In-Depth On The Cover

Sect in motion

Published 23 Mar, 2015 05:46pm

On Friday, September 6, 2013, Fazeelat Shah alias Phul Shah and his devotees were gathered at a communal space in Jassoki village of Gujrat district when four armed motorcyclists appeared. As Shah lifted his head to confirm his presence, after one of the gunmen enquired about him, a hail of bullets followed. Five people died on the spot. At least six others, including Shah, were injured. He was rushed to the district headquarters hospital in Gujrat but succumbed to his wounds soon after arriving there.

Members of his family as well as residents of Jassoki say that Shah, who had a sizeable and growing spiritual following, did not have any personal enmity. The police have also ruled out the possibility of his murder having taken place as a result of a feud within his family. This leaves out only one possibility: Shah was targeted by some terrorist group.

“The police and other law enforcement agencies have found some leads that could prove helpful in tracing the attackers,” Ali Nasir Rizvi, the District Police Officer (DPO) in Gujrat, tells the Herald. One of these leads is video footage captured by a closed-circuit television camera at a shop in Sarai Alamgir, a town on the other side of Gujrat district from Jassoki, just one day before the attack on Shah.

The footage shows four armed men riding two motorcycles – one, a Honda CD 70, and the other, a Honda CG 125 – with the drivers wearing helmets. They stopped in front of the shop, owned and run by a member of the Ahmadi community; one of them rushed into the shop armed with a 0.22 pistol but came out soon after without firing a shot. Their target – the shop owner – was not in, say police officials. Those wounded in the Jassoki attack have testified that the motorcycles and helmets shown in the footage are the same as the ones used by the men who had attacked them. They have also identified the other two motorcycle riders as their attackers.

DPO Rizvi says that this points to the presence, in Gujrat, of target killers on a mission to kill for religious and, possibly, also sectarian reasons. He, therefore, is certain that Shah’s killing was an act of terrorism though he does not want to call it an act of sectarian violence — at least, not yet. “Investigations are still under way,” he says.

But Chaudhary Manzoor Hussain, the district president of the Majlis Wahdatul Muslimeen (MWM), a Shia political party set up in 2009, has no doubts about the motive behind Shah’s killing. “He was targeted because he was a Shia,” says Hussain.

In another part of Punjab, Muhammad Asghar, a small trader in Khan Bela village of Rahimyar Khan district’s Liaqatpur tehsil, was killed on September 14, 2013, in a sectarian clash which started after he showed a text message that he received on his cell phone to his friend, Aali, who thought its content insulted his Shia beliefs. Enraged, Aali and some others beat up Asghar, who went on to approach local activists of the Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), a Sunni sectarian-cum-political group, seeking revenge. This led to a scuffle, which left many injured on both sides. Asghar, who was struck on the head during the scuffle, was admitted to a hospital, where he died three days later.

A few weeks before his death, an ASWJ rally in Bhakkar district passed through a Shia-majority village, Kotla Jam, resulting in a clash that left 10 people dead on both sides, and many more injured. When some of the bodies and injured reached Darya Khan, a nearby town, rioting and firing erupted immediately, leading to the death of two more people, one from each sect.

Earlier in the year, on February 25, to be exact, Professor Dr Syed Ali Haider, head of the ophthalmology department at the Lahore General Hospital, and his 12-year-old son, Murtaza Haider, were killed in a drive-by shooting incident in Lahore’s Gulberg area. His relatives say Ali Haider was not a member of any sectarian organisation. The police, however, believe that he was murdered for being Shia.

If these incidents are anything to go by, the country’s most prosperous and ostensibly the most peaceful province, Punjab, is simmering with sectarian tensions that have already boiled to deadly clashes on many occasions and may cause more sectarian violence in the coming months and years. Data collected by South Asia Terrorism Portal, a Delhi-based group monitoring incidents of terrorism in the region, shows a similarly worrying trend: Sectarian violence claimed 64 lives in Punjab in 2011; another 43 people were killed in sectarian clashes in the province in 2012. “Sectarian mindset is everywhere in our society,” warns Lahore-based political analyst Dr Hasan Askari Rizvi.

The heaven of harmony, no more

Sectarian violence was unheard of in Gujrat until recently. Hussain, the local head of MWM, claims that a sectarian organisation belonging to the Deobandi/Sunni sect has intensified its activities in the district since the May 2013 general election. Suggesting that the members of the organisation could have provided support and assistance to Shah’s killers, he says: Local support is crucial for sectarian assassins to strike their targets effectively. The killers do not belong to Gujrat, he says, adding that they have come from outside but received help from their local supporters in getting information about their targets and putting together the logistics for the attack.

