Isolated and massacred in sectarian violence, the Hazara Shias in Quetta are seeking a military takeover
It is no longer a question whether there will be another attack on the Hazara Shias of Quetta but when and where next. That is how certain everyone is of the terrorists’ agenda. In fact, of all the state and non-state actors who have said anything on the Hazara Shias in the week after their second massacre in 37 days, only the outlawed Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) is expected to deliver. The LeJ threat is real and assurances of protection from various institutions of the State have time and again proved to be empty promises.
This sense of resignation is not without reason. For over a decade now, the Hazara Shias have been specifically targeted. While Shias in general are under attack, in the case of the Hazaras the task is made that much easier because of their distinctive Mongoloid features. But, their plight never got much attention. Why, even after the January 10 massacre in which over 80 Hazara Shias were killed in serial blasts, it became an issue only after the community took to the streets with the bodies in sub-zero temperature and refused to bury them.
A cursory look at media coverage is instructive. The massacre of 80-plus people in one locality in a day became a footnote rather quickly and the media was literally shamed into taking note of the Hazara Shia protests when civil society came out in support across the country. That was about a day into the protest of the Hazara Shias of Quetta.
Thus named and shamed into reacting, the response was a tad better when a similar massacre took place a month later in another Hazara settlement, killing nearly 90 members of the community yet again though locals insist the number is over a 100. Only their bodies remain untraceable as the impact was such that many were charred beyond recognition or blown to smithereens.
Still, it took another three-day protest with the bodies by the Hazara Shia community to get the government to order a targeted operation against the sectarian outfits. While it helped break the impasse and ensured that the bodies were buried, not many are convinced by the government’s claims of killing four terrorists and arresting 170 others in a day’s operation.
Factor of elections
With the spotlight turning on the tacit understanding between the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and many jihadi organisations, including the LeJ in its various incarnates, the Punjab government detained LeJ head Malik Ishaq under the Maintenance of Public Order a week after the second massacre of Hazara Shias. Police claim they acted on complaints regarding his provocative speeches over the past month. At best this is belated action because Ishaq, the alleged mastermind of the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore in 2009, has been delivering such speeches for months now and a random search on YouTube offers enough evidence. No one is convinced the detention will make much difference because during an earlier incarceration — before he was released in 2011 by the Supreme Court for lack of evidence — Ishaq had a cellphone in prison and was being paid a stipend by the Punjab government. And, the PML(N) can hardly be expected to go after the organisational network of these outfits on the eve of national and provincial elections given their vote bank that could make or break the party’s electoral prospects in as many as 40 constituencies.
So, with good reason, none of this “action” has brought any comfort to the Hazara Shia community, cowering in their “open air jails” — that’s what they call the two colonies of Quetta to which they have confined themselves to over the years. What they flag, instead, is the inability of the security establishment to act against sectarian outfits who openly address the media at the Quetta Press Club or the LeJ spokesman who routinely calls up journalists to claim responsibility and boast of capability to repeat their actions.
One such conversation happened soon after the February 16 blast with a LeJ spokesman claiming they had enough explosive material to conduct 20 more such blasts. In the last blast, 800 to 1,000 kilos of explosive material was packed into a tractor-trolley ferrying a water tanker which brought up the question as to how the vehicle managed to get through Quetta, one of the most barricaded cities of the country owing to Baloch insurgency.
Campaigns against them
There are other footprints too. According to Sajjad H. Changezi, a student member of Hazara for Humanity (HFH) spearheading the community’s campaign in Islamabad, the LeJ has launched an SMS service in some places of Quetta asking people to report to a certain mobile number as soon as they spot a Hazara.
Such campaigns against Hazara Shias have begun to impact their decision-making, particularly on issues like sending children to schools outside their so-called secured areas. That facade of security has also been stripped with the February 16 attack as the terrorists struck at Hazara Town; one of the two main Hazara Shia settlements of Quetta.
Criticism over suggestion
There has been a suggestion in the mainstream discourse that the Hazaras are being trained by Iran and the escalation of violence is a repeat of the 1980s Iran-Saudi Arabia tussle. Describing this charge as baseless, Mr. Changezi pointed out: “Iran has never acknowledged Hazara as a distinct ethnic identity. Despite living in Iran for decades, despite the common Shia faith, the three million Hazaras there have not been granted citizenship. Are the Hazaras killing Sunnis? Is there any proof of Hazara militancy?”
In their hour of grief, the Hazara Shias have drawn criticism for demanding a military takeover of Quetta because the security establishment is widely perceived to be the real reason for the situation not just in Balochistan but across the country. “It is a cry of despair,” said Fatima Atif, responding to a barrage of such questions in Islamabad with a toddler in her arms. “This is not an ideal option, but our last option. The police are clearly unable to deal with the situation.”
As the Hazaras see it, the civilian administration of Balochistan is toothless as the security establishment calls the shots in the restive province. By putting the Army in actual control, the hope is that they would be forced to prevent such attacks to keep their own slate clean. And, despite the Army’s rejection of allegations of the LeJ and company being its proxies, the widely held perception is that many of these Punjab-based jihadi organisations have been pushed into Balochistan to target the Baloch nationals and help change the demography of the resource-rich province.
If in the process, they further their own sectarian agenda, then turn a blind eye as Pakistan still reaps the bitter fruits of Zia’s Islamisation project that encouraged “Sunnification” of the country with Saudi money. It will create, in the words of author Irfan Husain, “a witch’s brew of violent forces” in which the Hazaras are just collateral damage.