No more a déjà vu, but a new war

INCREASING SEVERITY: “Militants today use suicide bombing in mosques belonging to the Shia and Ahmediya communities, making the extent of damage substantial compared to the past.” Picture shows Shiite Muslim women condemning the attack in Shikarpur, Sindh province, Pakistan.   | Photo Credit: K.M. Chaudary

Three major sectarian attacks (in Rawalpindi, Punjab, earlier in January; in Shikarpur, Sindh, recently; and in Peshawar) after the horrific Peshawar attack in December in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa highlight the other war within Pakistan. Though there has always been a sectarian fault line within the country, what is happening today is much more lethal than the earlier violence witnessed primarily in Punjab during the 1980s and 1990s.

There are at least five factors, which should make the ongoing sectarian war in Pakistan different from its earlier avatars, and more difficult to combat.

Geographic spread

First, the sheer geographic spread of the sectarian violence. Sectarian violence during the 1980s and 1990s was centred in a few districts of Punjab (in and around Jhang), select pockets of Karachi city, and in Khurram Agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

Today, incidents of sectarian violence cover the entire country. From attacks on the Shia pilgrims visiting Iran in Balochistan to bus passengers on the Karakoram Highway in Gilgit-Baltistan, and from Khyber and Khurram Agencies in FATA to the city of Karachi, the new sectarian war in Pakistan is not restricted to any one geographic region. The nature and extent of violence against the Hazara community in Balochistan is also a new phenomenon. In fact, Balochistan has always witnessed violence on separatism but never on a sectarian basis.

Intensity and violence

The second major difference in Pakistan’s sectarian war today is related to its intensity and violence. Today, militants use suicide bombing in mosques belonging to the Shia and Ahmadiyya communities; the extent of human and material damage is substantial today when compared to the past.

Emergence of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) during the last decade seems to have provided a bridge in linking the dots in this violence. In fact, the TTP and the erstwhile sectarian groups based in Punjab have become symbiotic today. The presence of Punjabi sectarian groups in the violence against Shia communities in FATA and Balochistan is no coincidence. Had it not been for this link, the sectarian groups would not have had access to either weapons or training, including training for suicide bombers.

With funding support from outside and with TTP linkages, sectarian groups in Pakistan no longer need the establishment; their survival is secure and expansion assured

The third major difference in the sectarian war is related to its external linkages. During the 1980s and 1990s, the sectarian differences within the country were primarily fuelled by the Cold War between Pakistan and Iran. President General Zia’s zealousness led to the emergence of sectarian groups such as the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and Lahkar-e-Jhangvi during this period, as a counter to groups in Iran and Afghanistan.

Today, the primary external driver of Pakistan’s sectarian violence is no longer limited to the differences between Tehran and Islamabad. The larger Shia-Sunni Cold War led by Iran and Saudi Arabia, and more importantly the rise of the Islamic State in the Iraq-Syria region have unleashed a new sectarian war elsewhere. Sectarian groups within Pakistan are no more dependent on local and state sources for their survival. They are well endowed, thanks to the unregulated funds pouring in primarily from the Gulf region. In the near future, dangers of the IS providing an ideological lead to sectarian groups within Pakistan cannot be completely ruled out. If that happens, the sectarian war within Pakistan may escalate even further.

The fourth major difference between the sectarian war in Pakistan today and then is related to the ability of the state to control it. It was no secret that in the 1980s and 1990s, the sectarian groups in Punjab had the support of the establishment. With funding support from outside and with TTP linkages, sectarian groups in Pakistan no longer need the establishment; their survival is secure and expansion assured.

Perhaps, the state may still retain some contacts and influence over the sectarian groups in select pockets, for example in Balochistan. But in Punjab today, the state may neither be able to control nor calibrate the sectarian violence. Worse, the state — both political and military establishment — seems to be afraid in targeting these sectarian groups. Consider the case of Mumtaz Qadri, the assassin of Salman Taseer, Governor of Punjab. How to explain the disappearance of case records from the courts, witnesses not turning up, and the government turning a blind eye to pro-Qadri lawyers carrying him on their shoulders in full view of the courts?

The fear of sectarian war expanding and becoming centred in Pakistan’s heartland (read Punjab), is the biggest nightmare for the country today. As long as the fighting takes place in the FATA, the state can use the military, air force, and even U.S. drones to target the militants. When it comes to the heartland, it cannot use any of the above, and will have to be heavily dependent on the police force. How confident is the establishment today that the local police will be able to combat sectarian militants?

Change in discourse

Sectarian militancy is also a new phenomenon in terms of its ability to neutralise the erstwhile ethnic and nationalist movements in Balochistan and Sindh. With no outlets to reach out to the state and with the governance process worsening day by day, the sectarian groups may be able to project themselves better than the nationalist movements — either of Sindhi or Balochi varieties. In the short term it may yield a dividend for the central government, as it is happening in Balochistan; as the sectarian war here has substantially changed the discourse from when it was led by the tribal Baloch Sardars. In the long run, however, it will hurt Pakistan even more.

Sectarian violence in Pakistan is no more a déjà vu. It is a new war.

(D. Suba Chandran is Director, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.)

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Printable version | Nov 28, 2021 6:03:27 PM |

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