Hussain accuses the ruling Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PMLN) of supporting the sectarian organisation. “Some influential political figures belonging to the PMLN have a very close association with the rogue elements of the sectarian organisation,” he alleges. “Covert support to such saboteurs by two well known politicians belonging to the PMLN is an open secret in Gujrat,” he adds. This, to him, appears to be one of the reasons why not a single PMLN parliamentarian representing the district, let alone a provincial or federal minister, visited the victims of the Jassoki attack. Even local leaders of the ruling party have not issued any statement condemning the attack, says Hussain.

Official sources confirm to the Herald that a support system for sectarian assassins exists in Gujrat and that two PMLN parliamentarians could be a part of it. According to intelligence reports sent to the federal and provincial governments by local operatives, these parliamentarians have a close association with banned sectarian outfits and participate in gatherings and activities that have an open sectarian agenda. Intelligence officials fear that DPO Rizvi could also be attacked for vigorously pursuing Shah’s assassins. Senior administration officials in Gujrat, however, tell the Herald that, so far, authorities in Lahore and Islamabad have not taken any steps to stop the two parliamentarians from being sectarian partisans.

This worries local residents. Dr Tariq Saleem, a member of a committee set up to maintain sectarian peace in the district and a local leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami, says the Jassoki attack should serve as “an eye-opener for the political, as well as religious, leadership” in Gujrat. “These killings should be taken seriously and a multi-sect conference should be convened by the district administration to ensure that such violent incidents are not repeated,” he says.

Some local leaders of the PMLN, too, are concerned that sectarianism is rearing its head in the district. Haneef Awan, the party’s member of the Punjab Assembly, representing Sarai Alamgir area, says the activities of some elements previously belonging to banned sectarian organisations are increasing, which should be taken seriously by the government to maintain religious harmony and peace in Gujrat. He, however, rejects the allegation that his party is covertly supporting any militant or banned organisation. “The PMLN has always condemned terrorism in all its form and manifestations,” says Awan.

Trouble down south

Rahimyar Khan, Punjab’s southernmost district, is chock-a-block with sectarian graffiti. Even tree trunks along roads and streets have sectarian slogans scribbled on them. Both Sunni and Shia organisations in the area regularly hold public meetings where inflammatory speeches are made and incendiary slogans are raised. Aerial firing at these gatherings is also routine practice. Even though the local administration makes efforts to remove sectarian graffiti, propagators of sectarian hatred bring it back more swiftly than the officials remove it. “If the government does not take concerted measures to stop the propagation of such hate material and the publishing of books carrying objectionable material, a civil war might start in the [south Punjab] region,” warns Shafiq Moavia, the district president of ASWJ in Rahimyar Khan.

The least the district administration can do is register cases against those involved in producing graffiti and other incidents of sectarian nature. In the last 20 months alone, the local police registered 20 cases against more than 1,000 Sunni activists for sectarian wall chalking, for writing derogatory remarks outside the houses of Shias and for raising anti-Shia slogans in public meetings and at other public places. During the same time, two cases were registered against more than 30 Shia activists for firing at participants of public meetings of the ASWJ.

More often than not, sectarian tensions in the district have led to incidents of violence. This August, a local leader of Shia Ulema Council, Sheikh Manzoor Hussain, and his son were shot dead in Rahimyar Khan. In January 2012, a bomb blast targeted a Shia procession in the district’s Khanpur town and claimed the lives of 17 people, leaving 30 others injured.

Moavia says one reason for sectarian clashes in the district is incidence of sectarian violence elsewhere in the country. “Whenever bodies of ASWJ activists from Karachi and other cities arrive [in Rahimyar Khan], it becomes difficult to keep people calm here,” he tells the Herald and adds that recent clashes in Bhakkar have also led to increased sectarian disharmony in the district.

Sajjad Ali, the caretaker of an Imambargah in Khanpur and the local head of the Shia Ulema Council, complains that a couple of mosques of the Deobandi sect, in his town, routinely hold public gatherings on anti-Shia subjects and raise anti-Shia slogans from their loudspeakers which “hurt the feelings of Shias”. But he claims that members of his own sect “do not react” to such provocations.

That Sunni sectarian organisations have an upper hand over their Shia rivals in the area is quite apparent from Abbas’ conciliatory tone. It is even more noticeable in the rather belligerent tone ASWJ’s Moavai adopts while talking about why Shias should confine their religious activities within the four walls of their homes or places of worship. Shias often take their processions to roads and streets they are not allowed to, he says. Even if a majlis (gathering) is held in one house, the entire locality suffers due to security checks and traffic blockades, he adds. This, Moavia argues, causes problems for residents of the area, who get irritated with the situation, often leading to brawls between members of the two sects. His solution to the problem is as simple as it is one-sided: “Shias should hold their religious programmes inside their Imambargahs; they should not come out on main roads and streets because that disturbs entire areas for hours”.

