Why no outrage on Shia massacre in Kohistan? – by Ayesha Haroon

by admin

Source: The News March 21, 2012

After the article on social media was printed, a reader asked: Why did the Maya Khan issue result in action but not the Kohistan and Mastung killings, despite social media crying hoarse about them? Why, indeed?

We protest the horrible civilian killings by a US soldier in Afghanistan and continue to follow the news: what will the US government charge him with, how will the case unfold, etc. So when dozens of equally innocent people get killed in Kohistan and Mastung, why is there no concrete action?

We expect the US to follow legal procedure to investigate and punish its soldier, but not Islamabad to catch the killers and punish them. What a very sorry state of affairs.

It is easier for us to talk of matters related to the war on terror, the environment, women’s rights, child labour, and so on, but not sectarian militancy. Sometimes, we are afraid of antagonising the religious sentiments of those who belong to a different sect. Other times, the crime is physically far removed (Kohistan) and does not impinge on our everyday life more than the usual culture of violence in which we live. Oftentimes, however, we do not have enough information to make up our mind – and do not make the effort to look beyond the official construct of events.

We have heard about sectarian strife in Gilgit-Baltistan, where the ill-fated passengers were bound. We also recall curfews being imposed at times. So here are a few facts:

In 1974, the annual Muharram procession was banned in Gilgit, generating a sectarian clash which is believed to be the first such conflict in the area. The procession is not banned in Lahore, why was it banned in Gilgit which has a bigger Shia community than a Sunni community?

In 1988, Sunni militants from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa attacked almost a dozen Shia-dominated villages, killing hundreds. Hundreds. It is largely believed that the militants had the support of Gen Zia’s regime. An inquiry into the killings is still awaited.

In 2000, protests started in Gilgit over changes in textbooks. The Shia community believed the changes were politically motivated and were aimed at erasing their religious identity. The imam leading the protests was gunned down, and the protests became violent. It took many lives, businesses, and much heartbreak, before peace was restored.

Evidently, then, there is a history of political manipulation and provocation, of deepening and widening sectarian differences in the region. But none of that is discussed when a sectarian clash or, in this case, massacre takes place.

Do we not depoliticise an issue by saying that it is “sectarian” conflict? Even “targeted killing” is a way of depoliticising a crime based on power-politics – as well as relegating a blanket explanation to cold-blooded murder, especially when these words are used by state representatives.

Simple differences have been cultivated into huge divides by power interests – whether its Jhang, Gilgit-Baltistan, Quetta or Karachi. This sense of difference is cultivated in the social sphere we inhabit, with curriculum being one such tool.

By broad-brushing a crime by calling it sectarian and implying that all problems stem from a difference in sect is both simplistic and disingenuous. Struggle for political control, control over local resources, aggrandisement of patronage/feudal networks, land mafia, and other explanations based on socio-political and economic reasons have higher explanatory power than just calling something a sectarian issue.

It is very simplistic to reduce multiple layers of a person’s identity solely to a “sect-based” one. A Sunni/Shia woman from Lahore – who is a sister, a daughter, a wife, a mother – and has attended school X and college Y and university Z, shares all these cultural identities with a Shia/Sunni woman from Lahore – who is a sister, daughter, wife, mother – and has attended school X, college Y and university Z. Both root for the same cricket team and listen to the same songs.

Half my family follows one sect and half the other. I can tell you a dozen reasons why many problems and tiffs exist in our family, but none of them have to do with the sects we follow.

For the state, treatment of citizens cannot be based on sects or on whether one is a “majority” or a “minority.” The word “minority,” which should only be a numerical reference, is, instead, a cultural construct that devalues the existence, needs, and demands of those belonging to a group that is smaller in number.

Gen Ziaul Haq’s hardline religiosity project, together with the West’s support for bringing in fighters from the Middle East to wage their war with Russia, resulted in turning our country into a quasi-religious security state where debate became synonymous with treason. Discussion and negotiation were replaced by unilateral decisions enforced through the gun. Later, encouraged by the government’s inaction, various non-state actors were to use the same strong-arm tactics against the citizenry.

There is a need to discuss militancy – whether by religio-political parties or ethnic organisations. We need to see it for what it is: crime. We have to discuss what it means to be a pluralistic society – and what do we have to agree on to become one.

Gilgit’s “textbook controversy” proves how the state messed up when it tried to force a particular religious identity over everyone. Ironically, its high-handedness only resulted in further alienating Shia youth. They mobilised around the textbook issue and it became a symbol of their political disenfranchisement. Distressingly, as they rallied to be accepted as equal citizens of the state, the authorities reacted with force.

Our seldom democratically-led state has historically termed political protests as “danger” to the federation, even though these protests actually strengthen it. When people demand equal rights, they want to stay in the federation and enjoy their rights.

For an unbearably long time, we, as a society, have been letting the state off the hook by saying Pakistan is being used as a proxy sectarian battlefield. Even now, the interior minister blamed “foreign hands” out to destabilise the country through these killings. There might be truth in that, but a crime remains a crime and every citizen has a right on the state to provide her security. Too many have died a violent death for us to keep waiting while the state looks for foreign hands.

The writer is a former editor of The News Lahore.

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