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In a blind alley

January 16, 2013


THE state of Pakistan has been pushed into a blind alley and it is at the same time under attack from hardliners of more than one brand. Nobody knows what tomorrow holds for the people although it is unlikely to be anything good.

It is not clear as to what extent Dr Qadri will succeed in stealing Ziaul Haq’s legacy of an anti-democratic pseudo-religious order from its traditional keepers, but he certainly represents a phenomenon that will keep haunting Pakistan if belief continues to be allowed to pollute the stream of representative governance. The expedition against Islamabad and the killing of Hazara Shias in Quetta are two sides of the same coin and neither will yield to quick-fix remedies, such as the one tried in the case of Balochistan.

The dismissal of the Balochistan ministry, following a marathon protest by the Hazara Shias in Quetta and by their supporters across the country, was the inevitable result of the federal authority’s ostrich-like policy of courting disaster through sheer indecisiveness.

The Hazara Shias of Quetta have been victims of targeted killings since 1999 and of mass killings since 2003. No less than 24 incidents in the latter category were reported between Aug 6, 2003, and Sept 20, 2011. In four massacres, the number of deaths ranged between 26 and 63. The highest death toll (63) prior to last Thursday’s outrage was recorded on Sept 3, 2010, when a Yaum-i-Quds procession was attacked by a suicide bomber in Quetta city.

In most cases the culprits were not caught, despite the fact that their identity — or at least the identity of the militant party behind them — was no secret. The authorities were aware of at least one public announcement of a banned outfit’s resolve to “finish off” the Hazara Shias. A few persons were tried and convicted of attacks on the Shias but the way a most notorious criminal, who had been sentenced to death, was allowed to escape from a high-security prison convinced the Hazara community that the authorities were covering up for the killer gangs if not colluding with them.

Losing faith in the local administration and the provincial government’s ability to protect them a large number of Hazara Shias closed down their businesses, sold their properties and sought asylum in far away lands. Many of them drowned while trying to reach Australia in rickety boats.

The provincial government did nothing to stem the wave of Hazara Shias’ organised extermination and by and by its helplessness became obvious not only to the victims but also to any other party that cared to study the situation. And the federal government invited censure for failing to find out the reasons behind the provincial government’s flabbiness, to say nothing of its responsibility to help the latter in meeting the crisis.

Thus, the Hazara Shias’ decision to stage a sit-in and put off the burial of the dead bodies till their demand for handing Quetta over to the army was met should be seen in the context of the grievous losses they have suffered and their frustration at the denial of justice for over a decade. Besides shock and anger at the highest death toll in a single incident, several factors helped them steel their resolve to take a stand.

First, the provincial ministry showed diligence in turning itself into a laughing stock. Only a few were amused by PPP leader Umrani’s unending diatribes against the chief minister and his government. The chief minister did get rid of the speaker (quite a bizarre affair) but suffered a loss of moral ground. At the same time, the federal government continued to enlarge its trust deficit with the people. Above all the vulnerability of the Raisani ministry became clear to everybody when the Supreme Court signed a warrant for its execution.

Faced with the nationwide protest against the Jan 10 massacre the federal government found itself without any rational options and was obliged to sack the Raisani ministry. While taking this decision the federal government apparently forgot that the logic of the action against the Balochistan government could be applied to itself as well. This decision is unlikely to win favour with the democratic opinion, in the long run if not immediately.

The dismissal of an elected government is always bad as other ways of dealing with an inefficient or corrupt ministry are available. The PPP could have asked its follower occupying the chief minister’s chair to step down or advise dissolution of the assembly — a course of action that was warranted by political reality all along in the post-2008 Balochistan.

Besides, the ministry’s dismissal implies its ability to deal with the Hazaras’ exterminators if it had wanted, a premise apparently not maintainable. Indeed, those who know anything about the situation in Balochistan have long been complaining that power has never been transferred to the civilian politicians in that province. Putting the destiny of the people of Balochistan in the hands of Frontier Corps sounds like a painful and costly joke.

The sense of discipline and resoluteness displayed by the Hazara Shias, especially the bereaved families who even refrained from burying the dead for quite a long time, certainly commands respect and admiration. But were they right in calling for the city to be handed over to the army? This demand surely offered a measure of their despair and frustration. Unfortunately, there have been situations in Pakistan when the people have been so fed up with the powers that be that they cry out for ‘anything but this’ and rush to prefer expediency to principle. In their moment of unbearable grief the Hazaras were perhaps not open to argument and one only hopes that they, and anyone else sharing their views, will realise the price Pakistan has paid for welcoming military intervention in political matters. And the immorality of the idea itself.

The main problem we face is the fallacy of treating the killing of Shias (not only in Quetta but also in Gilgit-Baltistan, Kurram Agency and Karachi) as the work of ordinary criminals, who can be dealt with by the strong arm of law, whereas this is one of the symptoms of the state’s progressive surrendering of its democratic ideals in favour of obscurantists and pseudo-religious militants. We are witnessing the worst forms assumed by attempts to force a theocratic dispensation on a people whose culture does not allow it. These efforts sometimes take the form of armed militancy and sometime beguile the people with populist mumbo-jumbo. In either case politicians can be pushed into oblivion by charlatan chameleons. What a horrible prospect!