Impartial observers, too, verify the relative strength of Sunni organisations. “ASWJ’s people have resources; their leaders usually have armed security guards and the latest vehicles to roam around in,” says S Israr Hussain, the president of a traders association in Bahawalpur and a Sunni member of an inter-sect peace committee in the area. “On the other hand, Shia activists used to be resourceful two decades ago. Now, it seems they cannot afford to carry out armed activities,” he tells the Herald.

Bloody days

Ghulam Muhammad, a cloth merchant and the district general secretary of the ASWJ, was walking to his shop from his home in Bhakkar city on August 21, 2013, when unidentified attackers killed him. While investigators are still not sure if the motive of his murder is sectarian, local Sunni activists took out a protest procession two days after his death, demanding the arrest of his killers. The protesters were soon joined by another big procession that began from Panjgaraeen village and moved through Darya Khan town and Kotla Jam village before entering Bhakkar city. As participants of the latter procession were returning to Panjgaraeen via the same route they had used to reach Bhakkar, they got entangled in what could easily be described as the worst incident of sectarian violence in Bhakkar district in recent years.

Like all things sectarian, the details are controversial. Depending on who you ask, you will get a different answer about how the whole thing started. “When we reached Hussaini Chowk, in Kotla Jam, on our return journey from Bhakkar, Shia activists opened fire on us,” says Abdur Rahman, a Sunni activist from Panjgaraeen. “They also pelted stones at us and attacked us with axes and knives. Within a few minutes, two people were killed and many others injured,” he says and adds that the police fired in the air to end the clash.

Abdul Hameed Khalid, the principal of a Sunni madrassa and a senior leader of ASWJ in Panjgaraeen, claims that Shia residents of Kotla Jam held participants of the Sunni procession hostage for six hours, killing some of them in a gruesome manner. “Mufti Ahmed Hassan was drilled in the head and nailed to death. The eyes of Hafiz Muhammad Ashraf were taken out and his private parts were chopped off. The arms of Hafiz Ahmed Ali were mutilated. The bodies of all the five Sunni activists killed in Kotla Jam had brutal torture marks,” he tells the Herald.

But Muhammad Nawaz Cheena, a resident of Kotla Jam, says Sunni activists raised anti-Shia slogans as soon as they reached Hussani Chowk. “Some Shias sitting at a roadside tea stall at the Chowk responded by raising anti-Sunni slogans. At this, one participant of the Sunni procession started firing with a gun. I saw a person getting shot in the head and collapsing on the ground,” he says.

Fiaz Hussain Kahawer, another resident of Kotla Jam, claims to have seen something similar. “As the participants of the procession started chanting anti-Shia slogans, some Shia activists responded to them in the same coin. Some people in the procession started firing with guns and I saw some people wounded and lying on the ground. I immediately lay down on the ground to save my life,” he says.

How the police handled, or mishandled, the situation also presents contrasting views. Khalid goes to the extent of alleging that some Shia police officials fired upon the participants of the Sunni procession. He also claims that the DPO did not heed to his demands to act while the participants of the procession were stranded in Kotla Jam.

Kahawer, on the other hand, claims that the police vans accompanying the participants of the Sunni procession kept moving out of Kotla Jam even when the Sunni activists had stopped at the Chowk, raising slogans. Safeer Shahani, a MWM leader in Bhakkar, claims that the Kotla Jam incident could have been avoided if the district administration had disallowed Sunni protests over Ghulam Muhammad’s murder. “If the police had taken stringent security measures, such a horrific incident would not have happened at all,” he says.

The violence, however, did not end at Kotla Jam. Firing erupted in Darya Khan as soon as participants of the procession arrived there along with the bodies of the slain Sunni activists. As police vans shifted the injured to a hospital in Darya Khan, news of the clashes at Kotla Jam spread like wildfire in the town, says Arif Sadiqui, a local journalist. “A Shia cloth merchant, sensing trouble, started closing down his shop but a Sunni activist fired at him, leaving him injured. In a few minutes, the entire town was shut down. Everyone was harassed and everyone wanted to reach home as soon as possible,” he says. “Sounds of firing could be heard all over the city. The situation came under control only after a heavy contingent of the police arrived from Bhakkar and elsewhere,” Sadiqui adds.

