With a great sense of relief, Pakistan woke up on Saturday morning to learn that the deadlock on the burial of Shia Hazara community’s slain coal miners had finally ended on the seventh day of a protest that had shaken the nerves of the nation. It was announced in the small hours that the demands of the mourners had been accepted and that Prime Minister Imran Khan and Chief of Army Staff Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa would soon visit Quetta to meet the grieving families. Burials were held in the forenoon.
But this will not resolve the many questions and controversies that this latest act of terrorism against the Hazaras has spawned. There is that abiding issue of the rise and fall of sectarian terrorism in the country and the ineffective enforcement of the National Action Plan devised after the massacre of the students of Army Public School in Peshawar on the fateful day of December 16 in 2014.
However, I feel that the debate that was stirred by the statement made by the prime minister on Friday has its own relevance in the context of a leader’s bond with the people in a situation of social or emotional upheaval. Speaking at the launching ceremony of the Special Technological Zones Authority in Islamabad, Imran Khan called on the Hazara protesters to refrain from ‘blackmailing’ the prime minister.
This was a surprising formulation. The Hazara protesters had refused to bury the murdered coal miners until the prime minister’s arrival to share their bereavement and listen to their grievances. Their ‘dharna’ in the freezing weather of Quetta began after 11 coal miners were brutally murdered in the Mach area last Sunday. Given the historical perspective of the persecution of the Hazara community and their high casualties in previous terror attacks, the situation demanded an immediate and supportive response on the part of the provincial and federal authorities.
This did not happen. As they waited for the prime minister, the magnitude of the crisis mounted almost on an hourly basis. The very thought of dead bodies lying unburied in their coffins, surrounded by women, children and the aged in the open, with temperature falling well below zero in the night, was dreadful and unbearable.
Consequently, there were sympathetic sit-ins by Shia organisations and social activists across the country, severely disrupting civic life in major cities. In Karachi, the sites of demonstrations, blocking traffic, rose to about 30 in number. On Thursday, opposition leaders Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and Maryam Nawaz visited the sit-in and urged the prime minister to do the same so that the agony of the mourners could end. They also pleaded for the burial of the dead. But the prime minister did not arrive, and remained busy with his routine chores.
And then, around noon on Friday, he made those remarks to assert that he did feel the pain of the grieving families and would come to meet them after they bury their dead – but would not be blackmailed by the demand that they would not do so until he went to meet the mourners. How can anyone blackmail a prime minister?
Leaving aside the shocked reaction of primarily the critics of the prime minister, it is hard to understand why a prime minister’s personal commiseration with aggrieved citizens of his country should become an issue. After all, leadership is not entirely a manifestation of power and authority. It also demands compassion and a human touch.
An example readily comes to mind, and was also highlighted on social media. Remember the response of the New Zealand prime minister, Jacinda Arden, after the Christchurch mosque attacks in March last year? She visited the victims and their families the very next day of the ghastly incident and you may recall her photographs hugging Muslim women, herself wearing a hijab as a mark of respect.
The point I am making is that Jacinda Arden’s heartfelt reaction to that tragedy and the steps she took to deal with it raised her stature as a leader. In fact, there was global appreciation for her empathy. She was called an inspirational leader for the modern age.
In May 2018, there was another protest by the Hazara community against target killings. A hunger strike was launched by women, led by advocate and social activist Jalila Haider. The protesters demanded that the army chief should visit the sit-in and the hunger strike camps and assure them protection. Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa made that visit and had a meeting with the leaders of the community. The sit-ins were called off.
I wonder if someone could blackmail Imran Khan into watching all the clips and the statements he had made during his long struggle for power. This could be a very educational exercise. He should be asked to particularly focus on how he had criticised the then governments on occasions when terror attacks were made against the Hazaras. “Where is the state?”, he had demanded in January 2013.
For that matter, I do not think that any other political leader in Pakistan has made such sensible, rational and democratically defensible statements that Imran Khan had during his long campaign. And there certainly is no other leader who has defaulted on almost all his promises as Imran Khan has.
But he is at present the prime minister of Pakistan and how he functions as a leader in these difficult times is crucial in many respects. One dominant aspect of his conduct is the anger and disgust that is directed towards the opposition. His spokespersons make a mockery of civilised political discourse.
It is perhaps an extension of this aggressive posture that Imran Khan does not project the image of being compassionate and emotionally concerned about specific incidents of grievances. One gruesome death on January 2 was of young Usama Satti, believed to be a PTI supporter. Policemen had opened fire on his car on Kashmir Highway. And Imran would not have to travel to another city to commiserate with an aggrieved family.
The writer is a senior journalist.