Riots in Abottabad

Salman Masood April 14, 2010

KARACHI: The cauldron of political unrest stemming from lingual, social and ethnic grievances has the potential to come to a boil in Pakistan.

The fire of resentment and anger that has engulfed the Hazara districts can spread to other parts of the country, especially Southern Punjab, unless political parties do not rise above petty interests. It is clear that the PML-Q stoked the protests in Abbottabad, although absolute blame cannot be apportioned on them alone. After suffering electoral defeat in the 2008 elections PML-Q leaders have been groping for any opportunity that can resuscitate their political fortunes.

But apart from a dismal showing at the ballot the party has suffered from internal divisions leading to splinter groups, which have also been at a loss to find their desired political space. Renaming the NWFP has provided the party with a much-needed opportunity and several politicians belonging to Haripur and Abbottabad feel that they can now crawl out of political wilderness. Resentment in Hazara over renaming the province is not new. Such demands have been voiced in the past and more recently after the announcement of the Gilgit-Baltistan package. Latent anger already existed, waiting to be tapped.

The PML-N, which has traditionally been strong in these districts, exhibited its characteristic equivocation over the issue before caving in to the demands of political expediency. It failed to recognise the grass-root sentiments of the people of Hazara. PML-Q politicians, on the other hand, tried too hard. And the dynamics of the protests changed completely. The ANP, which has championed the cause of ‘Pakhtunkhwa’, acted with indifference and arrogance. Its ministers, sitting in Peshawar, thought that the tide of emotions would subside and police high-handedness would quell the unrest. The loss of six lives should be a learning lesson for all sides.

The damage is extensive: hundreds have been injured, and emotions run high, clouding reason and restraint.Protests in the country are turning violent in an alarming way. Violence should not take precedence over dialogue. The sense of neglect and depravation is pervasive in parts of Punjab and politicians in southern Punjab are already saying that the call for a Seraiki province will be the vote-getter in the next elections. Such demands can emanate not just from Punjab. Several other parts of the country, be they in Sindh or Balochistan, remain volatile. Political violence can further exacerbate the fissures that already exist within the country.

Politicians should have demonstrated more vision while going through the process of passing the 18th amendment bill through parliament. The haste was perhaps unwarranted. There is also need for a debate on the demands and futility of carving out more provinces from the existing federal structure. A lack of such informed debate over renaming the restive northwestern province has already caused unfortunate and avoidable damage.