To avoid further trouble, the district administration imposed Section 144 in the entire Bhakkar district, disallowing the assembly of more than five people, and prohibiting processions, carrying of weapons and delivering of provocative speeches. All schools, banks and markets in the district were closed down, Rangers were called in to patrol Kotla Jam, Darya Khan and Panjgaraeen, and a curfew was imposed to ward off any untoward incident, says Muhammad Asim, a local journalist in Darya khan.

The next day, police arrested the 20 nominated accused in the two incidents of violence, says Sarfraz Falki, the DPO in Bhakkar. Authorities also took 67 people, belonging to both sects, into custody under the rules pertaining to the maintenance of public order. These detentions incensed the local Shia population and dozens of women belonging to the sect brought out a protest rally in Kotla Jam, staging a sit-in at the Darya Khan-Bakhar Road.

“The police trespassed our houses at midnight, harassed innocent people and detained sole breadwinners of Shia households,” says Hudaina Bibi, one of the protesters. “We could not even move a bail application for the release of these innocent people,” she tells the Herald. The women, however, peacefully dispersed after five hours, after the district administration assured them that innocent people would not be taken into custody.

The next day, however, Shia activists gathered again outside an Imambargah at Tibba Habib Shah, on the outskirts of Kotla Jam. The police resorted to a baton attack to disperse them. The same day, authorities also detained another 72 people from both sects.

It was only after five days that peace could return to the district.

The original sin

The Punjab police registered 20 cases of sectarian murders between the start of 2008 and August, 2013. Out of these, six cases were registered in Bhakkar alone. In 2011, a billiard club in Darya Khan was attacked, in which five Sunni men were murdered and six injured. In this year’s month of Ramzan, claims ASWJ’s Khalid, two members of his party were target-killed at Tibba Habib Shah and Kotla Jam.

“In recent years, sectarian hatred has increased in Bhakkar,” confirms Abdul Majeed Khan Khanan Khel, who represents the district in the National Assembly and is a member of the ruling PMLN. Many in the area believe that sectarian violence has increased in Bhakkar as a result of the exodus of Shias from the neighbouring Dera Ismail Khan district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. “About 200 Shia activists shifted to Kotla Jam and Tibba Habib Shah after leaving Dera Ismail Khan in recent years. This has given a new dimension to sectarian violence [in Bhakkar],” says Khalid.

Dera Ismail Khan and its adjacent Tank district – strongholds of the Deobandi/Sunni religious political party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) – have witnessed religion-based confrontation, going as far back as the pre-partition days. These districts have had a long history of Hindu-Muslim riots since before 1947, says Zaffer Abbas Durani, a political activist in Dera Ismail Khan. This communal disharmony mutated into sectarian hatred within Muslims, after Pakistan came into being, he adds.

In the recent decades, a series of clashes have occured between Shias and Sunnis in Dera Ismail Khan, with the former having suffered a disproportionately high number of casualties. It was in 1985 when the current spate of violence was first triggered. That year, on the 10th of Muharram, a Shia procession was passing through Dera Ismail Khan’s Commissionary Bazaar when the awning in front of a shop collapsed and created a stampede among the participants of the procession. Rasheed alias Sheeda, a local Sunni resident, died during the stampede. Local leaders of SSP Pakistan (SSP), a Sunni sectarian organisation, which was banned in the early 2000s but has since re-emerged as ASWJ, called a meeting of local Sunni clerics, urging them to avenge Rasheed’s death.

The revenge came in 1986, when the local Sunnis did not allow the Muharram procession to pass through the Commissionary Bazaar. The following year, the local administration announced it had struck a deal with local Shia leaders to change the route of the Muharram procession in the city but most Shias in the district refused to accept the agreement. No Muharram procession took place in Dera Ismail Khan until 1990, when a new agreement was signed between leaders of the two sects and the administration, providing for the restoration of the old route by next year, says Fayyaz Hussain Bukhari, a local Shia leader.

The agreement, however, did not put an end to the violence. In fact, last year, a blast hit the Muharam procession, while it was passing through Commissionary Bazaar, killing at least eight people. Waleed Akbar, a former policeman and an ASWJ activist, was convicted and jailed for carrying out the deadly blast. He was one of the hundreds of prisoners who escaped when Taliban militants attacked the Dera Ismail Khan jail on July 30, 2013. Before his escape, he is reported to have killed eight Shia prisoners, beheading one of them.

