When the Shias of Pakistan are angry, the Pakistani Army and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) tremble.
Because they have not forgotten what happened in 1988. Faced with a revolt by the Shias of the Northern Areas (Gilgit and Baltistan) of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), under occupation by the Pakistan Army, for a separate Shia State called the Karakoram State, the Pakistan Army transported Osama bin Laden's tribal hordes into Gilgit and let them loose on the Shias. They went around massacring hundreds of Shias -- innocent men, women and children.
The resulting Shia anger led to the death of Gen.Zia-ul-Haq in a plane crash in August 1988, the end of the military regime and the subsequent assassination of Lt.Gen.Fazle Haq, a retired Army officer, close to Zia and hated by the Shias because of his suspected role in the assassination of a respected Shia leader.
The enquiry report on the crash of Zia's plane has not so far been released by the Pakistan Army, but many in Pakistan believe that the crash was caused by a Shia airman from Gilgit, who was a member of the crew.
The Army and the ISI imposed an effective iron curtain around the NA after the genocide of the Shias of the area by bin Laden's tribal hordes. As a result, the world was ignorant of the extent of the anti-Shia carnage until the Herald, the monthly journal of the prestigious Dawn group of Karachi, pierced the curtain in its issue of May,1990. It was helped by leaks from a somewhat tamed ISI, then headed by the late Maj.Gen.Kallue, a retired officer of the Army close to the late Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto, who had been hand-picked from retirement by Benazir Bhutto after she came to power in an attempt (since proved futile) to reform the ISI.
The Herald wrote:
"In May,1988, low-intensity political rivalry and sectarian tension ignited into full-scale carnage as thousands of armed tribesmen from outside Gilgit district invaded Gilgit along the Karakoram Highway. Nobody stopped them. They destroyed crops and houses, lynched and burnt people to death in the villages around Gilgit town. The number of dead and injured was put in the hundreds. But numbers alone tell nothing of the savagery of the invading hordes and the chilling impact it has left on these peaceful valleys."
The Shias of Pakistan are angry again and on the warpath. This is evident from the daring assassination of Maulana Azam Tariq, the head of the anti-Shia Sunni extremist Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) in Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, on October 6, 2003.
They have many grounds for anger against Azam Tariq -- for the role of the SSP in the massacre of hundreds of Hazara Shias of Afghanistan before 9/11 because they were sympathetic to the Northern Alliance of Afghanistan; for its proximity to bin Laden's Al Qaeda and the International Islamic Front (IIF); for its targetted killing of dozens of Shia doctors and other intellectuals in Karachi since Musharraf came to power in October,1999; and for its massacre of the Gilgitis of Karachi and the Hazara and other Shias of Balochistan since the beginning of this year.
The latest incident of massacre of Shias took place in Karachi on October 3 when unidentified gunmen , suspected to be from the SSP, attacked a bus carrying employees of the Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO) , killing at least six people and wounding eight. All the injured and four of the dead were Shias, while two – the bus driver Raza Ali and a Pakistan Army soldier Mohammad Rafiq – are Sunnis.
The Shias of Karachi have viewed this incident as a continuation of the earlier massacres in Karachi and Balochistan and feel that the SSP has embarked upon the anti-Shia carnage in different parts of the country due to a suspicion that the officers of the USA's Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), now based in Pakistan, have been using the Shias as human agents in their hunt for bin Laden and the dregs of the Al Qaeda and the IIF.
While the ISI and the Army have remained silent on who is responsible for the anti-Shia massacres since the beginning of this year, Police officers in Karachi say that the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LEJ), the militant wing of the SSP, the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen al-Alami (HUM-AA) and the Harkat-ul- Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI) have formed a new outfit called 313, which has been operating on behalf of the IIF. According to them, while its attacks are presently directed at the Shias, it is likely to target American and other Western lives and interests soon. All the three are members of the IIF.
It has not yet been established as to who was responsible for the assassination of Azam Tariq, but the needle of suspicion points to members of a new, as yet unidentified Shia terrorist organisation. It is seen as an act of reprisal for the earlier massacres of Shias in Balochistasn and Sindh.
The Shias have cause for anger against Musharraf too. He banned on August 14,2001, the SSP and the Tehriq-e-Jaffria Pakistan (TEJ), a Shia organisation, after declaring them terrorist organisations. He further banned on January 15, 2002, the LEJ and the Sipah Mohammad, the militant wing of the TEJ. The Shias complain that while the ban against their organisations have been enforced strictly, the bans on the SSP and the LEJ have not been.
Surprisingly and much to the anger of the Shias, Musharraf facilitated the election of Azam Tariq to the National Assembly in October last year by ordering the withdrawal of the cases pending against him under the Anti-Terrorism Act.
Azam Tariq denied any association with the SSP and announced the formation of a new organisation called the Millat-e-Islamia Pakistan (MEI), but the Shias believe that it is the SSP, which is now functioning under the new name to circumvent the ban and that Azam Tariq continued to direct the activities of the SSP and the LEJ from his safe sanctuary as a member of the National Assembly.
Are there any signs of the Shia anger turning against the Army, with unpredictable consequences for Musharraf and his military rule? None yet, but one has to watch carefully.
This may please be read in continuation of my earlier article of July, 2002, Sectarian Roots Branching Out, and the subsequent articles on the anti-Shia massacres in Karachi and Balochistan.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt of India, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical studies, Chennai, and Convenor, Advisory Committee, Observer Research foundation (ORF), Chennai Chapter.