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The Sectarian Hydra

Violent and frequent Shia-Sunni clashes add to Nawaz Sharif's lengthening list of woes

The Sectarian Hydra
The gunning down of two dozen Shiite Muslims in the heart of Lahore on January 11 is another cruel reminder that the monster that is sectarian violence still roams untamed in Pakistan.

Since one hate-attack is always met with another of equal ferocity from the other side, a violent Shia backlash is expected. And it is unlikely that the controversial anti-terrorism Act will be a deterrent. One of the first Acts passed by the Nawaz Sharif government since it came to power—it provides the police with sweeping powers to tackle terrorists, and empowers special courts to try them—it has done little to contain the rising sectarian violence. Even the formation of a multi-sectarian board to help foster communal amity has failed to quell the growing unease. In fact, the tight security in Lahore didn't deter hundreds of rampaging mourners from torching a cinema hall and attacking government buildings, including a court, before the mass burial of the victims on January 12.

A Sunni militant group, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, has owned responsibility for the killings. The group, whose chief Riaz Basra escaped from police custody three years ago, has claimed responsibility for four major killing incidents since 1995. Lashkar is backed by the Harkat-ul-Ansar, which provides it financial assistance and weapons besides arranging for military training for its cadres. The Harkat-ul-Ansar claims to be working for the liberation of Kashmir and has mobilised huge funds for the purpose.

The sectarian fanaticism and massive arms proliferation in Pakistan can be traced to the decade-long Afghan war. Religious seminaries became the nurseries which supplied young Mujahideen to the war. With the war over and US funds drying up, the professional militiamen have now returned to Pakistan and find themselves unemployed. Most have found a new job with these sectarian outfits.

Armed attacks on places of worship and on followers of different sectarian groups are routine. Pakistan, which witnessed only one death in sectarian violence in its first 30 years (1947-77), has buried over 3,500 people in the last two decades—in Punjab alone. According to I.A. Rehman, director, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, the rising wave of sectarian politics can be mainly attributed to three developments in the region: the ideological polarisation of West Asian politics; the emergence of sectarian parties like the Shiite Sipah-e-Mohammad and the Sunni Sipah-e-Sahaba; and the proliferation of arms during Gen. Zia's rule.

But it would perhaps be naive to blame Zia for all the ills. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto first bowed to the clergy, declaring "Ahmedis" non-Muslims. Later, Bhutto faced a countrywide agitation of mullahs in 1977, which finally led to the imposition of martial law. Zia's government found a ready constituency among these mullahs.

Senior journalist Khalid Ahmed sums it up thus: "While the clergy was busy consolidating its clout under Zia's patronage, two revolutions of contradictory nature in neighbouring countries fuelled what has come to be known as fundamentalist Islam. Shiites—in a minority—and looked upon suspiciously by the extreme clergy, rallied around the radical Imam Khomeini and demanded the enforcement of their codes. On the other hand, Sunni, Wahabi and Deobandi ulema forged alliances with the Afghan freedom fighters, especially the Taliban."

 "The religious seminaries, popularly known as the deeni madrassahs, set aside their sectarian differences, and persuaded Zia to grant their degree a status equivalent to those issued by universities.These 175,000 religious seminaries of the two main sects produce millions of mullahs every year who have to find employment for themselves. For them, one of the sure ways of earning a livelihood is a mosque," says Ahmed.

The Sipah-e-Sahaba was founded as a suborganisation of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, comprising Sunni mullahs, but it soon broke ranks with its parent party because of its "completely different line of struggle". On becoming independent, it launched a protracted war against Shiites who retaliated by setting up their own front—the Tehrik-e-Jaafria Pakistan. This soon split up and the Sipah-e-Mohammad was born whose raison d'etre is the defence of the rights of Shiite Imams.

The head of Pakistan's Shiite community, Allama Sajid Naqvi, says the government is responsible for the escape of five Sipah-e-Sahaba criminals from Dera Ghazi Khan jail which led to the killing of 24 Shiites. The head of the Sunnis, Maulana Ziaul Haq Qasmi, refutes this allegation. He suggests that if the government wants to protect Shiites, it should turn Pakistan into a Sunni state because only the majority can guarantee minority rights.

Some latest intelligence reports submitted  to the interior ministry say Iran and Saudi Arabia are waging a war of interests in Pakistan by massively funding their proxy organisations, the Sipah-e-Mohammad and the Sipah-e-Sahaba respectively. "Unless Saudia Arabia and Iran stop funding such organisations, it is impossible to curb sectarian terrorism. The Pakistan government should ask them to stop patronising these sectarian outfits," observed a police officer, requesting anonymity.

The Benazir Bhutto-led opposition blames the sectarian violence on the government's reluctance to take stern action against the fanatics for fear of a backlash. "Civil servants have often told the government that religious seminaries are working as principal hideouts of sectarian terrorists in Punjab and they should be brought under scrutiny. But the administration has not received a go-ahead signal either from the prime minister or from the Punjab chief minister's office," says Ahmed Mukhtar, PPP secretary-general. "We are doing our best to contain sectarian terrorism, but it is a difficult issue. We have passed laws and it will take time to be effective," retorts Sharif's press aide Siddiq-ul-Farooq.

The Lahore carnage embarrassed the Sharif government, but it appears to be clueless about the killers. The overwhelming opinion in official quarters does not consider this killing to be an ordinary act of sectarian strife. "We have to broaden the net," says an interior ministry official. "We believe that there is a foreign hand behind this killing," he claims, and "the the fact that the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi has owned up for it is just a publicity stunt."

Both president Mohammad Rafique Tarar and Sharif have hinted at the possibility of a foreign hand in the killing. The view is popular, reinforced by ISI and Military Intelligence assessments of the sectarian problem. One such assessment, submitted to the government recently, holds 'infiltra-tors' in the ranks of sectarian organisations responsible for the killings. The reference is obviously to India whose intelligence agencies and military planners have never minced words, accusing the ISI of planning bomb attacks in India.

Says an Islamabad-based journalist, Syed Talat Hussain: "Since the beginning of this year, there have been three bomb blasts in India—all in the capital New Delhi—which left 50 injured and 14 dead. The killing in Mominpura might well be a consequence of these blasts". As a last resort, the Sharif administration has approached the armed forces to help out.The army is reportedly reluctant to enter the quagmire, leaving the government with issuing inconsequential statements.

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