Since 2009, to ensure a smooth supply line for the military operation in South Waziristan tribal agency, law enforcement agencies have started to clear Dera Ismail Khan and Tank of sectarian activists and killers, forcing many of them to shift elsewhere. This has resulted in a visible decline in sectarian violence in the area, says Saeedullah Marwat, a local journalist — others would say that this has happened only at the cost of allowing it to increase elsewhere.

However, demographic and historical evidence suggests that the relocation of Shia activists to Bhakkar from Dera Ismail Khan is a minor reason, if at all, for the latest sectarian conflagration in Kotla Jam and Darya Khan. According to official statistics, Shias (at 30 per cent) and Deobandi Sunnis (at 28 per cent) form almost equal proportion of the district’s population and the influx of Shia families from Dera Ismail Khan seems to have made little difference to this.

Historically, as well, Bhakkar has been a sectarian flashpoint since long. It was, in fact, here that the Shias set up their first political party – Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Fiqah Jafria (TNFJ) – in reaction to changes in inheritance and family laws made under the regime of General Ziaul Haq, which they believed infringed upon their religious beliefs. One Syed Wazarat Hussain Naqvi, the custodian of a local Shia shrine, arranged an all Pakistan Shia convention in Bhakkar in 1979. It was at this convention that the TNFJ was created and Naqvi became its founding general secretary. (The party later split into two factions, with one of them changing its name to Tehreek-e- Jafria Pakistan in the 1990s; both factions were banned in the early 2000s, leading to the emergence of a myriad of Shia groups, some of which coalesced together and formed MWM in 2009).

Sunni sectarian organisations, too, have their institutional existence in Bhakkar dating back to mid-1980s. In 1985, Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, the founder of SSP, visited Bhakkar to deliver public speeches. He set up a branch of his organisation in the district in 1986.

And the two sides have been clashing with each other since 1960s when the Deobandis first objected to the practice of bringing out a procession, on the 10th Muharram, from a Deobandi mosque in Darya Khan. In 1986, some Deobandi activists set fire to a taazia in that town, though it did not result in violence due to the efforts of a local peace committee. In 1991, Naveed Gohar, a Sunni student at a high school in Darya Khan, scribbled an anti-Shia slogan on his notebook, which triggered clashes between members of the two sects. Ejaz Hussain, a Shia student, was killed in one of these clashes.

Causes and effects

“We have a long history of sectarianism but it turned violent when General Ziaul Haq adopted religious orthodoxy. This orthodoxy fragmented the society. Now, people having bombs and guns are seeing Islam through their sectarian lenses, instead of seeing their sects through an Islamic lens,” says Dr Rizvi.

It was indeed in the late 1980s and 1990s when Punjab suffered from worst sectarian violence. SSP, the main Deobandi/ Sunni sectarian group, was founded and based in Jhang, which became a sectarian battlefield and remained so for many years. The Shia sectarian groups that emerged in the 1980s, like TNFJ, ostensibly had political objectives and did not use violence as a political tool. The increasing activities of SSP in the 1980s, however, led in the early 1990s to the creation of a violent Shia group, Sipah-e-Muhammad, which was based in Thokar Niaz Beg village on the southern outskirts of Lahore. Political analysts and government officials believe that the two organisations were engaged in hundreds of tit-for-tat killings with active financial and political support from Iran (for Sipah-e-Muhammad Pakistan) and Saudi Arabia (for SSP).

Many places in central Punjab, besides Jhang, experienced sectarian violence during the climax of confrontation between rival sectarian groups in 1990s. In 1995, Dr Muhammad Ali Naqvi, a Shia student leader, was gunned down in Lahore; in 1996, Syed Tajammal Abbas, the deputy commissioner of Sargodha, was shot dead for being a Shia; in 1997, a bomb attack in a Lahore court killed Ziaur Rehman Farooqi, the then head of SSP; and in 1997, Ashraf Marth, a senior police officer in Gujranwala, was target-killed for pursuing cases against Sunni sectarian killers. Khairpur Tamewali, a small town in Bahawalpur district, also became a major sectarian flashpoint with a number of violent and deadly sectarian incidents taking place there.

By the late 1990s, however, SSP became more active in parliamentary politics than many of its cadres would have liked. Some disgruntled SSP activists, therefore, founded Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LJ) in 1996, with one Riaz Basra becoming its most known face. He was also perhaps the most dreaded sectarian killer in the country at the time. Arrested in 1992 and sentenced to death for the 1990 murder of Sadiq Ganji, an Iranian diplomat, in Lahore, Basra escaped from jail in 1994 to resume his deadly activities under the banner of the newly created LJ.

