, for a long time, lie in its court.

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 17th, 2021

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