A recent survey by Pew Research Center gives a bleak picture of the sectarian divide in Pakistani society. According to the survey, about 50% of Sunni Muslims in Pakistan consider Shia beliefs to be heretic or a deviant form of Islam. Further to this, there is polarization within society on almost every social and political issue. If consensus does exist on some issues, there are differences of opinion regarding the pertaining solutions and policies. The general apathy surrounding the persecution of the Hazara Shia community is a manifestation of such polarization. However, in recent weeks an unprecedented show of solidarity for the Hazara community was displayed across the country. The slogan of ‘We are all Hazara’ became a meme.
The Hazara Shia community of Pakistan has been facing systematic persecution for the past decade or so. More than one thousand innocent Hazara men, women and children have lost their lives to date merely due to their religious beliefs. But the incident on 10th January, when twin suicide blasts on Quetta’s Alamdar Road killed more than 120 people (most of them Hazaras) was the most devastating one so far. The bereaved community took the dead bodies of their loved ones to the site of the blast and refused to bury them until their demands were met by the authorities.
Hundreds of people, including women and children, staged a sit-in in freezing temperatures to demand protection and justice. The unusual sight of women in this political gathering and the fact that religious teachings instruct Muslims to bury the dead as soon as possible, couldn’t have sent a clearer reminder of the helplessness and misery of the Hazara community. These heartbreaking images forced common Pakistanis to come out of their homes and participate in the sit-ins to show solidarity for those in mourning and to condemn this barbaric act.
The sit-in that started in Quetta was soon followed by protests in other major cities. Civil society activists and rights organizations staged vigils where non-Shias were outnumbered by Shias. At Liberty Roundabout in Lahore, members of the Christian community, themselves victims of religious extremism, participated with great enthusiasm.
Two aspects which make these nationwide protests distinctive are worth mentioning. Firstly, the nonviolent nature and discipline of these protests was so remarkable that not even a single bullet was fired or a tire set ablaze. Secondly, people participated in these protests to not only to show their solidarity for the bereaved community but also out of a sense of general insecurity as citizens of a state where religious and sectarian differences might eventually become the reason for their death.
The protests resulted in the proclamation of Governor Rule and the sacking of the ineffective government of Chief Minister Raisani. The level of insensitivity of the incumbent CM was such that he used to mock serious security issues with his petty jokes. Leaving aside the fruitfulness of the Governor Rule, this success has at least set a positive precedent that peaceful, non-violent protests are more effective and far-reaching than outrageous vigilantism in which public properties are destroyed. Moreover it also proves that any sort of armed retaliation would also be futile.
As I write these lines I remember Irfan Khudi Ali, a human rights activist and one of the victims of the blasts. My last interaction with him was at a juice shop on the same Alamdar Road where he embraced martyrdom. I remember him mentioning how as Pakistanis we have selective moral outrage when it comes to human rights advocacy. He said that we seem too concerned about the Rohingya Muslims but at the same time indifferent to the persecution of our own compatriots. While quoting Saadat Hassan Manto’s famous saying “Don’t say that 1 lac Muslims and 1 lac Hindus have been killed, say 2 lac humans have been killed”, he urged to raise our voices for all the voiceless communities in Pakistan and around the world. He was indeed blessed with a true humanistic soul. Today he would have been proud to see that his countrymen have come out to join his community’s cause and are united on a simple yet powerful idea that persecution of anyone on the basis of creed is not acceptable.
The Hazara cause should not be seen as an isolated issue from the rest of Pakistan but an indicator of how injustice to one community is bound to spread to the rest. Similarly, our moral support should not be exclusively for Hazaras but should include the communities whose graves and worship places are desecrated every other day in this land of the pure. The mutilated bodies in Balochistan are a stain on our collective morality and our apathy towards it equals legitimizing this heinous act.
In fact, standing for the rights of minorities is nothing short of standing for the noble ideals of religious freedom, pluralism and equality; the ideals Jinnah mentioned in his famous speech before the Constituent Assembly on 11th August 1947. In his speech, Jinnah envisioned the nature of a newly born nation where the state would not interfere with the beliefs of her citizens. Hence any effort to protect a vulnerable community is like embracing, cherishing and realizing Jinnah’s Pakistan.
Although we follow different religions and sects, speak different languages and have distinct racial features, there is an everlasting relation, the thread of humanity, which binds all of us. Beliefs are different, but our destiny is the same and that destiny is a country where people won’t be discriminated on the basis of their identity. Let’s embark collectively on this journey towards a high moral ground with non-violence as a weapon and humanity as our primary slogan, the way the Hazaras did.
—Written by Roohullah Gulzari
(Published in The Laaltain – Issue 7)