“You cannot blackmail the prime minister of a country like this,” Imran Khan said on Friday, while referring to a demand of the protesting Hazara community that he visit them at the Quetta sit-in before they bury the 11 colliers massacred by terrorists last week.
“You bury the bodies today and I’ll be there with you,” the premier said as he once again made an impassioned appeal to the bereaved community to not make burials conditional to his visit.
The appeal came a day after opposition leaders travelled to Quetta to sympathise with the Hazaras who have been keeping up a vigil alongside coffins, carrying the mortal remains of the miners slaughtered purportedly by the Islamic State terrorist group in the Machh area of the Bolan district on Sunday.
Top government officials, including Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid, have visited the protesters in an effort to convince them to call off the sit-in in sub-zero temperature. However, the community has refused to bury the bodies until the prime minister come to give them personal assurance that targeted killings of the ethnic Hazaras, who are predominantly Shias, would end.
Hazaras have been frequently targeted in attacks mainly claimed by sectarian terrorist groups. According to the National Commission on Human Rights, more than 2,000 Hazaras have been killed in targeted attacks since 2004. They have been subject to targeted shootings and mass bomb and suicide attacks, particularly in Quetta, where the majority of the country’s estimated half a million Hazaras reside.
Protest over the latest slaying has spread to other cities of the country where community members have blocked key roads.
“I have sent them a message that look, when all of your demands have been met, then to demand that we will not bury the dead until the prime minister comes, no country’s prime minister can be blackmailed like this,” Imran said while speaking at the launch of the Special Technology Zones Authority in Islamabad.
“Because [if the precedent is set] then everyone will blackmail the prime minister of the country,” he said, adding that this included a “gang of crooks” that has been trying to “blackmail” his government through street agitation for the past two-and-a-half years.
He didn’t identify the “gang of crooks”, but he was understood to be referring to the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), an alliance cobbled together by 11 opposition parties to challenge the incumbent government of Imran Khan.
The prime minister reassured the protesters that he would definitely visit Quetta but burial should not be linked to his visit. “I’m using this platform to say that if you bury them today, I will travel to Quetta to meet the families of the deceased.
“This should be clear. All of your demands have been met but you can’t impose a condition which has [no logic]. So first, bury the dead. If you do it today, then I guarantee you that I will come to Quetta today.”
Hundreds of Hazara community members – including women and children – have been encamped on Western Bypass along with coffins, carrying the bodies of the slain colliers for the last six days. Braving the biting cold, the mourners have refused to leave until the premier visits and the killers are brought to justice.
The prime minister said that no other community has suffered as much cruelty as the Hazaras have. He added that the brutal massacre of the 11 Hazara coal miners in Machh was part of a conspiracy that he has been highlighting “since March”.
“I had informed my cabinet and then gave public statements on this: India is trying its level best to spread chaos in Pakistan,” he said, adding that this was focused on fanning the flames of sectarianism.
“I appreciate our intelligence agencies for the fact that they have thwarted four major terrorist attacks. Despite this, a high-profile Sunni religious scholar was assassinated in Karachi [...] with great difficulty we managed to quell the flames of a sectarian divide.”
He added that as soon as the Machh tragedy happened, he first sent Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid and then two federal ministers — Ali Haider Zaidi and Zulfi Bukhari — to speak with the mourners and assure them that the government stood with them.
Also Read: No decision yet on PM’s visit to Quetta
Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid, meanwhile, said that the prime minister would travel to Quetta to meet with the bereaved community as soon as the slain colliers were buried. “Imran Khan wishes to go there and he is ready to go,” said the minister, adding that the premier wanted to hold a “detailed discussion” with the Hazaras once bodies were buried.
Protesters, who have braved the biting cold of winter for six days, have held several rounds of negotiations with the cabinet ministers, but to no avail.
“It saddens me greatly that we have a prime minister like this who is not willing to listen to the voice of a mother, a sister or an aged father,” Amna Bibi, whose 18-year-old son and brother were killed in the attack, told Al Jazeera.
“He is not able to see their tears. It causes me such sadness to see such an insensitive person that he is … saying that we are blackmailing him.
“We will continue to sit here until he comes. That insensitive man has no feelings for us, but we have no problem with sitting with our loved ones in the cold. We have the determination to sit here for weeks.”
Ghulam Hasnain Rajdani, a Hazara community religious leader, also lashed out at Khan for his “blackmail remarks”. “The president or prime minister of a country acts like the father of that country,” Rajdani told Al Jazeera.
“There are 10 bodies lying [on the road], and they are like the children of the prime minister. So if the children are calling their father to their funerals, how is blackmailing?”
At the presser, the interior minister also lamented that the tragedy was being politicised. “There is a lot of time for politics,” he said, adding that politics should not be done on the issue of burial of martyrs. He wouldn’t say who is politicising the tragedy, but he was believed to be referring to the PDM.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Maryam Nawaz travelled to Quetta on Thursday to offer condolences to the bereaved Hazara community. While Bilawal focused his speech on the suffering of Hazaras, Maryam used the occasion to mount attack on the embattled prime minister.
Over in Quetta, Hazara Democratic Party Chairman Abdul Khaliq Hazara claimed that some elements had forcibly shifted the bodies of the slain miners to the sit-in place against the wishes of their bereaved families.
“These elements are using the martyrs to further their own agenda. The families of the martyrs are not aware of the most of the demands put forward by the organisers of the sit-in,” he told a news conference.
Abdul Khaliq Hazara, who is also adviser to the Balochistan chief minister on sports and culture, said that all political and religious parties of the Hazara community had decided to bury the bodies a day after the Machh tragedy. “However, some people forcibly shifted the bodies to western bypass and staged a sit-in,” he claimed.
He said the demands of the bereaved families and those of sit-in organisers were not the same. We accept the former’s demands, but not those of the latter because some of them were in conflict with the Constitution.
‘Hunger strike till death’
Reacting to Prime Minister Imran's statement that he will not be ‘blackmailed’ into visiting the sit-in being staged by the aggrieved families of Machh martyrs, Sajjad Hussain, a resident of Quetta, has started a hunger strike till death in protest.
Sajjad, accompanied by members of Hazara community and civil society representatives, has set up a camp outside Quetta Press Club for this purpose.
Reiterating the demand of the mourners, Sajjad said that the premier must visit Quetta.
(With additional reporting by Muhammad Zafar in Quetta and News Desk)