Feb 22 201
insulated from the Shia-Sunni conflict. That can’t be taken for granted
of the Israeli diplomat’s car in New Delhi last week got linked to the
Iran-Israel conflict, but there’s another disquieting dimension to it that’s
gone largely unnoticed and could have far-reaching consequences across South
Asia. It’s the other conflict in the Middle East, also involving Iran, between
Shias and Sunnis. It is the competition for influence and leadership between
Shia Iran and Sunni Salafi Saudi Arabia.
is old, but after the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, it’s got a new violent
and political twist that even touched India’s neighbourhood on December 6 last
year. That’s when three attacks struck Afghan cities simultaneously, killing 63
Shia worshippers on Ashura.
Nasr, author of The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam will Shape the
Future, says that by “liberating and empowering Iraq’s Shiite majority, the
(George W.) Bush administration helped launch a broad Shiite revival that will
upset the sectarian balance in Iraq and the Middle East for years to come’’.
One reason is the size of the Shia population and its spread.
Shias are a minority, are estimated between 10-15 per cent of all Muslims. But
they account for about 90 per cent of Iranians, 70 per cent of those living in
Iraq, 70 per cent in Bahrain. They are a tiny minority in Saudi Arabia where
Sunnis make up 90 per cent of the population. In South Asia, too, they are a
minority. In India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, they make up between 10 to 15 per
cent of Muslims.
plays out in deeply polarising ways where Saudi Arabia and Iran compete for
influence. This is why protests against the dictatorship in Syria have Saudi
(read Sunni) support while Iran favours the rule of the minority Alawi
Bashar-al-Assad over a Sunni majority. In stark contrast, the pro-democracy
protests in Shia-majority Bahrain are openly supported by Iran while Saudi
Arabia sent its troops to help the regime of King Hamad to quell the protests.
home, Pakistan, with its bloody history of Shia-Sunni violence, also fits in
the larger Saudi versus Iran paradigm. In India, although a Shia-Sunni divide
does exist, it has been insulated from sectarian violence because the politics
of Indian Muslims is primarily focused on identity, discrimination and
prejudice. This means that commonalities between Shias and Sunnis have
dominated the debate rather than differences. But last year’s sectarian attacks
against Shias in Afghanistan and the Saudi Arabia vs Iran conflict have set
alarm bells ringing.
suspect behind the December attacks is Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, also accused of
attacking Iranian diplomats in Pakistan and plotting unsuccessful assassination
attempts against former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf and two former
Prime Ministers Nawaz Sharif and Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi
was set up in 1996 as a militant and extremist offshoot of the Sunni sectarian
outfit, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP). Both groups were banned by Pakistan in
2002 and Washington, too, listed Jhanghvi as a terrorist organisation. SSP was
set up in 1985 by Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, Zia-ur-Rehman Farooqi, Isar-ul-Haq Qasmi,
and Azam Tariq as an extreme Sunni group with a clear aim to turn Pakistan into
a Sunni state where Shias would be treated as apostates.
and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi have been traditionally close to the Taliban. Jhangvi
also set up a loose operational alliance with al-Qaeda. What is worrying the
security establishment here is Jhangvi’s strong ideological and operational
connection with the Jaish-e-Mohammad, Harkat and other militant groups from the
Deobandi school of thought in Pakistan. These groups have a long, bloody
history of operating inside Jammu and Kashmir.
been occasions when Jhangvi tried to enter Kashmir. Like in April 2000, when
Maulana Masood Azhar — freed for the IC 814 hostages — split with Harkat and
formed the Jaish-e-Mohammad. In fact, Pakistani academic Tahir Kamran does
refer to this in his paper “Islamisation of Pakistan — 1979-2009” for the
Washington DC-based Middle Eastern Institute: “When Masood Azhar founded
Jaish-e-Mohammad in the aftermath of his release in Kandahar, following the
hijacking of an Indian aircraft in December 1999, Azam Tariq pledged to send
500,000 jihadis to Jammu and Kashmir to the fight Indian security forces.’’ SSP
leader Azam Tariq, elected to Pakistan’s national assembly thrice, was
assassinated in October 2003.
there is, however, no evidence of Jhangvi’s entry into Kashmir.
So how did
Kashmir stay away from the shadow of this vicious sectarian violence in
Pakistan? There are several reasons. The Shia clergy has been part of the
separatist camp and even prominent Shia leader Abbas Hussain Ansari led the
Hurriyat Conference, its executive council has a representative from the
influential Shia clergy family of Aghas in Budgam.
the level of Shia participation in Kashmir militancy has been modest, an
exclusive Shia outfit called Hizbul Momineen was formed in the early 1990s. The
Jamat-e-Islami and the militant outfit Hizbul Mujahideen are against sectarian
divisions despite being Sunni outfits. And as Hizb was the dominant militant
outfit during the 1990s, the group did not allow the ripple effect from
Pakistan to reach the Valley.
situation is different. After a severe crackdown by security agencies, Hizb is
marginalised. The Lashkar-e-Toiba is also ideologically anti-Shia but this
group has never been involved in attacks aimed at Shias. Lashkar-e-Toiba,
however, does not have a history of ideological or operational affinity with the
SSP or Jhangvi. Then, Jaish’s Kashmir presence has declined substantially ever
since the 2001 assembly blasts. Over the past 10 years, Masood Azhar’s group
has been involved in attacks inside Pakistan, including the assassination
attempt against then President Musharraf and the March 2009 attack on the Sri
Lankan cricket team. Interestingly, these attacks were joint Jaish and Jhangvi
operations. Thus if Jhangvi seeks partners in India with an aim to break the
sectarian calm, it doesn’t have to look far — it will find Jaish as its ally.
Saudi Arabia-Iran schism grows across the Middle East, its shadow may well
extend to India because both countries have strong, domestic connections
within. Given that someone chose the heart of New Delhi to attack an Israeli
target — in sync with an attempt in Georgia — there is reason to be extra
cautious. The bombing has muddied the security waters here; there is a
likelihood that groups with a sectarian agenda may start fishing for trouble.
Like Jandulla (Balochistan-based anti-Iran Sunni group) or Mujahideen-e-Khalaq
(anti-Tehran), any sectarian extremist group can well be manipulated by a
foreign intelligence agency to settle scores far away from its own theatre of
conflict. That calls for utmost vigil here both by the political and security
Source: The Indian Express, New Delhi