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January 15, 2021

Quetta: tragedy and empathy

Opinion

January 15, 2021

The members of Hazara community burying the Machh victims in Quetta. -AFP

The brutal murder of the Shia Hazara miners was tragic enough but what followed in the aftermath was even worse.

The response from the prime minister was not only unexpected but in extremely poor taste. Calling the Hazara community, which also included family members of those slaughtered, blackmailers reflected the PM’s lack of empathy and understanding of the tragedy.

Pakistan has seen many low points in its history but such a callous attitude is a new low. In this battle between the poor Hazaras and the PM, the latter’s insistence prevailed at the end, as was expected. This was an uneven playing field – the PM with all the might of the state as opposed to the poor unarmed Hazaras.

Whatever the end result, the damage has been done. We have known that Imran Khan was not the one supposed to be in this office. We have witnessed how the economy has been battered over the last two and a half years, making lives miserable for the people. We know how people in the millions have been pushed below the poverty line during the tenure of the present regime. We have seen some of the worst scams in our history – from sugar to wheat to medicines to IPPs – and the many corruption scandals.

We have seen Kashmir literally slipping away from our control, with India taking a unilateral decision to annex Indian held Kashmir. We all saw this with disbelief while the government did nothing to garner any international support.

We have seen the worst possible governance standards in the last two and a half years – decisions taken without due process or understanding of the downside of those decisions like the aviation minister’s statement in parliament regarding fake licences of Pakistani pilots. The damage this caused to our national image and the national airline is now well-known. Only if the minister and the PM had understood the consequences of that statement.

We thought we had seen it all and the government just could not do worse than what has already been displayed over the last two and a half years. But what happened in Quetta and the callous response of the PM is perhaps the worst. His indifference was obvious during the entire crisis that lasted more than five days. He never showed how devastated he was at the merciless killing of fellow citizens. He never tried to reach out to them.

While the nation waited for him to reach out to the poor people, he showed no sense of urgency without explaining just why he was refusing to go to Quetta. Finally, when the PM spoke, he ended up calling people of the Hazara community blackmailers. Perhaps, no one within his cabinet told him that he was not fighting the political opposition but dealing with a marginalised community that has suffered immeasurable misery over the last many years and which therefore needed very special care and healing.

Every segment of our society was affected by the barbarous tragedy and perhaps shed a tear or two watching the deceased’s loved ones sitting at the Quetta dharna.

Remember the PM of New Zealand? And how she reached out to the Muslim community in the aftermath of the brutal massacre in a mosque. She did not impose any conditions before reaching out to the affected families – even though no one expected her to reach out that way with condolences. Those images of the New Zealand PM tightly hugging the affected Muslim women is still fresh in our memories and we have immensely admired the way she handled the tragedy.

Here the poor family members and the whole of the Hazara community only wanted the PM to come and listen to them, to share their grievances, to understand their misery, to ensure justice – and most important to ensure that the Hazara community is no longer targeted the way it has been. None of that happened. Instead, we saw government spokespersons defending the PM’s decision not to go to Quetta until the burials took place.

Rather than listening to the demands of the poor Shia Hazara, here the PM was imposing conditions. This is typical behaviour. The prime minister has refused to sit with the political opposition even on important national issues. Remember February 2019 when we were at the verge of a war with India? Even then he refused to preside over a national security meeting which included the security establishment, PTI government ministers and all the leading opposition leaders.

On other issues such as the status of Gilgit-Baltistan, he again refused to sit with his political opponents. Each time he has imposed a condition – that he will not give any NRO to the parliamentary opposition. The truth is that the opposition has never asked the PM for any NRO. Yet his mantra continues. But when dealing with the Hazara community, the PM simply forgot there are moments when you stop doing politics and for once show a human side that is so important for every chief executive to display in such times.

And yet, even after so much criticism, the government is claiming victory for the stand the PM took in not going to Quetta until the dead had been buried. More than focusing on the tragedy itself, the PM also attacked the political opposition.

The PM was surely under pressure that the opposition reached out much earlier to the Hazaras – even without security clearance. Perhaps the images coming out of Quetta showing Maryam Nawaz hugging women and children and sharing in their grief was too strong for the PM to ignore forcing him to go to Quetta. What Maryam Nawaz did was only human and natural but it is disappointing that the PM did not show the same empathy with the families even after reaching Quetta.

The writer is the spokesperson for Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz, and former governor Sindh.

Twitter: @Real_MZubair