At one point in his Nobel Prize speech, Crediting Poetry, Irish poet and playwright Seamus Heaney recounted what he described as “One of the most harrowing moments in the whole history of the harrowing of the heart in Northern Ireland”.
It was a January evening in 1976. A minibus was ferrying workers home. At one point it was held up by a group of armed and masked men. The workers were ordered out and lined up “at the side of the road”. Then one of the masked men, presumably the leader of the group, “said to them, ‘Any Catholics among you, step out here’.” Heaney narrates that “this particular group, with one exception, were all Protestants, so the presumption must have been that the masked men were Protestant paramilitaries about to carry out a tit-for-tat sectarian killing of the Catholic…”.
The lone Catholic worker motioned to step forward when one of the Protestant workers next to him squeezed his hand “in a signal that said no, don’t move, we’ll not betray you, nobody need know what faith or party you belong to”. But the signal came a split-second late because the Catholic man had already stepped forward. And then, “instead of finding a gun at his temple, he was thrown backward and away as the gunmen opened fire on those remaining in the line, for these were not Protestant terrorists, but members, presumably, of the Provisional IRA.”
The story is indeed harrowing. This was the time when politico-sectarian tensions were tearing at the body and soul of Northern Ireland. Heaney delivered the speech in December 1995. We had begun to witness sectarian killings in Pakistan. But we were still to see the worst, several harrowing moments and the gradual harrowing of the heart in Pakistan.
The incident Heaney spoke about with reference to Northern Ireland, Pakistanis belonging to the Shia denomination pulled out of buses, lined up and executed has been played out in this country a number of times, especially in the past two decades. The horror of that experience cannot be captured.
In a replay of a terrorist atrocity in February 2013, which left 90 dead and scores injured, the Hazara in Quetta have refused to bury the 11 coal-mine workers that were kidnapped and executed by a group of terrorists in Machh, Balochistan on January 3. Then, as now, their demands are the same: identify, capture and punish the terrorists and ensure safety of the Hazara community that has been constantly and consistently targeted by sectarian terrorists.
But this is not all. The more worrisome aspect of Hazara protest, then as now, is a loss of faith in the State. This has often found expression in direct allegations and insinuations that the attackers belong to groups that were nurtured by the State. There’s some truth to this with reference to elements of Jaish-e Mohammad which broke away from Harkatul Mujahideen and became involved in sectarian terrorism against the Shia in general. Evidence also indicates occasional cooperation between Jaish and Lashkar-e Jhangvi terrorist cadres.
Post-9/11, many of these terrorists also got involved with Al-Qaeda and later the Tehreek-e Taliban. The TTP itself went through many splits and in recent years has been losing men to Daesh, the relatively new entrant in these parts with bases in eastern Afghanistan. Daesh of course is a rabidly sectarian and utterly ruthless terrorist group and is fighting both the Afghan security forces as well as the Afghan Taliban. According to western reports, the US military in Afghanistan has been indirectly helping the Taliban fight Daesh in eastern Afghanistan.
The increasing inability of the government in Kabul to maintain its writ in large areas means there are physical spaces available to these groups in that country to move about and mount terrorist attacks. In Afghanistan, Daesh has been involved in multiple attacks on educational institutions and medical facilities.
The sectarian fault-line was always present in these parts, as is evident from sectarian literature that dates back to the British Raj. Since the 80s it has become pronounced and politicised first because of overt and covert confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, then by the long Afghanistan war and the subsequent civil war and finally by the entry into the region of multiple other state actors with their conflictual security agendas.
Covert actions target fault-lines to get a force-multiplier effect. Take for instance, Balochistan. There have been multiple terrorist attacks in that province by various groups: Daesh, TTP and its affiliates and Baloch terrorists. These attacks have killed civilians and security personnel indiscriminately. Daesh even mounted a suicide attack in 2017 on Maulana Abdul Ghafoor Haideri, then-deputy chairman of Senate and a Jamiat-e Ulama-e Islam leader. TTP mounted a horrific attack on the Police Training College in Quetta. These are just two examples of non-sectarian attacks. But nothing achieves the multiplier effect of an attack on the Hazara. Reason: the sectarian fault-line. That fault-line then spawns theories: a minority under constant attack (which is true), State’s inability to protect the community (true again), State’s complicity (not true but works).
The point is simple: every terrorist attack is an atrocity and a ghastly act. But attacks that target a fault-line manage to do much more damage precisely because the fault-line is the expression of an existing grievance or conflict. As should be obvious, a fault-line is also the point where a State is at its weakest and is not considered to be acting in good faith. Whether that is right or wrong is irrelevant. It’s like a wound that keeps opening up and continues to hurt. A fault-line is also the point that is ruled by the emotive side of human nature and where reality is caught in a maelstrom of myths.
When people refuse to bury their dead, no amount of rationality can work. Burial is about closure; a refusal to do that means the anger and grief far outweigh the imperative of closure. That’s a very dangerous moment. Last time it happened, Balochistan was ruled by a callous and crass chief minister, Aslam Raisani. I have met the current chief minister Jam Kamal once at a lunch in Lahore. I found him to be a decent, equable man. But he will have to move fast and control the damage.
The prime minister’s procrastination has further angered the Hazara. At the time of writing this on Thursday, some reports suggested that he would be going to Quetta but his travel plan was kept secret for security reasons. The PM’s inability to act fast and decisively is also in sharp contrast to his statements about previous governments when he (PM) was in opposition.
Finally, the realities and complexities of real politik and its challenges notwithstanding, people expect the State to step up to the plate. And those who lose their loved ones are not prepared to listen to excuses. The Hazara community has contributed immensely to this State, as soldiers, policemen, bureaucrats, sports stars and scholars. They cannot be left alone. (TFT)
The wriiter is a former News Editor of The Friday Times. He reluctantly tweets @ejazhaider