If there is one thing that sets Shias apart from other Muslim denominations, it is their elaborate rituals of mourning centred on the gravest tragedy in Islamic history – the massacre of the family of the Prophet (pbuh) at Karbala. In the last three decades, Shias in Pakistan have found ample opportunity to mourn their own dead, targeted for no reason other than their faith and religious rituals.
Two Shia communities, the Hazaras in Quetta and theTuris in the Kurram Agency of Fata, have been particularly targeted by sectarian terrorists. This has forced them to live a life under a state of siege, although the siege has failed to provide them any protection from their tormentors. The recent incident of terrorism in Parachinar, the capital of Kurram, has highlighted the plight of victims of terrorism, sectarian terror in particular.
Occurring within days, an accident in Bahawalpur and the twin blasts in Parachinar have ripped open many wounds and become an occasion to articulate grievances against the government and the state. Interestingly, it was the government’s reaction to the Bahawalpur tragedy that enabled the protesters from Parachinar to highlight the state apathy to their situation. On a more optimistic note, democratic and peaceful expression of discontent has forced Pakistan’s rulers to shake off their complacency and take notice.
On Friday 23, Parachinar was hit by two blasts that killed more than 100 innocent persons and injured hundreds more. On the same day, a suicide car bomber killed at least 13 people, including seven police officers, in Quetta. A day later, an accident involving an oil tanker killed 150 people and injured many more in Ahmadpur Sharqia, near Bahawalpur in southern Punjab.
The Ahmadpur accident instantly diverted the media’s attention from the incidents of terrorism. The media had its reasons to find the accident more newsworthy. The accident had an element of novelty. In Pakistan, incidents of terrorism are far more common than such accidents. A similar accident had happened near Jhang in 1999, killing 65 persons. That was before the advent of independent media. Thousands of blasts have happened in the meantime. Secondly, though the event happened in the relatively marginal space of southern Punjab, it was still closer to cities where rating metres are located and from where the bulk of advertisement revenue is generated. It was also more accessible for reporters and DSNG vans.
For politicians too, Quetta and Parachinar are the periphery, while southern Punjab is closer to the core if not the core itself. When these incidents happened, the prime minister was out of the country for almost ten days, first in Saudi Arabia to earn religious merit during Ramazan and then in London to participate in the graduation ceremony of his grandson. While he remained unmoved on the terrorist bombings, the Bahawalpur accident forced him to cut his visit short to arrive on the scene of the accident on June 26, Eid day.
The prime minister had his own reasons to rush back. Punjab is the crucial battleground in the next general elections. As tough contests are being foreseen in central Punjab, the constituencies in southern Punjab have suddenly become important while this region is seething with anger. The accident became an occasion for opposition leaders to articulate public grievances in ethnic and geographical terms. “Lives are cheaper in South Punjab”, said a normally mild-mannered Shah Mahmood Qureshi. “People in south Punjab are second rate citizens.”
As many research studies have shown, there is a scandalous gap between the per capita availability of public goods including schools, hospital beds, roads, piped gas and other facilities between southern and central Punjab. During the nine years of PML-N rule, this gap has further widened. Khadam-e-Ala has consistently spent more 60 percent of the development budget of the province on one city and there are no points for guessing where the bulk of remaining 40 percent is spent.
In his regal manner, the prime minister announced an unprecedented compensation of Rs2 million for the family of each victim and one million for each survivor of the accident. Doling out Rs300 million is certainly easier than being accountable for the gap that has been created through swindling the poor area of hundreds of billions of rupees of its share in development funds.
Unfortunately, this generosity created another complication. The families of the victims of Parachinar blasts were promised only Rs300,000 to compensate for deaths of their near and dear ones. Suddenly Bahawalpur stared to seem like a privileged area in comparison to Parachinar.
People in Parachinar have been at the receiving end of terrorism for years. While terrorism has abated in other parts of the country since Operation Zarb-e-Azb, Parachinar has witnessed a spike in terrorist bombings. In this year alone, five explosions have already taken place in Parachinar.
The bombings in Parachinar became an occasion for Shias from all over the country to express their grievance for being targets of terrorism. The Shia population of Kurram Agency, of which Parachinar is the capital, is amongst the favourite targets of sectarian organisations including the Taliban. After the Hazaras of Quetta, the Turis of Kurram are the worst affected Shia community in Pakistan.
It was perhaps the first time that an effort was made to silence the Shias from expressing their grievance in terms of their faith and hold them responsible for what is happening to them. Zaid Zaman Hamid tweeted: “the stupid Shias perhaps deserve LeJ (Lashkar-e-Jhangvi) treatment if they can’t see that I am the friend & not enemy...” A sit in at Parachinar became the focus of attention where protesters wanted a senior government representative to visit them to respond to their demands. And they demanded nothing more than their most basic right – the right to life and to make government officials accountable.
While the prime minister and other senior officials have not visited Parachinar so far, many other politicians complain that they have been denied security clearance. Imran Khan, who was shooting his canons from the heights of Nathia Galli, finally descended from his summer retreat and visited Parachinar on June 30.
The protesters ended their dharna after the COAS visited Parachinar and announced different measures in response to demands made by locals. The prime minister in the meantime announced a new package, raising the compensation for families of victims to Rs1 million each.
If nothing else, the government should see that the tokenism that benefitted it in the past has now started hurting. They need to form a proper policy to compensate victims of accidents and terrorism. Transporters should be made to ensure proper third-party insurance that pays victims of an accident. The provincial governments should also start a scheme of road insurance. The expense for such insurance can be recovered from road users and motorists by slightly adjusting the toll and petroleum levy. Such a scheme can save thousands of families from destitution each year. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), more than 26,000 persons are killed in road accidents in Pakistan each year and only a fraction of them can benefit from the direct generosity of a chief minister or the prime minister.
The state bears more direct responsibility to victims and survivors of terrorism and their families because ensuring right to life is the basic responsibility of the state. While the National Action Plan has a point promising “Dealing firmly with sectarian terrorists”, it contains no promise for survivors. A separate policy is urgency required.