SECTARIAN militants have caused Quetta to be drenched in blood many times in the past. But the ghastly carnage of the Hazara Shias last week was shocking even by Pakistan`s bloody standards. A crumbling state has failed to stop slaughter after slaughter and to provide even basic security to its hapless citizens leaving them at the mercy of the murderers.
It is a sinister attempt to systematically annihilate an entire community because of its faith as the government and security agencies callously watch the macabre game of death. Even the pain and anguish of young children, women and elderly men sitting in the rain and subzero temperatures with the coffins of their relatives failed to shake the conscience of our political and mili-tary leadership. Their desperate cry for help remained unheeded. It was appalling that none of the federal or provincial leaders had even bothered to visit the families of those killed in one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in the country in recent years. There wereonly routine statements of condemnation from the president and the prime minister which they deemed enough to console the affected families. It was only after protests across the country erupted that federal ministers were rushed to Quetta to pacify public anger.
The absentee provincial chief minister Aslam Raisani was believed to have gone on a pleasure trip abroad and it appeared he would not have wanted to be disturbed. Governor Zulfikar Magsi was candid enough to admit that the government had lost the right to rule after the massacre.
It was only after several days of protest and the refusal of the families to bury the victims that the political leaders woke up from their slumber to take notice of the tragedy. But there is still no sign of any serious thinking to deal with the menace which threatens to push the country towards a sectarian civil war with grave consequences for the unity of the state.
While the administration silently watches the situation drift into anarchy, the armed murderers continue to carry out their deadly operations with impunity. The callous indifference to the esca-lating sectarian-based violence that has left thousands of people dead has caused complete loss of public faith in the government and security agencies.
The criminal inaction of civil and military authorities also gives credence to the growing perception of complicity of some elements within the intelligence agencies with the Sunni militant groups blamed for the Shia massacre in Balochistan.
The mysterious escape from a highsecurity detention centre inside a cantonment of three men believed to be the masterminds behind several suicide attacks on Shia mosques and religious processions in Quetta raise serious questions about alleged insider links.
Although the rise of Sunni sectarian militancy is a relatively new phenomenon in Balochistan, the province has witnessed some of the most gruesome carnage in recent years. For sure, the Hazara community in Quetta is the main target of militant attacks. But there havealso been several other incidents where Shia passengers have been pulled out from buses, forcibly had their IDs checked and then shot dead in cold blood in other parts of the province.
The gruesome video footage of the massacre was then posted on the Internet to publicise the horrible act.
There have also been cases of buses carrying Shia pilgrims including women and children being blown up by the militants. Though technically outlawed, the sectarian outfits operate freely and promote their toxic worldviews through hate literature openly.
Initially, the upsurge in Sunni militancy was to some extent linked to Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban insurgents using the province as their base after the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. This connection came to light after the investigation into a series of attacks on Shia mosques and Ashura processions in Quetta between July 2003 to March 2004 that killed hundreds of worshippers. The probe showed that Dawood Badani, a close relative of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was the mastermind behind those suicide bombings for which responsibility was claimed by theLashkar-i-Jhangvi.
But the recent rising tide of anti-Shia violence coincides with the emergence of tribal lashkars propped up by the intelligence agencies to counter the Baloch separatist movement in the province. Some of the governmentbacked armed outfits particularly those operating in the Khuzdar and Mastung areas also draw their support from networks of hundreds of madressahs in the region.
With donations from Gulf and Arab countries most of those madressahs are run by hard-line clerics with close ties with the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi. That provides a deadly and unholy nexus of forces fighting the Baloch separatists and those waging war against the Shia community.
Hence it is not surprising that most of the attacks on buses carrying Shia pilgrims have occurred in the area around Mastung which is not only the centre of hard-line madressahs, but also the baseof pro-government death squads, besides being the constituency of former chief minister Aslam Raisani.
That may also explain the ambivalence of the security agencies in cracking down on groups involved in the anti-Shia attacks.
It is indeed a very danger-ous game that has given huge space to the militants responsible for the killings of thousands of innocent Muslims. Such a short-sighted policy pursued by our security agencies may have huge consequences for the country`s stability. The relentless rise of sectarian violence presents the biggest threat to the country`s internal security and the menace must be dealt with by the full force of the state before it is too late.
The Quetta carnage may be forgotten after some days and consigned to statistics on victims of sectarian terrorism. But the courage and defiance shown by the bereaved families and members of the Hazara community has shaken the country.
The protests across the nation and public show of revulsion against the ghastly killings of innocent people can prove to be a turning point in Pakistan`s struggle against all kinds of terrorism.
But it will depend on whether the civil and military leadership show the will to take up the challenge.
By Zahid Hussain (The writer is an author and journalist)