By Khaled Ahmed
Aug 29 2013
Sectarian violence within Pakistan is related to its policy towards India.
On Friday, August 23, TV channels started flashing the news that a clash between “two religious groups” in the Bhakkar district of Punjab had taken six lives. Through the day, this was the refrain, but most viewers knew that a sectarian war was on and no one was willing to spread the news that Muslims were killing Muslims. And that it didn’t take the al-Qaeda to make this happen: the Pakistani state was giving itself the sectarian laxative and expelling non-Sunnis. But this time, the worm had turned and the Shias were fighting back.
Jihadi militia, the banned Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) riding under the new name Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), took to the streets after one of their clerics, Ghulam Mohammad, was killed and used a suicide bomber against Shias. The police failed to arrest the killers within 48 hours and that was enough for the ASWJ to go around killing Shias. Finally, 12 people died in a two-way confrontation. The Shias have had a lot of casualties over the years and are now helplessly fighting back. They also shifted the battlefield and killed a big ASWJ leader in Karachi. The war is no longer localised.
Bhakkar district was created in 1981. Most of it lies in the desolate territory called Thal, along the Indus River, whose alluvium gives it a fertile flood plain. On Friday, the clerics, clutching hi-fi mikes, began denouncing each other from their mosques. The ASWJ’s firebrand secretary general Manzoor Okasha finally came out leading his fanatics on the main street. Someone fired on the procession and the carnage started. The police proving helpless, the army was called in and curfew imposed.
This was not the first instance of sectarian terror in the country, even though its media will not name names. In June 2011, Syed Zameer-ul-Hassan, a Shia personage in charge of organising the Muharram rituals in the city, was gunned down by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Punjab. No one in the city was in doubt. There were three terrorist organisations hunting the Shias: the SSP, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). And the government in Lahore was intently looking the other way because in 2008, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif was elected from here, some say with the help of Bhakkar’s Shia-killers.
The same year, in October 2008, a PML-N member of the National Assembly, Rasheed Akbar Niwani, was attacked by a suicide-bomber in Bhakkar. The attack killed 25 of his guests and injured him. He was targeted because he was a Shia. Nor was there any doubt about who had done it. It was the LeJ, an offshoot of the SSP, but since both are fighting al-Qaeda’s war in Pakistan along with other Deobandi militias, the footprint of the Taliban was clear.
The PML-N was keen to win again in the 2013 election and got close to the terrorists, evidently inspired by the army’s brand of “realism”. The terrorists were part of the state enterprise of jihad and were therefore immune. The man who got the terrorists to hitch up with the PML-N was Punjab law minister Rana Sanaullah, who approached the “mother organisation” to soften the spearhead warriors.
The Jihadi publication, Daily Islam reported on February 23, 2010, that Sanaullah had visited Jhang and paid his respects at the tomb of the founder of the SSP, Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi. He led a delegation of the ruling PML-N, which included parliamentary secretary Iftikhar Baloch and party MPA from Jhang, Sheikh Yaqoob. He also visited the tombs of other SSP martyr-leaders, such as Maulana Isar-ul-Qasimi and Allama Azam Tariq.
The News published a report on February 27, 2010, titled “PML-N sees no harm in seeking banned outfit’s blessing”: “A defunct sectarian organisation, Sipah-e-Sahaba, is rearing its head again and its leaders’ participation in an election rally in PP-82 constituency, along with Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah, has sent shivers down the spines of citizens here, who have seen sectarian bloodshed for over a decade before it subsided in 2002.”
But the terrorists did not do well in the 2013 polls. The “front” candidates put up as ASWJ politicians did not win, which was taken by the terrorists to mean that the PML-N had not delivered on its electoral pledges. Thus, in February 2013, the central leadership of the ASWJ reminded Shahbaz Sharif that he owed his chief ministership to none other than the ASWJ, which had withdrawn its candidate in his favour “from PP-48 Bhakkar-II to ensure his election as a member of the Punjab Assembly in June 2008”.
Bhakkar’s fate is sealed because it is close to the Dera Ismail Khan district of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, abutting on South Waziristan and lying in the grey area where a kind of diarchy is in operation: the Taliban rule in tandem with the local administration. During the recent DI Khan jailbreak carried out by the Taliban to free their warriors, the police offered no resistance and the local army formation did respond to an appeal for help.
The first suicide bombing in Bhakkar occurred in the wake of two sets of developments. First, Shia families fleeing the sectarian violence in DI Khan had begun to settle in Bhakkar, driving up property prices in the district. Second, the LeJ had grown more powerful in Punjab, bolstered by its links with al-Qaeda.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is determined to normalise relations with India and cap his efforts eastwards with free trade and a soft visa regime. This seems unrelated to the problem at hand, but it is not.
Pakistan’s national security doctrine, postulated by the army, tells Pakistanis when to feel secure and when to experience fear. This has been ingrained in the Pakistani population by the nation-state and its foundational narrative. Pakistani nationalism stands squarely behind the army in its teleology of demonising India, and not behind the elected government, because the latter cannot, so far, create the kind of consensus needed to change the school and college textbooks of Islamiyat and Pakistan studies that reinforce the national security doctrine in favour of the army.
The Pakistan army uses the threat of India to manufacture the doctrine of strategic depth, allowing it to project its power westward into Afghanistan through non-state actors, all of them linked to al-Qaeda and wedded to Shia-baiting. Eastward, it is projecting its power in an “asymmetrical war” with India, once again using the same non-state actors affiliated with al-Qaeda.
The “disconnect” with the non-state actors will happen if Pakistan’s foreign policy is no longer wedded to a permanent conflict with India based on a demand of revisionist change of the territorial status quo. Why should the army allow Nawaz Sharif to change the India policy? Because it wants to distance itself from the non-state actors who attack the army chief every time he looks like hurting their corporate interests by switching off the conflict across the LoC. Only the radicals inside the army can reconcile the wisdom of using non-state actors with its declared objectives of national security. That is why the army chief has advised Nawaz Sharif to brandish the gun instead of the olive branch at the Taliban.
Khaled Ahmed is a consulting editor with ‘Newsweek Pakistan’ firstname.lastname@example.org