A big grassy plot in front of National Press Club Islamabad is dotted with banners and posters, demanding the Pakistani state to put a stop to the continuing Shia killings in the country. The protest camp, that has entered its sith week ( second month ) , calls for justice and stern action against the elements targeting the Shia.
Dozens of Shia youth have joined this protest camp to express solidarity with their leader Raja Nasir Abbas, secretary general of Majlis-e-Wahdat-ul-Muslimeen (MWM), a prominent religio-political group that calls for protection and rights of the community.
A banner reads: “Hunger strike camp against ongoing Shia target killing and criminal silence of government and security forces.” Abbas announced a hunger strike against what he calls the “continuous Shia genocide” and “inaction” of the state. He is on hunger strike till his demands are properly heard and met.
“This hunger strike is to protest against continuous persecution of Shias, Christians, Hindus, and followers of other beliefs at which security institutions have opted criminal silence,” another banner reads. There are more banners. One highlights the violation of rights of Shia community in Parachinar, Kurrum Agency of tribal areas. Another poster calls for action against Takfiri groups in Pakistan to give sense of protection to the marginalised religious groups.
“Takfiris first started the target killing of Shias in the 1980s and it was done with the security forces at their back because these elements were waging jihad according to the state agenda. Later, these groups started targeting Christians and Sunni Barelvis and other religious factions,” says Abbas, sitting in the camp last Saturday. “We want Quaid-e-Azam’s Pakistan and we don’t want to make it Pakistan of a particular sect.”
“Only in Peshawar, 70 important Shia community members have been killed in the past few years and there is no satisfactory prosecution yet,” says Abbas., “There are target killings in Karachi, Peshawar and DI Khan; attacks in Balochistan; and baseless police cases against community members in Punjab. In Gilgit Baltistan and Kurrum Agency there are forced demographic changes by allotting pieces of land to Taliban like-minded elements.”
On May 11, at least three Shia community people were reportedly killed and 11 injured, including five Levies personnel, during an alleged exchange of fire between the security officials and protesters in the Parachinar area of Kurram Agency. A clash was reported after the security officials tried to disperse the protesters who had blocked the Parachinar highway for not allowing entry to two clerics to attend a religious gathering to celebrate Imam Hussain’s (AS) birth anniversary. Kurram is the only part of Pakistan’s border region that has a significant Shia population and has developed a history of sectarian violence.
Following the incident, the leadership of the MWM declared a hunger strike from May 13 to raise voice against this recent wave of sectarian killings, particularly in Karachi, Khyber Pakhtunkhwah and Parachinar. Last December, a bomb hidden in a bag in a bazaar in Parachinar with a significant Shia population killed at least 23 people and injured three dozen.
“The response in the form of National Action Plan is serious but, in general, it is geared at high profile terrorist acts. It does not focus on small level and individual acts like target killings,” says Tariq Pervez, former director general National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA).
Pervez says that when terrorists face difficulty in launching big attacks, “they change their strategy and focus on individual killings which are not as highlighted”. Along with targeted Shia killings, “policemen are also a major victim of these killings,” he says.
Pervez emphasises that sectarianism has not been a serious focus of the state. “In Balochistan, the state’s priority seems to be targeting of nationalists and separatists. Also, in target killing and small attacks, the threat dimension is not clear and it is difficult to get a holistic picture through such individual acts.”
The protest camps by MWM and other small Shia organisations have been set up in eight different cities in Pakistan and in eight countries including United Kingdom and United States of America to highlight this cause at global level. The main camp, however, is in Islamabad.
“We want our rights and we want a full stop to these killings. Just three weeks ago, in my city, two educationists and two young lawyers were killed. And there are no proper investigations yet,” says Ghazanfar Ali, a banker by profession who belongs to Dera Ismail Khan and joined the protest camp in Islamabad for few days.
“In Parachinar, Shia community is in majority. In 2008, Hakimullah Mehsud of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) himself came to our area and ordered to allot huge tracts of Shia and government lands to TTP like-minded people,” says Mujahid Ali, a protestor who came from Parachinar. “There are many court decisions to give back such occupied pieces of land to us but there is no implementation yet.”
Pervez says another major dimension of sectarianism is political. “These hardcore sectarian groups are well-entrenched and politically connected. Lack of political will to take this issue seriously further breeds this entity.”
Political stability is of course the primary concern of the government. And political resolve cannot come without media pressure.
“The state should stop talking about violence in ‘good’ or ‘bad’ terms. Even if a single innocent person is killed, it is the defeat of the state. The state should consider that Daesh as the next major threat to the world. Although Daesh may not have roots in Pakistan at organised level, we should keep in mind its sectarian orientation and how anti-Shia it is,” says Pervez.
In the last three weeks, only one Federal Minister, Tariq Fazal Chaudhry, has visited the protest camp from the government side and has heard their demands. But there is no proper response yet.
“You cannot stop target killing and terrorism by killing 2000 terrorists. You can’t ensure justice with the ‘balancing policy’ under which you kill one person, Malik Ishaq of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and after his death start lodging police cases against innocent Shias for holding majalis,” says Abbas, adding that hundreds of police cases have been lodged against the Shia community in Punjab.