A lot has changed since then. Basra died in 2002 in a village in Vehari during a shootout and his associates merged their organisation in the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), as the Punjabi Taliban, shifting their based to South Waziristan tribal agency, say officials in Lahore. SSP was banned in the early 2000s and its then chief, Azam Tariq, was killed in an attack near Islamabad in 2003. Sipah-e-Muhammad was also banned and its headquarters in Thoker Niaz Beg were uprooted in a security operation in the early 2000s.

On the face of it, the situation in Punjab looks much calmer on the sectarian front than it did in the 1990s. But is it really? Background interviews with Punjab government officials and official documents seen by the Herald show that even though most Sunni sectarian killers operating in Punjab in the 1990s have either shifted to South Waziristan or have gone into hiding, they have what anti-terrorism experts call “sleeper cells” all over Punjab. These cells consist of sympathisers, facilitators and financiers who perform different functions like reconnaissance, provision of lodging, boarding and transport to killers and procurement of explosives and weapons for them, says a senior Punjab police official without wanting to be named.

Finances are generally arranged through donations in the name of religion, which are readily available. Recently, a group collected seven million rupees from Gujranwala traders in just two days, for religious causes, says the official. Bank robberies and kidnapping for ransom are also sometimes employed as means for procuring money for sectarian attacks. Sources in Punjab Police say religious and sectarian terrorist groups could have collected as much as 650 million rupees as ransom only from Islamabad in just two previous years. In a number of bank robberies, security guards have been found to have links with the TTP and other banned organisations, say intelligence sources in Lahore.

It’s the madrasa, stupid

A 16-year old boy from Vehari district in south Punjab developed the spirit of jihad after listening to the speeches of some radical clerics. He traveled to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to receive ideological and military training. On return, he resumed routine life but was, one day, called for the ultimate task of sacrificing his life for killing ‘infidels’ belonging to other sects or religions. Those deployed to help the boy soon arrived on the scene, to prepare him for the strike. This is how police officials in Lahore describe the mental and physical preparation of a sectarian hit man. Though they refuse to reveal the name of the boy for security reasons, these officials claim to have encountered many cases in which young men were lured into becoming killers through promises of unearthly rewards awaiting them in paradise.

A senior police official in Lahore says sectarian organisations normally pick their potential strikers at an early age and madrasas and madrasa teachers play a prominent role in their training. A five-year-old boy sent to a madrasa to learn the Quran by heart is told, day in and day out, that he belongs to a certain sect and that those from other sects are not Muslim. By the time the boy reaches the age of 18, he cannot but see people through a sectarian lens. When these boys return home after graduating from madrasas, they propagate their views to their peers, becoming conduits for spreading sectarian hatred in society at large. With time, they attract many a young man, who lacks opportunity or promise to progress in life, towards their sectarian ideologies. Many of them, then, receive military training in camps mainly in the tribal areas and come back to their hometowns and villages as accomplished sectarian assassins. Punjab government officials dealing with sectarian terrorism confirm that there are many thousand young men across the provinces who have received some kind of training in militancy and target killing during recent years.

Madrasas remain the main breeding ground for training recruits. There are 9,221 madrasas in Punjab but only 3,153 of them are registered with any government department, official documents show. The documents seen by the Herald reveal that out of 4,230 Barelvi madrasas, only 1,512 are registered; out of 4,154 Deobandi madrasas, only 1,366 are registered; out of 636 Ahl-e-Hadees madrasas, only 224 are registered; and out of 201 Shia madrasas, only 51 are registered. Close to 50 per cent of all Deobandi madrasas in Punjab, according to official records, operate in the southern districts of the province.

The officials, however, are quick to clarify that only a few hundred madrassas have public affiliation with sectarian organisations. Refraining from pointing out which madrasas belong to which militant or sectarian group, officials say those with an open sectarian agenda exist in cities like Multan, Gujranwala and Lahore.

Promotion of sectarian sentiments, however, is not limited to Deobandi madrasas; Shia madrasas do just that, as actively as their Deobandi counterparts. “Madrasas of both Shia and Sunni sects play their role in promoting hatred among their students,” says Akhtar Hussain Zaidi who runs the main Shia mosque in Bahawalpur. In theory, hate material is not part of madrasa curriculum of any sect, but passing negative remarks against members of other sects is routine practice among students and teachers of madrasas. “Teachers verbally brainwash pupils,” says Zaidi. It is also at madrasas that students get exposed to speeches and writings of the main leaders of their sects, thereby imbibing a strong hatred towards those belonging to other sects.

