By Anita Joshua
Mar. 09-22, 2013
The murderous campaign against Shias gains momentum, with outlawed Sunni outfits demanding that they be declared non-Muslims.
Close to 400 Shias were killed in sectarian violence in Pakistan last year. This year, more than 200 have been killed in the first 46 days alone. Nearly all the dead belonged to just one community, the Hazara Shias, forced into two ghettos in Quetta. And then there are the Shias taken out in ones and twos across the country, like 12-year-old Murtaza Haider and his father, Syed Ali Haider, in an upmarket locality of Lahore.
Even the massacre of nearly 90 Hazara Shias in serial blasts in Quetta on January 10 did not shake the national conscience. The attack was off the headlines within a few hours. It was only when the community refused to bury its dead and blocked a thoroughfare with the bodies in sub-zero temperatures that the media and political class took note. Such is the level of acceptance of anti-Shia violence.
No doubt, the sight of the Hazara Shias—young and old, men and women—keeping vigil for 72 hours in Quetta’s Alamdar Road in mid-January, in rain and snow, triggered a wave of protests across the country, but from all accounts the numbers that turned up in solidarity with them remained small. This quiet acceptance of the religious right-wing agenda is nothing new. In fact, it can be traced back to 1948, when the state funeral of the father of the nation, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, a Shia, was conducted according to Sunni traditions.
That was an early warning which was completely ignored by everyone, including Shias themselves, who, unlike other persecuted communities of Pakistan, have always had a sizable representation in policy- and opinion-making positions. But today, this community, which constitutes about 20 per cent of the population, fears genocide, with the outlawed Sipah-e-Sahaba (SSP) and its various incarnates wanting Shias to be declared “non-Muslims”, like Ahmadis.
Across the country, anti-Shia violence is on the ascendant. Even the remote areas of Gilgit-Baltistan, a Shia-dominant area, are not free of such targeted attacks. Visitors to the picturesque Hunza Valley say the historic Karakoram Highway is dotted with villages that are literally wearing Shia martyrdom on their sleeves. Villages have put up signposts listing their people who have been killed in sectarian violence; many of them pulled out of buses, identified either by their names or by the self-flagellation marks Shia men acquire during Muharram, and gunned down to slogans such as “Shia kafir” (Shias are infidels).
Apprehensive of matters getting worse in the face of growing intolerance, Shias are now being advised against giving their children names that can clearly identify their sect. Christians became wiser on this count years ago and many in the community have Muslim names. Sadly, this is not an option for the Hazara Shias, who, with their distinctive Mongoloid features, are easy prey.
The Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), which claimed responsibility for the February 16 attack in which over a hundred Hazara Shias were killed, has, according to residents of Quetta, launched an SMS service asking people to report to a specified mobile number as soon as they spot a Hazara. This is why the community decided to live together in two colonies of the city. Ironically, these two settlements, described as open-air jails by the community, have made them that much more easier to target. The unrelenting attacks on their community have, by some accounts, begun to affect the education of Hazara Shias. The sect boasts a 90 per cent literacy rate, with the girls also encouraged not just to study but to go out and work. School and college attendance among Hazara Shias has dropped as they are increasingly wary of stepping out.
So brazen have the terrorists become that the LeJ, while claiming responsibility for the February 16 blast, boasted of having enough explosives to carry out 20 such attacks. Nearly 1,000 kilograms of explosive material was used in the February 16 blast, begging the question as to how it crossed into one of the most barricaded cities in the country.
Given the history of the SSP and the LeJ as known proxies of the security establishment, and with more and more people talking about the linkages, the Army this time round had to come out and deny that it had anything to do with these organisations. As with many other Jihadi outfits, the SSP and the LeJ are essentially Punjab-based organisations with a support base that can be a clincher in elections. The veteran journalist Najam Sethi maintains that the Punjab government of Nawaz Sharif’s party has turned a blind eye to these outfits “in exchange for an implicit understanding that the LeJ voters in as many as 40 constituencies will vote for the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz)”. There is also a security angle as the tacit understanding ensures that PML (N) leaders are not targeted by terrorists, unlike the Pakistan People’s Party or the Awami National Party, both of which have lost several politicians in terrorist attacks.
As for the police, they are reluctant to make strong cases against these organisations because of the SSP and the LeJ’s appetite for vengeance. “They do not forgive or forget”, is a common refrain and there are several cases of a policeman or a lower court judge being killed for not toeing their line. As a result, even in those instances where cases are filed against terrorists, the rate of acquittal is very high.
And with every acquittal the terrorists get emboldened, while the police and witnesses cower. Though the LeJ, which in recent years has taken the name Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) to work around the ban imposed on it in the Musharraf years, has taken responsibility for several attacks, its leader, Malik Ishaq, was a free man until recently. He even got a chance to brief the media before being arrested and, if past record is anything to go by, will enjoy every comfort in jail. Before he was released on the orders of the Supreme Court in a murder case in 2011, Ishaq was apparently being paid a stipend by the Punjab government.
Shia-Sunni tension is not exclusive to Pakistan, but here it got escalated owing to the security establishment’s overemphasis on the country’s strategic location and tendency to try to use it to its advantage. While anti-Shia rhetoric in the central Punjab district of Jhang—the hub of terror networks like the LeJ and the SSP—can be traced back to the 1950s, the Zia-ul-Haq era saw Saudi Arabia bankroll his Islamisation project, which encouraged the “Sunnification of Pakistan”.
Violence against Shias began escalating and feeding into local dynamics. Take, for example, Balochistan. Historically, it has a reputation of being secular, but today it is identified with sectarian violence. The widely held perception is that many of these Punjab-based outfits have been allowed to function in Balochistan at will to counter the Baloch nationalists. In the process, if they pursue their own sectarian agenda, the government looks the other way.
Now that the police have information that the Quetta blast was the handiwork of the Usman Kurd group of the LeJ, the fact that he had escaped from a high-security jail in the Quetta Cantonment way back in 2008 comes into sharp focus. It is said that a new crop of security personnel were brought in just hours before his escape, providing enough grist to the rumour mill that he had inside help. When Kurd was in prison, the anti-Shia violence in Balochistan had seen a major drop as was the case elsewhere in the country during Malik Ishaq’s incarceration.
It is clear from all accounts that those in charge, not essentially the political leadership, are reluctant to read the writing on the wall at the nation’s own peril. While the Hazara Shias are donning T-shirts and head bands with the question “Am I next?” even the Sunnis do not feel safe as the more puritanical schools of thought gather steam.