A massacre in Quetta

Published : Mar 26, 2004 00:00 IST

The violence in the Baluchistan capital on Muharram day highlights the deep-rooted nature of the sectarian strife in Pakistan and points to the need to take firm action against jehadi groups.

in Islamabad

ON March 2, Muharram day, Quetta, the capital of the Baluchistan Province of Pakistan, was the scene of a ghastly sectarian massacre, which left 47 people dead and over 130 injured. The incident, in which three unidentified men fired indiscriminately at a procession of mourners, occurred in the city centre in the afternoon. According to the police, two of the three assassins died in the gun battle that followed and one was caught with multiple injuries.

It is difficult to take the version of the police at face value, given their track record in the investigation into the killing of 50 worshippers inside a mosque in the same city in July. Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali and several senior functionaries of the Pakistani establishment were quick to see a `foreign hand' in the incident. Doubts were raised about the supposed activities of the Indian consulates in neighbouring Afghanistan and Iran. For well over a year, Baluchistan has been ruled by a coalition of the Muslim League, which supports President Pervez Musharraf, and the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a grouping of six religious parties. The MMA is supposed to represent the right-wing, yet, less than seven months after it came to power the province has witnessed one of the worst instances of sectarian crime. It is obvious that the ruling combine has not helped bridge the sectarian rift.

The sectarian divide in Pakistan runs deep. It was former military dictator Zia-ul-Haq who sowed the seeds of a division in order to perpetuate his rule. Subsequent rulers, including Musharraf, have done precious little to reverse the trend. The Muharram violence is just the tip of the iceberg.

As the incident in Quetta took place just hours after the death of Shias in Karbala and Baghdad in Iraq, attempts were made to link the two incidents. Al Qaeda is suspected to be behind the incidents in Iraq; at least Washington wants everyone to believe that to be the case. However, the Musharraf regime was quick to deny any connection between the incidents in Quetta and the Iraqi cities. Politically, any such link does not suit Pakistan. Even if it is assumed that Al Qaeda is behind the killings in Iraq, it can be explained as an act of resistance to the occupation of the country by the United States. There is no reason why Al Qaeda should choose Quetta for conducting a similar operation. Also, there is little evidence of any parallel between what happened in Iraq and Quetta.

Another theory that analysts are debating is whether the Quetta carnage could be an act of revenge by Al Qaeda or other hardliners for the operations conducted by Pakistan in the tribal areas along the Afghanistan border in search of fugitives at the behest of America. But it makes little sense for anyone opposed to Pakistan's military operations to strike at sectarian targets. Pakistan has been cooperating with Washington in the so-called war against terrorism since the September 11 incident. The Al Qaeda is dominated by Sunnis but at this point it is faced with bigger enemies and is battling for its very survival.

The `foreign hand' theory is the least credible one. The only Pakistani functionary to support the argument was Foreign Office spokesman Masood Khan. In response to a question at the regular briefing, Masood Khan said that the probe into the Quetta incident would be `comprehensive and cover all aspects', including the alleged activities of Indian consulates. The probe was significant as it involved charges against three countries - India, Iran and Afghanistan. Iran and Afghanistan were charged by default after Indian consulates in their countries were accused of indulging in objectionable activities. Khan sought to argue that the government had arrived at some conclusions but did not want to disclose them.

The series of incidents that occurred in and around Quetta in the past few months make the gravity of the issue of sectarian strife clear. In June last year, Shia police cadets were shot dead by unidentified gunmen. Shias in the city blamed Sunni extremist groups for the attack. In July, more than 50 Shia worshippers were killed during Friday prayers at a Quetta mosque.

Most analysts agree that the current hostilities began in 1979 when General Zia began Islamising Pakistani politics in order to legitimise his rule. As a result, hardline religious groups were strengthened. These developments coincided with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979, as a result of which there was an influx of weaponry into Pakistan. Arms from the U.S. and funds from Saudi Arabia allowed Zia to wage a proxy war in Afghanistan with the help of mujahideen, or holy warriors. The dominant Sunni sect in Pakistan became militant. The Iranian revolution provided a ray of hope for the minority Shia sect, who received help from Iran. Consequently, Pakistan became the battleground for Islamic countries representing different sects.

After 9/11, thanks to mounting U.S. pressure and a series of attacks by jehadi groups on Western and Christian targets, Musharraf launched a campaign against extremism in January 2002 and banned several militant groups. However, it was a half-hearted measure. He was not willing to take on jehadi and sectarian outfits beyond a point. He chose to strengthen the right-wing elements rather than compromise with mainstream political parties. Besides, he was not willing to give up jehad as a key element of its Kashmir policy. There are signs of change on this front after Musharraf met Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on January 6 in Islamabad. But it is difficult to say at this juncture whether the change is permanent or strategic.

In his televised speech on January 12, 2002, Musharraf promised a series of measures to combat extremism. One of the key tasks announced was to bring all madrassas or religious schools into the mainstream and to tighten controls on their funding and curriculum.

Although several extremist groups were banned, their leaders were not prosecuted under the Anti-Terrorism Act. One leader with more than 20 charges of violent crimes pending against him was allowed to run for Parliament, while many secular politicians were disqualified for flimsy reasons such as not having enough educational qualification. Banned groups were allowed to function under new identities. Many militant outfits, though banned for a second time in November 2003, continue to function unhindered and are likely to resurface under new names.

According to a recent report of the International Crisis Group, Musharraf is unlikely to take any decisive action against domestic jehadis and madrassas spreading the ideology of jehad. "These unfulfilled promises could well prove his undoing," the report says.

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