The sufferings of a small ethno-sectarian minority community in Pakistan have brought Pakistanis of all stripes in active unity against increasing incidents of sectarian terrorism.
Thousands of people are protesting across Pakistan in solidarity with families of the 86 victims of two ethno-sectarian attacks in Quetta city who are grieving in sub-zero temperatures and staging a sit-in, refusing to bury the dead unless the government decisively cracks down on terrorists.
The sit-in by victims’ families, which is entering its third night and continues under freezing rain, is a desperate attempt to call attention to the state of siege the Hazara-Shia minority in Quetta is feeling after decade-long assaults by the Al Qaeda-affiliated Sunni terrorist group, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ).
Heads of regional political parties joined the victims’ family members – including grief-stricken mothers sitting by their sons’ coffins throughout the three nights – to express their solidarity. Poets, singers, activists, professionals, journalists, students and others staged protests in several Pakistani cities, including Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar and capital Islamabad to demand an end to what they said is an ongoing genocide of Shias.
#WeAreAllHazara and #ShiaGenocide were the top trending topics on Twitter as social media users in Pakistan poured their outrage online, decrying the media’s lackluster coverage of the sit-in by the victims’ families.
The unprecedented wave of protests was prompted by two blasts that occurred within minutes from each other in a Shiite neighborhood of Quetta city and killed more than 100 and injured around 130.
The victims were ethnic Hazaras who belong to the Shia sect of Islam and are easily identifiable – and therefore vulnerable to attack – from their Asiatic features. The Hazaras include Pakistani citizens and other, more recent immigrants escaping persecution in Afghanistan. With over 1,000 killed and thousands injured, they have incurred by far the heaviest toll from LeJ’s campaign of terror against Pakistani Shias.
The blasts are the latest in an intensifying series of attacks from LeJ, which had previously warned of continued attacks against the Hazara-Shia population of Quetta and vowed to remove them from Pakistan. The terrorist group is officially banned by the government of Pakistan but continues to stage attacks with impunity and run training camps for its militants in Pakistan.
The families of the victims, some of whom have lost two and three members in the twin blasts, are joined in the sit-in by thousands of other Hazara-Shias who are demanding the dissolution of the provincial government for its continued failure to provide security and asking for the military’s intervention to provide protection to the beleaguered community.
The provincial governor and a federal minister attempted to negotiate an end to the sit-in, but aggrieved protestors refused to accept piecemeal measures and continue to press their demands. They say they have lost faith in similar previous promises that have done nothing to stem the bloodshed.
The demand for army protection strikes sensitive nerves among some pro-democracy activists who say it will provide an opening for the security establishment just as the shaky democratically elected government is set to complete its full term – a first in Pakistan’s 60-year history. But victims’ families say the situation under the civilian government has deteriorated alarmingly. Students, businesspeople, women, children, athletes and artists have been targeted over the past five years, and the attacks are only increasing.
The LeJ operatives have displayed a high level of sophisticated training and an often astonishing degree of local knowledge that speaks to their intelligence-gathering capabilities. But their main source of power comes from the immunity they enjoy as law enforcement and intelligence agencies are thought to have given them what amounts to de facto immunity to conduct attacks. No LeJ operative has been prosecuted in more than a decade of attacks in Quetta. Two high-profile masterminds escaped from a maximum-security prison about five years ago.
LeJ is affiliated with the powerful Sunni group Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat and has connections with a number of other right-wing Sunni religious groups that organized the massive “Defense of Pakistan” rallies last year in opposition to Pakistan’s thawing relations with rival India. These connections with influential religious groups based mostly in the Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, give LeJ a leverage that makes mainstream political parties hesitant to take serious action against them in an election year.
The army and intelligence, known as “the establishment” in Pakistan, have used these extremist-militant groups as leverage in Kashmir against arch-rival India and considers them as assets.
The judiciary, which has taken suo motu notice of other events and directed the executive branch to take action, has remained silent on LeJ’s attacks.
The sit-in in Quetta and the protests elsewhere in Pakistan have received lackluster coverage by most of Pakistan’s mainstream media channels, which often latch on to popular events like these to increase viewership. Coverage has mostly focused on a concurrent event, the “long march” by cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri that calls for governance reforms and an end to corruption.
But the Quetta sit-in continues even as the prime minister flew to the city to meet with protestors. More rallies are being organized across Pakistan and abroad, including Australia, Afghanistan, the United States and the United Kingdom.
For some of the organizers, the twin blasts have hit close to home, killing, among others, a prominent Hazara human rights campaigner and interfaith activist, Irfan Ali Khudi, who had arrived at the scene after the first blast to help the victims. Khudi was mourned during the protests and on social media.
The scale of the protests indicates that this could be a watershed moment in Pakistani public perception, which has long tolerated sectarian attacks with silent distaste. The result of the prime minister’s visit and subsequent actions will tell if public consternation will lead to decisive action against LeJ.
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