Posted by: Titus Presler | February 18, 2013

Unburied bodies a potent and sacrificial form of protest

The killing of over 80 people in a bomb blast targeting Hazara Shia Muslims and claimed by the banned Lashkar-i-Jhangvi in Balochistan’s capital of Quetta over the weekend renewed and extended the travesty of the killing of close to 100 people in two similar blasts in Quetta on January 10.

It also brings to mind the remarkable protest launched by Quetta’s Shia community at that time: They refused to bury the bodies of their loved ones – until the government would do something to assure them that they would be better protected in the future.  Families of men, women and children sat with the coffins of 86 unburied dead for days in the streets of Quetta – right through the nights in bitter cold and sometimes rain.

There are indications that at least some of the bereaved in the latest bombing are attempting the same this time.

Before these events I had never before heard of people protesting deaths by refusing to bury the dead – at any time or anywhere in the world.   Unburied bodies are an especially extreme step for Muslims, who bury their dead within a day.

The deaths and the unburied dead had their effects in January.

“The massacre of Hazaras has bored through the shock absorbers that we refer to as either resilience or apathy,” remarked one news commentator on Jan. 15.  Protests launched all over the country included members of all sects and all religions.  Hazara Shias have been under attack in Balochistan for about ten years, and altogether about 1,100 people have been killed, according to news reports.

The protest of the unburied dead brought down the elected provincial government in the end, and the federal government put the province under the rule of its appointed governor.  The new arrangement unfortunately has not been able to prevent this latest outrage.

Observing the power of the unburied dead in Quetta, a group of tribespeople in Bara, an area of Khyber Agency near Peshawar, adopted the same protest tactic shortly after the January Quetta protest.  After 18 of their people were killed by the army in what they regarded as an unjustified attack on peaceful civilians in the ongoing struggle between the military and insurgents, they brought 15 of the bodies in coffins and laid them out on the driveway to the Governor’s House here in Peshawar.  After initial negotiations, the police forcibly removed the bodies by night, at which the tribesfolk returned and had to be dispersed with tear gas – so we had the gas wafting over the Edwardes campus on the morning of Jan. 17, which naturally led to some student unrest.

Unburied bodies are potent both practically and symbolically.

Practically, we all shrink from the signs of decay, so as a form of protest an unburied body brings time pressure to bear.

Symbolically, the unburied body communicates a singular message about the issue and the protester: “My loved one has died because of your action or inaction.  My loved one and our community have not been protected, and you are responsible.  Behold, here is the evidence of your culpability.  I long to honor my loved one with a proper burial.  It is my religious responsibility, and I am stepping beyond the bounds of my religion by delaying burial.  Yet I make this sacrifice, horrifying as it is, in order to secure justice and prevent further horror.”



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