Sectarian Violence in Pakistan

4th November 1997

There is considerable dismay within Pakistan about the law and order situation. The frequency of sectarian violence has increased enormously in recent months, with over 50 people losing their lives in Punjab alone. At the same time the ethnic situation in Karachi has taken a turn for the worse with rival factions of the MQM battling it out on the streets. Despite strong words expressed by Mr Nawaz Sharif as well as passing tough new laws that give the police and other law and order organizations enormous powers of summary arrest, the ground situation has not changed. Instead, Mr Sharif has come under pressure from human rights activists and political opponents for the draconian laws which they believe can be used by Mr Sharif against political opponents.

Mr. Sharif's decision to challenge these militant organizations head on, with the infusion of paramilitary forces, comes rather late in the day, because more than 250 lives have been lost in sectarian violence in the first eight months of 1997. He has been seeking to follow a two-fold approach to curb growing sectarianism through tough measures and also by enacting necessary legislation banning sectarian parties. But neither approach seems to be working. He has been unable to get consensus on a law that would outlaw sectarian outfits from maintaining militias, or in controlling the activities of madrassas, which receive foreign funding and appear relatively impervious to government control. A similar situation obtains in Karachi, where Mr. Sharif appears reluctant to enact paramilitary forces for the fear of losing the MQM support to the Sind government coalition led by Liaquat Jatoi.

What appears to have worried the Pakistani establishment is the growth in the number of militant outfits which have created bases in interior Punjab as well as the fact that the militants are no longer only religious zealots fired by the spirit of sectarian revenge. There has also been a gradual induction of trained mercenaries into these organizations. Recent investigations into the Khairpur Tammewali incident in which over 20 people lost their lives showed that the suspected killers had been supporters of the SSP and were trained in camps in Afghanistan. Confirmation of a nexus between terrorist training camps and sectarian violence emerged with the disclosure of a secret report prepared by the Sheikhupura police in Punjab province that 28 centres have been identified in Punjab province alone, which not only breed sectarian views, but also train "the mujahideen for jihad throughout the world".

A profile of the sectarian problem in Pakistan would suggest several significant trends. In the past 10 years, the struggle which essentially began between Shia and Sunni groups as a result of Zia's drive for Islamization, has transformed from the theological to a political battle. As sectarian parties entered the political fray to prevent the passage of any religious laws which were adverse to them, major political parties were ready to make political alliances with them. The Pakistan Peoples' Party included the Tehrik Nifaz Fiqh-I-Jafaria in the Peoples Democratic Alliance. This forced the the Sunni Anjuman Sipah Shahaba (ASS) to align with the PML. Subsequently even Ms. Bhutto wooed the ASS and included its representative in the provincial coalition government in Punjab. By gaining respectability through its entry into politics, the extremist elements were strngthened.

The second important trend in the evolution of the sectarian problem has been that with the onset of militancy, sectarian groups have become highly mutant. Therefore, policing such groups becomes even more difficult and the ability of these groups to create linkages with drug and arms dealers, makes them lethal and relatively impervious to law enforcement directives. The third trend would show that apart from intricate links that militant sectarian groups have created with drug dealers and gun-runners, most sectarian groups have been able to create madrassas in interior parts of Punjab, which are flush with money. This money reportedly flows in from outside sources, with many militant groups having Saudi and Iranian contacts.

The traditional areas where sectarian tensions have persisted in the past have now been replaced by new areas where such tensions appear with unfailing regularity. In the 1980s the Shorkot-Faislabad-Jhang-Mainwali belt was considered a hot bed of sectarian tension. This forced the armed forces to maintain a round the clock all year round vigil. This belt has now been expanded into Bahawalpur, Multan, Okara and Lahore. While efforts are being undertaken to tackle the sectarian problem in the long run, the enormity of the problem would need the government to target the root causes. Apart from overcoming the theological debate about the implementation of the Shariah, other issues relating to drug dealer-gun runner nexus, having effective control over the madrassas, and their financial activities would need to be tackled with vigour.

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