Political leaders like Imran Khan may have visited the community and tried to understand their plight in the past but the current political rhetoric around the protests lacks empathy and misses the point
In the graveyard where the slain coal miners’ bodies were eventually buried, there are more graves of Hazaras who have been murdered than of those who have died of natural causes. Since 9/11 thousands of Hazaras have been targeted and executed by terrorist organisations in the region without restraint. The Hazaras that sat with their loved ones’ dead bodies for six days grew up while it was unsafe to leave the 10 blocks that comprised Hazara Town to even go to school or run their businesses.
Political leaders like Imran Khan may have visited the community and tried to understand their plight in the past but the current political rhetoric around the protests lacks empathy and misses the point. The truth is that the Mach incident is not an isolated case, nor is it one that the government can deny responsibility for.
The story of persecution and discrimination against the Hazara people is centuries old. The reasons for it are complex and manifold. For one, the persecution is carried out by terrorist groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan as a retaliation for the War on Terror. It involves some of the groups incubated during the Afghan War. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, extremist groups such as the Taliban and Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, now a part of the Islmic State (formerly ISIS and now ISIL) try to outdo one another in their brutality against the Hazaras. In February 2015, for example, the Taliban separated 31 Hazaras in a bus and beheaded them in historically uncharacteristic ruthless, IS style. When Osama bin Laden was killed, 25 Hazaras were shot in Quetta as an alleged response by extremist groups.
While Imran Khan was not the prime minister then, he became the representative of the Pakistani state - then and now – once he assumed the office of the prime minister. It does not matter which one person was in charge when these atrocities started or were at their worst, the fact of the matter is, the prime minister is the custodian of our state and is arguably the most powerful man in the country. Thus, when the bereaved families call upon him they do not call upon him as Citizen Imran Khan but rather the prime minister of a state that has historically failed them.
The reason the Hazaras ask the state for protection though, is not just because the state has failed to protect them in a difficult-to-govern province but because their predicament is allegedly ignored as long as extremist groups in the region help control Baloch insurgency. Therefore, the Hazaras are a historically persecuted people caught in the nexus of some of the region’s most convoluted issues.
When the bereaved families call upon him they do not call upon him as Citizen Imran Khan but as he prime minister of a state that has historically failed them.
The rest of the Baloch people are also unlikely to stand in solidarity with the Hazaras or feel their pain because a majority of Hazaras do not support the Baloch movement or insurgency in the region. Moreover, while the Hazaras have yet to feel safe in a country that they helped create, the government has continued to turn a blind eye to anti-Shia sentiment across the country. From anti-Shia rallies in Karachi to the passage of the anti-Shia Tahaffuz-i-Bunyad-i-Islam Bill in the provincial assembly of the Punjab, the government has been a silent bystander at best regarding the heightened anti-Shia sentiment across the country.
The Mach incident is merely a symptom of a cancer that has ravaged our country for decades and requires more than just promises. Coming up with a comprehensive plan to deal with sectarianism and minority oppression is a task that no government has taken on. Even if it is India that stokes this violence, it is our countrymen that participate in it and it is our government that fails to do its job.
So Imran Khan is right, he is not a common citizen, rather the prime minister of the country. When the Hazara people ask to meet with him, they do not ask just him as a leader or prime minister but are appealing to the Pakistani state that has looked the other way for decades. Yes, his designation is such that it would have set a precedent had he gone to Baluchistan earlier but should there not be a precedent for the leader of a country to reassure a community that has been left for the dead? Politicising the matter, while expected on the part of any opposition in any country, is not becoming of the office of the prime minister.
If Imran Khan truly understood the pain of the families sitting with their dead in the cold for days, his framing of the issue would go beyond India and his response would be more assuring than his words.
The writer is a graduate of the Cornell University in New York