ON November 27, 11 fettered prisoners, charged with the death of 27 people in three separate sectarian attacks,were brought to the Special (Suppression of Terrorist Activities) for final verdict. Since the prisoners belonged to the radical Sunni group, Sipaha Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), the police encircled court and thoroughly frisked all visitors prevent any possible violence.
Judge Rafiq Ahmad Awan lost no time in sentencing the 13 SSP activists (two persons have been declared absconders and were tried in absentia) to death. Among the accused was SSP secretary general for Sindh province, Hafiz Ahmad Bux. All the 27 people they were charged with killing belonged to the minority Shia community. While 20 persons were shot dead in two Shiite mosques, Masjid Abul Fazl and Mehfil-e-Murtaza, on February 25, seven others were killed in an attack on a house on March 2.
Soon after the verdict, clouds of fear started gathering over the already tense residents of Karachi, where more than 1,700 people have died in political violence this year. Newspapers brought out special supplements on the death sentence and the police intensified security arrangements at Shiite worship places.
The death sentence (the law gives the convicts the right of appeal to a higher court against their sentence) came just a week after a massive blast at the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad. Many believe that the death sentence is linked with Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's crackdown on religious militants after the blast. Hundreds have been detained and the authorities have sealed the offices of three groups—the Tehrik Jafaria Pakistan (TJP), the Sipaha Mohammad Pakistan (SMP) and the SSP. Interior Minister Naseerullah Babar said these religious parties were patro-nising militants in their madrasas.
For its part, the SSP has accused the government of launching a campaign against religious groups at the behest of the US. Known for its strong views against Shia Muslims, the organisation has its headquarters at Jhang, a dusty town in the heart of Punjab. The group's chief, Ziaur Rehman Farooqi, and another SSP leader, Azam Tariq, a vocal member of the National Assembly, were arrested in Punjab on November 21 in connectionwith the murder of a ruling party deputy's father. The SSP is also believed to be behind the ransacking of the BBC office in Islamabad two months ago.
The SSP and its Shia counterpart, the SMP, have been accused of sectarian violence but their rivalry was somewhat defused after the formation of a multi-party religious front early this year. Almost allimportant religious groups are represented on the front, called the Milli Yakjehti Council (MYC), which aims to check sectarianism. The erstwhile enemies have joined hands against the countrywide crackdown on extremist religious parties. Angered by the detention of religious activists, the MYC has threatened a mass mobilisation cam-paign against the government.
The ulemas realise that the current crackdown poses a serious threat. Maulana Shah Ahmad Noorani, chief of the Jamiat Ulema Pakistan, fears that Pakistani embassies abroad will not issue visas to foreign students coming to Pakistan for an Islamic education. Adds Habibullah Mukhtar, administrator of the Jamia Uloom-e-Islamia, Banoori town: "If someone is receiving money from abroad or is involved in terrorism, the government should come forward with concrete proof. It does not behove a Muslim government to malign the ulema."
The tussle between Bhutto and the religious parties has been going on since she became prime minister. The Malakand episode early this year, in which hundreds of Islamic hardliners took up arms in the North-West Frontier Province to push their demand for the enforcement of Shariat in tribal areas, is seen as a manifestation of growing Islamic militancy. The armed insurrection was successfully crushed by the government, but it left an indelible mark on the country's political scene.
The political prowess of the religious parties was first witnessed in Pakistan in 1977 when thousands of students joined the countrywide agitation against the Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto government. And madrasas received a tremendous fillip during the '80s, with massive funding from West Asian countries. Simultaneously, the decade-long Afghan war institution-alised the gun culture. Significantly, the Jamaat-i-Islami, perhaps the most politically organised and ideologically disciplined religious party, was the first to join the jehad in Afghanistan.
Extremist organisations like the SSP and the TJP made full use of the military training they received during the Afghan war for sectarian killings. With a large number of well-armed and well-trained cadres in their ranks, the complexion of religious political parties has changed considerably over the last decade. Some of these parties openly advocate violence as a means to achieve their goals.
Political observers believe that any government which tries to curb them is likely to face strong resistance. And though the religious political parties do not have the support of the massesat large (they secured only nine seats in the 1993 general elections), they are capable of creating problems. However, the Bhutto government, which perceives its secular credentials to be a major asset in its political standing in the West, seems to have bitten the bullet this time.