February Issue 2013
A Tale of Two Sit-ins
Pakistan recently witnessed two sit-ins — one in Islamabad and the other in Quetta. They are of historical significance and provide several lessons for those who are willing to learn. One sit-in was a gratuitous spectacle that received unprecedented media coverage and became the focus of the government’s attention. The other was for a genuine cause but did not receive the attention it deserved by the media and civil society.
The first sit-in was staged by a Canadian cleric of Pakistani origin, Dr Tahirul Qadri, who has a large following in Pakistan and abroad. He is the founder of a welfare organisation, Minhajul Quran. Qadri, a former member of the National Assembly, is a highly controversial figure. He was accused of blasphemy and fearing for his life, fled to Canada in 2006 and sought political asylum. In 2008, he became a Canadian national.
Qadri started his career as the prayer leader of a mosque at Mian Nawaz Sharif’s farmhouse in Raiwind. He was able to impress Nawaz Sharif’s father and started seeking huge favours. Sharif gave him a large piece of land, millions of rupees and a vehicle fleet as gifts. Qadri used this wealth to set up Minhajul Quran. He soon started preying on the sentiments of gullible Barelvis, claiming that the Prophet Mohammad appeared in his dreams from time to time and had directed him to set up Minhajul Quran. The Barelvis started donating huge funds to his organisation, in the name of the Prophet. As Qadri gained strength and clout, he started maligning Sharif.
After Musharraf’s 1999 coup, Qadri began to angle for the post of religious affairs minister. When Musharraf did not respond, he sought chairmanship of the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII). When this too did not come through, he asked for a seat on the Council of Common Interest (CCI) but failed again.
Qadri returned from Canada in a dramatic fashion last year to address a huge rally at Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore, on December 23. He announced that he would stage a sit-in on January 14, 2013 in Islamabad along with four million supporters, to demand a revolution. His demands were the indefinite postponement of elections and punishment of corrupt politicans by the army and judiciary. From the time the cavalcade set out from Lahore to the predictable end of the affair, the electronic, print and social media kept the spotlight on Qadri.
Qadri reached Islamabad on January 15, in a bullet-proof container, equipped with five-star comforts. His supporters were not, however, the millions he had hoped to muster — they could be counted in the thousands, in spite of claims to the contrary.
Their numbers dwindled over the second and third days of the protest as the harsh weather buffeted women and children, while Qadri remained sequestered in his comfortable container, emerging only to harangue the crowd. While the simple followers of the ‘cause’ shivered in the cold, Qadri gave interviews to local and foreign media, held meetings with politicians and addressed his followers from time to time, to assure them that the revolution was round the corner.
As this inane drama unfolded, the other sit-in was staged in Quetta by one of Pakistan’s persecuted minorities — the Shia Hazara. This was the first sit-in of its kind by the Hazara community, prompted by the killing of 104 Hazara in a suicide blast at Alamdar Road in Quetta on January 10. More than 100 Hazaras were injured in the attack, for which the Lashkar-e -Jhangvi (LJ) accepted responsibility.
Hundreds of Hazaras staged a sit-in on Alamdar Road, refusing to bury their relatives’ bodies until Quetta was handed over to the army to ensure the security the provincial government had failed to provide. Despite the gravity of the situation, from the time the suicide attack took place till the end of the Hazaras’ sit-in, the electronic media’s major focus remained Qadri’s sit-in, even though a TV journalist and cameraman were among the casualties. The killing of more than 100 people would have been a major event for the electronic media of any other country and it would have, at the very least, forced a few officials to tender their resignation. But it was business as usual for the unfazed government
Civil society, which is usually prompt in raising rights issues on the social media, also chose to monitor Qadri’s sit-in rather than focus on the carnage in Quetta and the sit-in staged by the desperate families of the deceased — at a time when the temperature was -6 degree C and it had been raining too. Raza Rumi, a social activist, was able to hold a solitary protest in Islamabad to support the Hazaras, along with a dozen friends.
Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) chief Altaf Hussain spoke up, saying that the federal and Balochistan governments should immediately accept the protesters’ demands. He commented on the unfortunate silence of political leaders and parties at a time when the relatives of those killed had been holding a sit-in with the bodies of their loved ones, out in the open, braving the extreme weather.
The sit-in continued for more than 24 hours, with the families sitting by the coffins of the victims. The harsh weather could not dent the protestors’ resolution. Women and children were among the protesters, chanting slogans against the provincial government. They demanded its resignation for failing to provide protection to citizens’ lives and properties. Protests were also held in Britain by the Hazara community, in front of the Pakistan High Commission.
This was not the first incident of its kind. The target killing of a couple of Hazaras every other day has become a routine matter in Quetta. According to the Hazara Mughal Youth Forum Pakistan (HMYF), more than a thousand Hazaras have been killed in Pakistan over the last 10 years, but not a single killer has ever been convicted.
On June 28 last year, LJ terrorists carried out a suicide attack on a bus carrying pilgrims returning from Iran, killing 15 Hazaras and injuring 30 others. But it was the unprecedented scale of the January 10 incident that compelled the Hazaras to stage their dramatic sit-in. Their grief was huge and the loss irreparable. The protest was valid. All eyes should have been focused on the Hazaras and their grief should have been shared with the nation. But media coverage did not reflect the magnitude of the incident and only the BBC Urdu Service fully supported the Hazaras’ sit-in, allocating most of its airtime to the protest. Anchor Asma Shirazi remarked, “ We have become used to bloodshed to such an extent that now our hearts do not cry over carnage,” when questioned by the BBC about the inadequate coverage of the incident.
At the time of the suicide attack and sit-in, the chief minister of Balochistan, Aslam Raisani, was in Britain. He could have returned home to console the Hazaras but chose to stay put until his government was sacked on January 13. He returned in a bid to save his government, not to express sympathy with the Hazaras.
The leaders of the Hazara community stayed by the side of the affected families, braving the cruel weather. On the other hand, the revolutionary Tahirul Qadri enjoyed the comfort of his fully equipped container. A high powered official delegation was sent to negotiate with Qadri and the agreement reached was signed by the Prime Minister.
However, for the Hazaras, there was just a formal statement regretting the incident and announcing a compensation of one million rupees per deceased.
Our inability to define priorities was glaringly in evidence in both the government’s response and the media’s handling of the two sit-ins.
Mohammad Shehzad is an Islamabad-based journalist and researcher.