On the 18th, as we waited for news of the PM’s announced visit to Quetta, another tragedy took place: fourteen people were murdered after armed attackers ambushed several buses on the Makran coastal highway. Officials were quick to condemn the attacks and called them a part of a conspiracy to destabilize the province as it prepares for the arrival of long-awaited progress and development. While no one is denying the truth of these statements, and while the condemnation is surely appreciated, neither do much to soothe an already grieving people.
And then the PM postponed his visit.
Right off the bat: this has all the makings of a monumental error.
Many have appreciated New Zealand’s PM Jacinda Ardern for her response to the Christchurch terrorist attack. While some were particularly grateful for a white leader calling a spade a spade and referring to the attack as an act of terrorism, others were particularly happy with her meeting with the affected families and communities, where she observed a headscarf – in what became a symbol of solidarity quickly picked up by not only security personnel, but also NZ’s media. There’s something else she and her government should be commended for: the speed with which this was done.
While acts of terrorism can’t be predicted with 100% accuracy, in the world we live in, they are a reality. In the aftermath of such attacks, therefore, the state’s response goes a long way in bringing some semblance of order, normalcy and surety to not only the families and communities affected, but to the nation as a whole.
It is this response that reflects the state’s capabilities regarding crisis management and the effectiveness of communication channels between state institutions. The state’s response time isn’t just watched carefully by the politically ambitious, looking for every chink in the armor of the party in power. It’s what can make or break a law and order situation, and what determines whether or not people feel they can sleep soundly at night – or take to the streets.
Regardless of who claims responsibility for the attacks, some things are clear: Pakistani citizens have been killed, nine of them from the Hazara community, in an attack that has been said was targeting the Hazara community itself. The Prime Minister was to visit the city and meet the affected community on April 18th, almost a week after the attack and days after a sit-in was organized to press him to make the call.
The 18th came and went in Quetta.
The Prime Minister did not.
The criticism did not falter.
As an acquaintance quipped “woh karein to corruption. Hum karein toh political inexperience.”
In 2014, I was writing my bachelor’s thesis on how states respond to urban political activism. I had an excellent real life situation to draw inspiration from: after accusations of corruption and electoral mismanagement and corruption were of no avail, and the gross mishandling of a situation resulted in tragedy in the city of Lahore, two political parties had organized long marches to the Pakistani capital, where they organized separate sit-ins.
The PAT’s was brief, in comparison. But the PTI’s lasted 126 days – over 4 months. It was a testament, not only to the strength and resilience of a people who had decided they had borne all they could but to how badly the then government had failed.
The PML-N government not only underestimated the protestor’s resolve, but it also failed to account for how its response (or lack of it, in many cases) would be interpreted and how it would affect the movement. The capital ended up facing serious traffic problems and mass crackdowns with baton-wielding, tear gas dispensing capital police, in an attempt to control or intimidate the protestors, only incensed the crowds. In a bizarre twist, even the Parliament building came under siege, with the parliamentarians still inside. The images of a shouting mob surrounding the heart of Pakistan’s legislative system inspired more than one person to liken it to the fall of the Bastille. And on top of all that, it was the government’s refusal to acknowledge the protestors and their demands that incensed them and spurred them on – as the nation and the international community watched on.
It also reflected another truth of delayed state response: it speaks poorly of the kind of people you have at and near the center and does very little to establish trust in their capabilities. A government that can’t inspire that trust will have a hard time both in battling the opposition and with gaining public support for further developmental projects.
It took an unforgivable tragedy to finally bring that saga to an end.
In 2019, the PTI would do well to reflect on that particular chapter in its own history. The PML-N’s failure in responding correctly and timely to the PTI/PAT protests resulted in an impressive story arc – but things are different when you’re in power. Because even though the Hazara sit-ins may not have reached the size or the media attention of the PTI’s own four-month standoff with the federal government, ignoring it won’t make it go away any sooner.
The visit of Balochistan Chief Minister Jam Kamal, Minister of State for Interior Shehryar Afridi, deputy speaker National Assembly and Special Assistant to the Prime Minister did help stabilize the situation somewhat: Tahir Hazara announced the sit in’s end after they assured him the government would not abandon the grieving people. But it is now vital for Prime Minister Imran Khan to not only visit Quetta immediately but to give particular attention to the province of Balochistan as well. The National Action Plan’s implementation has been a long time coming, and making it the federal government’s main focus wouldn’t just go a long way in appeasing the Hazaras – it would serve as a balm and assurance to the families torn by the 2014 APS attack, not to mention its necessity to the security and peace of the nation as a whole.
The Hazara’s demands of more security are also perfectly acceptable. According to some reports, this was the 116th attack on the community. Whether or not this number is accurate, it is undeniable that Pakistan’s security failures regarding our minorities have been a matter of great shame. It is the duty of this government to ensure that the nation’s commitment to its people go beyond lip service – if there is to be a tidal wave of tabdeeli, let it start here, where it matters. Anything less is criminal. And – despite the political delegation’s to the Hazara protestors that their motivations were not political – with the opposition watching their every move, it is, after all, also about optics.
If the Prime Minsiter does now visit Quetta – what he does on his arrival will be carefully, mericlessly scrutinized, more so now that his arrival has been inexplicably delayed. A speech will not suffice. He will need to meet not only community leaders but also affected families and answer questions from the community.
A security nightmare?
Wishful thinking on my part?
Here’s something that has to be understood: the Prime Minister is not the enemy.
But if he doesn’t get this right, he will not only have successfully alienated an entire community, he will have lost many potential allies whose support his government desperately needs as it works to bring change to welfare, infrastructure, education, and a stagnant political system among others – all in his first year in power.
PM Jacinda Arden made it very easy to praise her. Her immediate response, quickly modeled by her nation, is a testament to her and her team’s capabilities. Arden, who has been listed as one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2019, “proudly stood up for hope, unity and inclusiveness in the face of fear, division and hatred” in the words of London’s mayor, Sidiq Khan. It presented her as a symbol of strength, statesmanship and a revival of faith in both elected leadership and humanity.
It is also a reminder that we take our cues from our leaders.
At least one Hazara leader has indicated that a long march to the capital is very much on the cards.
If the PTI acts quickly and correctly, the situation may still be resolved.
If it does not, unfortunately, we may have to wait and see if the capital once again becomes home to protestors – and if PM Khan’s government fares better than the PML-N did.