I lived and worked in Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s Balochistan province where a suicide bomber on August 8th killed more than 70 innocent people, mostly lawyers and two journalists. Quetta is our New York. It’s a city of hope. Young people from all over Balochistan go to Quetta with hopes and dreams. Girls and boys coming from small towns find their first jobs, start a family and help their old parents. Some of them love Quetta so much that they never go back to their hometowns. They struggle in this city, build new friendships and work diligently for years to become senior bureaucrats, lawyers and professors. Quetta is diverse, multilingual and multicultural. The city’s residents speak Pashtu, Balochi, Brahui and Hazargi languages while the city has long flaunted the existence of its Christian, Hindu and Zoroastrian religious minority communities.
Yet, Quetta is like a small town in many ways: people mostly know each other and, above all, there is a sense of community among its residents. Sectarian and nationalistic violence has torn the city apart for more than a decade but its resilient residents continue to fight back to keep the city together. It’s a tough struggle as the city has lost the best of its talent in this senseless violence attributed to the Pakistani military, the Taliban, the Baloch nationalists and Sunni extremist groups.
Monday’s suicide bombing was different from so many terrorist attacks that we have seen in our lifetime. Islamic extremists actually killed “an entire generation” of our most educated, proactive and articulate lawyers and human rights champions. Almost all of them belonged to middle class families and small towns. Most of them were the first ones from their families to attend college or become lawyers. Friends and relatives were busy sending dead bodies of these lawyers to different corners of Balochistan as the victims of Monday’s blast included people from various districts and ethnicities.
Among the dead, one lawyer that I personally knew and deeply admired was Baz Mohammad Kakar, former president of the Balochistan Bar Association. Kakar, whom I knew from the days when I worked as a reporter in Quetta, was a fearless and tireless champion of human rights. A self-made lawyer, Kakar was on the forefront of the landmark lawyers’ movement in Pakistan in 2007 that ultimately led to the downfall of General Pervez Musharraf. Kakar was a man with an incredible integrity, honesty and commitment to community service. He was friendly, easily approachable and always available to fellow members of community. He bravely spoke against the Pakistani security forces and intelligence agencies for violating their authority and engaging in enforced disappearances, torture and murder of young political activists. Kakar was a tireless campaigner. While he fought legal battles inside courtrooms, he also led protest rallies, addressed press conferences and sat on hunger strike camps outside the courtroom in his continued fight for the supremacy of democratic rule in Pakistan.
The killing of more than 70 lawyers is an unimaginable loss for Balochistan, a region Islamabad has purposely kept underdeveloped for decades. Filling the gap created by the loss of so many top lawyers will probably take many generations. The loss aside, what is deeply concerning is the Pakistani state’s shocking unwillingness to fight Islamic extremists who are responsible for carrying out these terrorist attacks. Islamabad finds it extremely convenient to externalize the blame on India and Afghanistan for such attacks although the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan Jamaat-ur-Ahrar (TTP-JA), a Pakistan-based extremist group, unapologetically claimed responsibility for the Quetta massacre.
Islamabad’s response to the Quetta carnage has been frustrating. The Pakistani rulers and military leaders have once again begun to float conspiracy theories about the alleged Indian involvement in Balochistan in order to deflect attention from their own failures and support for Jihadi organizations. For instance, the Chief Minister of Balochistan blamed the Indian intelligence agencies for the incident in less than one hour without even initiating any official investigation into the tragedy. In Pakistan, blaming India has become an effective shortcut for the government to close any chapter of official mismanagement and policy failures. Basically, once you blame India for some wrongdoing in Pakistan, you can get away with anything in that country, even a massacre that kills more than 70 people.
Balochistan is materially poor but it is politically a very aware society where young people avidly read newspapers, current affairs magazines and passionately discuss politics. Thus, it’s a tough terrain to sell the official narrative that Pakistan’s security establishment does not maintain connections with Islamic extremist groups. Islamabad’s repeated efforts to externalize the blame are increasingly failing, as there is growing demand in Balochistan to sack heads of the intelligence agencies and provide accountability for their failure.
Islamabad supports Islamic extremist groups in Balochistan in order to weaken an ongoing secular secessionist movement seeking a free Baloch state. This is a counterproductive policy that has led to the loss of thousands of innocent lives in the past one decade.
Islamabad has already used the Quetta incident as a pretext to launch army “combing operations” in Quetta. The question is, who is the army targeting? If there has been no official investigation yet, how do they know the terrorist hideouts? Assuming that the army already knows where terrorists are hiding, why did they have to wait for a tragedy like Monday’s to move against terrorists?
The Baloch complain that Pakistan does not care much about them but craves for their natural resources, including the gas, gold, copper and the sea. These reservations echoed once again on August 8th when Pakistan’s army chief, General Raheel Sharif, while visiting Quetta soon after the bomb blast, immediately insisted that the terrorists had struck because they wanted to sabotage the multi-billion Pakistan-China Economic Corridor (CPEC). Enraged Baloch youth took to the social media and lambasted the army chief saying he seemed more worried about China’s economic interests in Balochistan than its people who were still busy collecting the dead bodies of their loved ones.
Lawyers and journalists play an extremely critical role in promoting and protecting democratic values in the conflict-stricken Balochistan. By not going against Islamic extremists, the Pakistani government is making a blunder that will have catastrophic consequences. Pakistan’s future rests with lawyers, journalists and democracy fenders, not the Taliban and Islamic extremists.
The Pakistan army must not manipulate the Quetta incident and use it as an opportunity to quash Baloch political dissent instead of going after Islamic extremists. Delay in taking action against radical Islamic groups will give a new lifeline to these terrorists and embolden them to carry out more attacks on lawyers in the future. Inaction on the part of the Pakistani government amounts to further deepening the prevailing sense of insecurity among the country’s democracy defenders.