Sectarian strife

Published : Mar 30, 2002 00:00 IST

It is the month of Muharram, and unless President Musharraf cracks down on the fundamentalist groups as he promised in his January 12 speech, sectarian violence will escalate in Pakistan.

THIS time the sectarian hydra struck in the Pakistani capital, well, almost. The target was a Shia mosque in Rawalpindi. At least nine Shia Muslims were killed in February when unidentified gunmen opened fire at worshippers offering their dusk-time prayers at the Al Najaf mosque, in a locality of the garrison town that borders Islamabad. While the police have started investigations, officials have not ruled out the involvement of foreign hands. What foreign hands? An honest answer can lead to information that might be officially unsavoury or, more plainly, harmful to Pakistan's "brotherly" relations with other states. The foreign hands are India's, therefore.

Pakistan faults the two decades of turmoil in neighbouring Afghanistan for the bloody sectarian violence that, according to one newspaper commentator, "continues unabated with an impunity that is probably without precedent".

When the Russians withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the camps that were set up with money and logistics provided by the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, to train Afghan mujahideen (Islamic warriors) against the pro-Moscow regime in Kabul fell into the hands of hardline Afghan Islamic groups. Their Pakistani counterparts also began to use the well-equipped facilities to train their cadres to fight in Kashmir. Pakistani groups with sectarian leanings, mainly from the majority Sunni sect, also groomed their die-hard elements there. For hot-headed Sunni activists, mainly from the southern regions of Pakistan's central Punjab province, the training facilities in Afghanistan were a lure. The fact that Pakistanis suspected of involvement in sectarian killings were finding a welcome sanctuary in Afghanistan was in effect recognised when Islamabad made efforts to make the Taliban - which it helped create - expel its nationals. That it never happened is another story. That is the story of Afghanistan's perceived share in the rise of sectarianism in Pakistan. The Sunni side of the problem, that is.

The Shias are said to have got inspiration from the Islamic Revolution of 1979 in Iran, a country where the adherents of the sect constitute an overwhelming majority. The rise of Shia fundamentalist clerics to power in Iran is believed to have given a new consciousness to the followers of the sect in Pakistan. A sort of revivalism and a source to draw strength from, for the Pakistani Shias. The extremist Sunnis and their Shia counterparts - that small minority on either side said to be responsible for the deadly violence in Pakistan - are believed to thrive on the financial largesse from the Arab monarchies in the Gulf and Iran respectively. The foreign hands that Pakistan would not publicly or officially point to. The argument of "foreign hands", goes thus: Iran is for the Pakistani Shias what the Taliban was for their Sunni rivals.

Iranian culture centres in Pakistani cities are particularly seen by hardline Sunnis as outposts promoting Shia causes. No wonder then that local employees at the centres are mostly from the Shia sect. Also, some of the centres have been targets of hostile firing. In a widely reported incident in the early 1990s, the head of the Iranian cultural centre in Lahore was murdered in a five-star hotel in the city.

"There could be despicable elements that have sold their souls to the enemies of this nation. They are ever ready to do the bidding of their alien pay-masters," adds the Pakistan newspaper Frontier Post to the foregoing argument.

The "foreign hands" debate aside, the "scourge of sectarian violence", as a leading newspaper in the country put it, undercuts the initiatives Pakistan's military ruler General Pervez Musharraf took on January 12 this year. Acknow-ledging that around 400 people had been victims of the sectarian mayhem last year, Musharraf banned several Shia and Sunni groups, among them the Sipah-e-Sahaba and the Laskhar-e-Jhangvi of the Sunnis and the Sipah-e-Mohammad and Tehrik-e-Jafria Pakistan of the Shias.

But there is scepticism whether Musharraf really meant business when he announced in his January 12 speech the steps aimed at ending "religious extremism" in the country. "What comes as a matter of shock and dismay is the weak response of the government to a ghastly situation that can erupt into a grave crisis. Its half-hearted statements condemning the killings do not reflect serious official concern," Dawn newspaper, with its headquarters in Karachi, which is a city that is most prone to sectarian slayings and which saw a renewed spurt of communal violence in recent weeks, writes in a scathing editorial.

Killings related to sectarian intolerance or sabotage have been happening across Pakistan, with markedly high frequency in some areas. Unarmed civilians fall prey almost everywhere, but in Karachi the killings assumed an altogether new and frightening character in the recent past with Shia doctors being targeted.

Unofficial figures say more than 80 doctors have been killed in sectarian and related violence in Karachi during the past 30 months. Most of those killed were Shia, according to news reports. In the two weeks ending March 19 alone, three Shia doctors were killed in the port city. A fourth, a urologist, narrowly escaped death.

Following the latest series of apparent vengeance killings, Karachi doctors went on strike, shutting down hospitals and demanding protection from a government whose own Minister's brother, ironically enough, had fallen prey to the growing lawlessness. Pakistan's Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider, a former military General, is a Shia Muslim. His brother was killed earlier this year by unknown assailants.

Almost never any claims are made of the involvement in any of these incidents by any known or unknown group, making investigations difficult. But officials do make claims, just as the police did a few days after the latest killing in Karachi. They claimed to have killed three activists from the banned Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Sunni militant group, in a shootout in the southern part of the Punjab province. But, of late, the police are increasingly being accused of faking encounters to finish off suspects in "extra-judicial killings", in order to avoid lengthy legal proceedings to secure convictions or, worse still, cover up lapses in investigations. The police claims, therefore, have little credence. On top of this, secrecy surrounds the government's projected moves against sectarian terrorism. Questions asked from officials about the number of people detained, the number of incidents that take place at a given time or the status of the investigation into a certain case, are seldom answered. Telephone calls to the government departments concerned are tossed around. Visits by reporters are discouraged. All this despite the fact that the Interior Ministry has an officially designated spokesman.

Muharram, the first month in the Islamic calendar, has begun. It is the most sensitive month in the context of sectarian strife. Shias mark the death of Prophet Muhammad's grandson, Imam Hussain, on the tenth day of the month, as the culmination of nearly two weeks of mourning.

With a weary eye on suspected saboteurs, Pakistani law enforcers keep on the edge during Muharram. The police and troops move around in armoured personnel carriers in the cities. Contingents of troops are deployed at the Imam bargahs - or the Shia mosques - crowded with Muharram mourners.

On March 19, when Musharraf was engaged in consultations with provincial Governors and senior government functionaries in Islamabad on the security situation in the country, unidentified motorcyclists in Lahore sprayed a religious figure with bullets, killing him and his driver. En route from the scene, the assailants felled a third man. The suspected killers disappeared. In the tribal hinterland, the southwestern corner of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan, where ethnic Pashtun tribes are divided on communal lines - Sunnis and Shias - clashes during Muharram tend to be more deadly.

It remains to be seen what Musharraf and his aides formulate for increasing security after their deliberations in Islamabad. The grenade attack on a Protestant church in mid-March in a heavily guarded diplomatic enclave in Islamabad, which killed five people and wounded 40 others, is already being linked with the way in which Musharraf has dealt with the hardline militant groups. If the incident portends what is yet to come, there are also warnings that Musharraf cannot turn away from. "It is time the President followed his speech up by adopting a strong public stand on the sectarian killings. The danger is that an ostrich-like policy will backfire in the long run," Dawn warns.

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