Communicable disease

Hate material generally spreads through books, pamphlets, posters and, perhaps most importantly, through speeches by prominent leaders of sectarian organisations. Jhangvi, the SSP founder, gained all of his following because of his rousing, yet decidedly vitriolic, public speeches, which – propelled by cheap audio cassettes – captured the imagination of an entire generation of Sunni activists across central and southern Punjab. Of late, however, most of the propagation of hate material has shifted to cyber space, cell phones and social media.

Officials dealing with sectarianism in Punjab point out that it was easy to stop a sectarian leader from delivering a speech or to confiscate books, audio cassettes or any other published or recorded material, but it is impossible to stop people from propagating their sectarian views through the Internet or from sending each other hate messages through Facebook or their cell phones.

“Sending hate messages [through the Internet or cell phones] has become common for the last couple of years,” acknowledges Sohail Zafar Chattha, Rahimyar Khan’s DPO. Engineer Ashfaq Ahmed, the general secretary of ASWJ in Punjab, confirms the trend when he says that his group has “lodged around 500 complaints against hate messages sent through cell phones in different parts of the country”.

ASWJ’s Moavia says propagating hatred through cell phone messages and social media sites is playing a negative role in provoking the sentiments of people. “The government should make religious scholars of both sects sit on the table to figure out a solution to the problem. There should be a complete ban on hate propaganda either through books or through social media and cell phones,” he says.

Chattha, however, says all that the government can do is filter the Internet for hate material and try to get to the source of a hate message spread through a cell phone. And this is exactly what he and his associates have been doing, he says. Rahimyar Khan police arrested four people involved in circulating such messages six months ago, he adds.

The divide within

Another problem the government is trying to grapple with is internal divisions within Sunni sectarian organisations. For years, since the mid-1980s, SSP and LJ had been the face of Sunni sectarianism in Pakistan. But the organisational structure of both these groups withered away in the early 2000s. Even though most Deobandi/Sunni sectarian activists are still known by the public to belong to SSP, institutionally, they belong to ASWJ, whereas LJ is now merely the name for a loose group of Sunni sectarian militants who no longer follow an organisational structure or hierarchy.

In at least one part of the public imagination, however, SSP, LJ and ASWJ are interchangeable. “A number of people are, on the surface, leaders and activists of ASWJ but, practically, they champion violence. In fact, there is no great difference between ASWJ and LJ, as the former is a nursery which provides manpower to the latter,” says Fida Hussain Ghalvi, the vice-president of the Shia Ulema Council in Punjab. However, ASWJ leaders vehemently reject this perception. Moavia, who heads the party in Rahimyar Khan, claims that “ASWJ activists do not participate in LJ activities”. According to him, his party strictly ensures that its registered workers do not take part in any violent activity. “If some people take part in such activities in the garb of ASWJ workers, it is not the party’s fault,” says Moavia.

Engineer Ashfaq Ahmed, the general secretary of ASWJ in Punjab, endorses Moavia’s argument. “Those who support terrorism and violence can never be the part of ASWJ. Those who use guns to achieve their goals must not be associated with us,” says Ahmed. But Malik Ishaq, long the second most important leader of LJ after Basra, is now vice-president of the ASWJ and – if sources close to him are to be believed – is demanding a key post within the organisation. When he was released from jail in May, 2013, he joined the ASWJ on the condition that he will be given an important position in the party. But he was given only a nominal position. “ASWJ leaders fear he may overshadow them if he is given a key post in the party,” says a police officer.

Ishaq’s son, Malik Muhammad Usman, a bearded man in his 30s, tells the Herald in Rahimyar Khan, that his father has renounced violence as a means to achieve his objectives. Sitting in a small room lined with six AK-47 rifles, a repeater gun and two bags of ammunition, Usman warns: “If Shias continue to hurt the feelings of the Sunnis, we will also resume taking the right action against them.” Even if that means quitting ASWJ, he adds. “If [Ishaq] changes his non-violent policy after his release [from the Punjab government’s protective custody], he will quit ASWJ, even before the party decides to do something about him.”

Moavia, on the other hand, insists that ASWJ will not support Malik Ishaq if he continues to command LJ. “If that happens, the party’s Shoora will take the right decision, in this regard,” he says. Usman responds to this with a shrug: “We are the actual SSP”. Officials fear that a falling out between the followers and critics of Ishaq within the ASWJ may split the organisation and lead to bloodshed.

Action begets inaction

If and when that happens, the government will be ill-prepared to handle the situation — like always, perhaps. Officials say there is no national policy to combat sectarian violence, not even a state-sanctioned response to sectarian propaganda. “The state has no counter-narrative [to sectarianism],” says a senior official in Lahore.

