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April 14, 2019

A bleak picture overall

Opinion

April 14, 2019

Friday’s deadly act of terror in Quetta in which at least 20 lives were lost has delivered a message that we need to carefully decode and understand. This has happened in the wake of a sustained campaign against militant and banned organisations. There has also been a professedly serious drive – as prescribed by the more than four year old National Action Plan – against elements that disseminate extremism and hatred.

It may be argued that one explosion in itself should not be considered as the measure of an operation’s success or failure. We do find some relief in the fact that the available statistics show a marked decline in the number of incidents and fatalities. But look into the mirror of the Quetta atrocity and you will see a landscape that is dark and depressing. And it relates to the state of our society and how it continues to be under siege by forces that are inimical to peace and social and democratic advancement of the people.

What we have here is the heartrending saga of the Hazara community, which has suffered untold tragedies. When we recall this community’s past encounters with terror, it becomes difficult to believe that our rulers were not prompted to take some drastic, unprecedented action to deal with a veritable threat to the country’s security and well-being.

There has been as assertion on the part of the Balochistan government that the suicide bomb blast at a fruit and vegetable market of Quetta was not specifically directed towards the Hazara because a number of people not belonging to this community were also killed and injured. However, the facts are very evident. The bomber blew himself up when members of the Hazara community were loading their vehicles with their purchases.

There is a reason why they could be identified and in my view it is this aspect of the story that portrays the quality of peace that is maintained by the authorities. Members of the Hazara community had come to the market, as they did every day, under the security of law-enforcement agencies. It was like a convoy passing through enemy territory.

What does this really mean? We have to understand that Quetta’s Hazara live in two protected enclaves. Every morning, the police and the FC escort a convoy of Hazara vegetable sellers to stock up for the day. This is what can happen to some people’s right to life and liberty in today’s Pakistan and, to our shame, it is considered business as usual.

This is the point that I want to make. Even if bombs are not exploding and bullets are not being fired, how are the rights of the people and their lives and property being protected at this time? That Hazaras cannot live their lives as free citizens of a supposedly democratic country is an indictment of our society that our rulers are unwilling to acknowledge.

One headline after Friday’s tragedy said that a Senate panel had sought a report on action against banned outfits in Balochistan. But this issue is so much wider and deeper. Action against banned organisations and armed groups inspired, in an evil sense, by religious and sectarian animosities can only be an initial task in healing the wounds of society and building a peaceful and tolerant environment in which the fundamental freedoms of all citizens are protected.

With this week’s Quetta as our backdrop, a quick look across the country, in terms of rule of law and enforcement of human rights, would be very educative. It is a bleak picture from all points of view. Issues that relate to the rights of the oppressed communities, of women and children and of minorities are regularly thrown up in various parts of the country.

Incidentally, a national conference sponsored by the Human Rights of Commission, held in Islamabad just two days before the Quetta explosion, had specifically explored the state of human rights in the country with reference to people’s democratic participation in the political sphere. It would be proper, I believe, to combine the two in an earnest reflection on the present drift in our national affairs.

Essentially, the idea behind the HRCP conference was not as much to express concern about the existing situation as to “re-energise the human rights discourse” at a time when intense political polarisation has overshadowed “the human rights enterprise at all levels”. In a sense, it was an invitation to all human rights defenders and social activists to become more positive and assertive in their struggle against oppression and social injustice.

There is little doubt that this is a critical time for human rights in Pakistan. The conference examined critical questions relating to freedom of expression, assembly and association, federalism, freedom of religion and belief, and rule of law and constitution. On a working day, the conference was very well attended and the deliberations were candid and emotionally invigorating.

In her concluding remarks, HRCP council member Hina Jilani emphasised that it was important to sustain the conversation on human rights and that the conference sought to “incite” people to action for this cause. The HRCP’s honorary spokesperson I A Rehman said that it was the right of the people of Pakistan to be governed democratically. Secretary-General Harris Khalique said it was imperative that “we continue to speak the truth about the challenges to human rights” in Pakistan.

The HRCP has hoped that the conference “will lead to agreement on the essential requirement s for legislative and institutional reform, policy formulations and implementation plans” to certify a meaningful respect for human rights. It is crucial to bring greater visibility to human rights issues, including that of empowering the more vulnerable sections of the population and projecting them as a priority for the government to tackle.

This focus on human rights has suddenly acquired a new urgency after Friday’s terrorist attack in Quetta. We have been reminded of the unending trauma suffered by the peaceful Hazara community. Like in the past, they have staged a protest for justice. All conscientious citizens of this country should feel obliged to support their cause and any measures that are intended to combat the evils of religious bigotry and obscurantism.

Ah, but what are the rulers doing to provide justice to the Hazaras – and to all other segments of society that are under attack from the enemies of a truly democratic and emancipated dispensation? Yes, they have dutifully condemned the atrocity and vowed action against the culprits. But, once again, they do not seem to have truly been shaken by a giant tremor.

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: [email protected]

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