Youm-e-Ashura was observed in Quetta amid the tight security of the Pakistani security forces on Sunday. The main procession, led by the President of the Balochistan Shia Conference Syed Agha Dawood, passed through the conventional routes on the streets and roads of Quetta, reached Meezan Chowk where afternoon prayer was offered and culminated on Alamdar Road in the evening. The cellular services have been reportedly cut off as a security measure, were supposed to be back online after 12 am Sunday night.
According to the details, thousands of mourners from the Hazara Shia community took to the streets, clad in black attire, chanting hymns, reading elegies and shedding tears to commemorate Youm-e-Ashura, the day Hussain ibn Ali, Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) grandson and the third Imam of the Shia Islam, was martyred in the battle of Karbala by the Ummayad forces. The mourners indulged in the ritual self-beating and self-flagellation and organized gatherings and processions in the oversight of the Pakistani military.
According to the details, 10,000 security forces were deployed in the city to ensure the safety and security of the mourners. Earlier, IG Police Abdul Razaq Cheema told media that sweeping and searching of the processions’ routes have been completed and snipers have been posted on various sites along the way. He also said that three battalions of the Pakistani army were on standby in case an untoward incident precipitates. The military choppers were circulating the city to maintain aerial supervision and control rooms were established to ensure fluid and quick communication among the forces.
The Hazara community of Balochistan have been frequent victims of sectarian violence. In 2004, militants of the banned Islamist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi attacked the Ashura procession in Quetta, leaving 50 dead and at least 100 critically wounded. Subsequent major terrorist attacks like the Mastung attack, Playground massacre, Quds day bombing, bombing of a Hazara mosque and Akhtarabad massacre have killed hundreds of Hazaras in Balochistan. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi has claimed responsibility for most of the attacks. These attacks have exposed the plight of the Shia minority in Balochistan and have attracted global attention. Human rights groups like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and the United Nations have condemned and document these incidents of sectarian violence. The Hazara diaspora around the globe have also organized protests and demonstrations against these attacks in the past.
The arrival of the month of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar, raised apprehensions and suspicions on whether the Muharram commemorations would be observed in Balochistan as usual or amendments would be introduced amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Youm-e-Ashoora, the tenth day of the month, marks the day of the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, a central figure in the Shiite Islam. On this day, millions of Muslims around the globe gather in large congregations and engage in their ritual practices to mourn the martyrdom of Imam Hussain.
The coronavirus pandemic has only added to the woes of the Hazara community of Balochistan who already face gazillions of security threats from terrorist organizations, mostly Islamist outfits. According to the statistics, the coronavirus pandemic has subsided a little, but the risk of a rapid second-wave surge still persists. Owing to the risk of the coronavirus spreading, the authorities didn’t allow the commemoration of the Youm-e-Ali in May this year.
The Hazara community are a wildly marginalized minority in Balochistan. Earlier this year – when the pandemic was entrenched in China and Iran and was extending its tentacles to the west – the Shia community of Balochistan had to bear the brunt of the public outrage. The Hazaras were made the scapegoats for the coronavirus outbreak in Pakistan and were subjected to religious discrimination. Social media was rife with accusations that the Shias visit Iran and therefore bring the virus back to Pakistan. In many instances, trolls used the derogatory expression ‘Shia virus’ to incite hatred against the already relegated Hazara community.
In February this year, the coronavirus was rampant in Iran and the holy cities of Qom and Mashhad were its hotspots. Countless people, including traders, tourists and pilgrims, regularly visit Iran, which houses a few of the holiest sites in Shia Islam. As the Covid-19 infection tally spiked in Iran, the Pakistani authorities shut the border, leaving thousands of Shia pilgrims stranded in Iran. The visitors had to camp on the Iranian side of the Taftan border in squalid conditions with no facilities. When the situation in Iran worsened, the government faced a widespread public backlash and was forced to open the border. Resultantly, thousands of pilgrims crossed the border but were put in a coronavirus quarantine facility near the border. Subsequent reports showed that there were no bathrooms, blankets or any other facilities. One pilgrim compared the quarantine facility with a prison.
Because there were no testing facilities in the quarantine centre, the pilgrims were soon allowed to return home, and that’s when the discrimination began. Prior to any official lockdown, the city administration announced that the Hazaras must remain in the confines of their community. Their shops and businesses were closed; the employed were furloughed or laid-off altogether, whereas their non-Shia counterparts were allowed to run their businesses and retain their jobs as usual. As the formal lockdown was imposed, Quetta was isolated from the rest of the Balochistan, and the Hazara community were isolated from the rest of the Quetta.
Even Shia ministers in the higher echelons of the Pakistani government were not spared: Sayed Zulfikar Abbas Bukhari, special assistant to the prime minister, and Syed Ali Haider Zaidi, a federal minister, sustained discrimination from the mainstream religious clerics, who blamed them of facilitating the influx of Shia pilgrims in Balochistan and, therefore, paving the way for the spread of the coronavirus. From the outset of the coronavirus outbreak, the federal and provincial governments made it clear that they harboured the preconceived notion that the Hazara community are the ‘spreaders of the coronavirus’ when they allowed 1700 non-Shia visitors to Iran returnees were not quarantined and allowed to return home with minor temperature screening.
All in all, the coronavirus pandemic furthered the already abysmal sectarian discrimination of the Shia Hazaras in Balochistan. The month of Muharram offers a rare opportunity for the Hazara minority to unite and publicly perform their religious rituals.