My relationship with the people I come across on any given day is decided by their numbers. When they are individuals or small groups I feel responsible for them and try to protect them. When they are a mob, I feel responsible for my family and try to protect myself from them.
I am a policeman. Not one of your obese, maskeen police wallahs but a university graduate, police academy trained, one star assistant sub inspector. I like working from the office and with individuals and the local community; and crowd control is all I’ve been assigned in the past couple of years. Islamabad is not a big and crowded metro. Public gatherings here are few and far between, and tend to be of more manageable size and temperament than anywhere else in Pakistan. But the violent ones can get very messy. During and since Lal Masjid, the Islamabad Capital Territory Police has been attacked and overrun by seminary students, lawyers, goons of a local MNA, Namoos-e-Risalat mobs … and on a frequent basis, terrorist groups.
My mother and wife agree on only one thing, that I should not take my job too seriously to risk my life. That no medal is worth dying for and no insult is too hurtful if it saves your life. In my brief career, I have never been seriously under threat – as a law enforcer, as an individual citizen, as a Sunni Muslim, or as a Potohari – though, I have had colleagues and work buddies blown into bits that had to be gathered from the ground and plucked from trees and car shells. I have had colleagues kidnapped, tortured, and executed. I don’t really see them as heroes; quite the opposite. For the most part, they were unfortunate to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, and in some cases, for the wrong reason. They make up one statistic that I do not wish to become part of.
For an average-sized demonstration – one in which all the participants and their placards fit into the camera frame – I get to lead a team of six to 10 constables. The protesters are always well to do professionals – lawyers, doctors, journalists, but mostly the civil society which is what the NGO types call themselves. They all feel aggrieved, blame each other, the government and police, and sometimes resort to violence to protest against violence. I don’t judge anyone. I don’t support an ideology and I don’t oppose an ideology. I am not even interested enough to have an opinion of the issue that gets people out in the protest. My job is to ensure that the assembly stays out of trouble and ends peacefully, and that my team finishes its shift without hurting and getting hurt.
This assignment seemed fairly routine which is why I was caught unawares at the end of it. A couple of hundred people were gathered outside a Super Market last Sunday evening to protest against the killing of Hazaras in Quetta. They’d been there all through the previous afternoon and night. There were the usual faces – the so-called civil society (does that imply the rest of the society is uncivil?) that included a number of non-Muslims – but many were strangers to the city’s protest culture. They were Hazaras. I have never seen them becoming part of any demonstration. I could, however, understand why they’d come out – men, women and children – this time. Their dead were urging them to.
Hazaras are being killed like birds in a cage. They cannot run, they cannot hide, they cannot defend themselves. I saw a poster of one of the victims of the Quetta tragedy and remembered this young man Irfan Khudi as a regular participant of civil society demonstrations. I looked at a Hazara child and wondered if he will live to be a man and die a natural death in old age. Or will he become another talkative dead body like the 86 who were speaking non-stop for the past three days, from their coffins placed on Alamdar Road in Quetta? Why are they talking and why won’t they let their families bury them? Why was I thinking? I am only required to watch, anticipate, and act, I reminded myself.
But there was nothing to do. Except for a brief encounter with students from a nearby madrassah yesterday, who took offence at anti Lashker-e-Jhangvi slogans, the marathon event had been largely uneventful and sober. Protesters were sitting on neatly laid rows of darris, listening to speeches from anyone who wished to say something. Occasionally, a speaker from Quetta or an overseas gathering would be heard through phone line. Apparently, similar protests were being held everywhere Pakistanis live. There weren’t many Hazaras among the speakers though. They sat motionless, or served the protesters food and tea with a hospitable smile, and spoke shyly and politely; too politely for a people being hounded relentlessly and murdered systematically. It must be the reticence and compulsive politeness of the whole community that was infuriating the dead. Their decomposing bodies were yelling for the living Hazaras to speak up for their right to live. The effort pushed the remaining blood in their bodies to spill out of their pores, and the family mourners had to change their white cotton shrouds every few hours.