Law enforcement agencies are generally ill-equipped and not trained enough to combat sectarian violence. The Punjab Police have a Counter Terrorism Department but it lacks the wherewithal to perform effectively. For one, it has no “listening” ability, officials say. It cannot intercept communication between sectarian killers and groups and has no formal links with the intelligence agency that has the “listening” ability, they add. Due to gaps in institutional cooperation, the police often receive information too late to use it effectively. “We lack real time information and thus are unable to strike at the right moment,” says a Lahore-based police official.

At the local level, the provincial police still operate through thanedaars, the Station House Officers (SHOs), who are neither trained in fighting against sectarian killers nor are they motivated to do the job. Even the Counter Terrorism Department has to go through a local SHO to monitor or arrest a sectarian hit man. Local police and SHOs, however, wouldn’t dare arrest a hit man if he is taking shelter in a madrasa. If and when that happens, it is always followed by rowdy protests by teachers, students and supporters of that madrasa, says the official.

As per Punjab Police’s record, arrests made on charges of sectarianism and people sent to court for trial in such cases are far less than the actual number of cases registered in this regard. Only 12 of the 20 cases of sectarian murders registered in Punjab, between the beginning of 2008 and August, 2013, have been sent to a court for trial. Even more disturbing is the fact that the police have arrested only 88 out of 366 people nominated in such cases.

Dr Rizvi says the state lacks capacity to curb or even control sectarianism. The government has a weak policing and legal system, he says, and it refrains from proceeding against sectarian activists, fearing opposition from religious groups and parties. “Most importantly, the State lacks the will to eradicate or, at least, control sectarianism,” he says. “But life will become difficult if it is not controlled,” he warns. “Not everyone can migrate to another country [to stay safe].”

Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah, however, rejects claims that law enforcement agencies in the province do not have the ability to counter sectarianism. He also denies that the provincial government has a soft spot for Sunni sectarian organisations, as is alleged by many Shia activists, especially with reference to Phul Shah’s assassination in Gujrat, and media commentators who view some recent electoral alliances between ASWJ and PMLN suspiciously. Punjab is witnessing less sectarian violence as compared to other provinces; not because of some secret deal the provincial government has cut with some sectarian organisation, Sanaullah says, but because of better vigilance and preventive measures. “We are more organised and more awakened [than other provincial governments]. That is why we are preventing violence. Peace is not the result of any agreement; it is because of the fact that we are on our toes,” he tells the Herald. “We have recently arrested a very dangerous group of terrorists from Raiwind; an al-Qaeda operative from the Punjab University; a top terrorist leader from a Punjab city and some extremists from a couple of Gujranwala madrassas. Why would we make these arrests if we had an agreement?” says the minister.

Sanaullah claims it was the PMLN’s government in Punjab that in the late 1990s, smashed “the rackets of two warring sects involved in bomb blasts and killings” in the province. “We never allowed them to regroup,” he adds. Many sectarian activists once linked to Sipah-e-Muhammad or SSP are now living in different parts of the province, after their organisations were banned, says Sanaullah. “But they are under a strict watch and are nabbed when even an iota of suspicion of their involvement in any violent activity arises.” Responding to allegations that sectarian activists operating from and based in Punjab are responsible for killings in places like Quetta and Gilgit-Baltistan, he says the Punjab government has offered to hand over Malik Ishaq and ASWJ chief Muhammad Ahmad Ludhianvi to Balochistan if a case is registered against them or if there is any evidence of their involvement in sectarian violence there. “But no evidence was given and there was no case against them.”

The light at the end of the tunnel?

Sanaullah’s rejoinders notwithstanding, there is consensus among government officials, observers and sectarian activists that Punjab is sitting on a sectarian powder keg, waiting to explode. As incidents in Rahimyar Khan and Bhakkar indicate, any small provocation has the capacity to trigger a chain of events too difficult for the government machinery to handle.

In some places, such fears have convinced people of the need to do something about them. In Khairpur Tamewali, a small town in Bahawalpur district which was wrecked by sectarian violence in the 1990s, people have gathered together across the sectarian divide, under the banner of a bipartisan peace committee, to ensure that no untoward incident takes place.

In May 2010, the town could have revisited its gory past had the peace committee not acted promptly and with a presence of mind. At the time, graffiti appeared in a local neighbourhood, which, ostensibly, was offensive to Hazrat Umar and Hazrat Usman — the two companions of the Holy Prophet, revered highly by Sunnis. Serious tensions followed as charged ASWJ activists from nearby villages started thronging Khairpur Tamewali to avenge the offense. Members of the local peace committee, however, told them to wait until the culprit behind the graffiti was revealed. When the committee ultimately found out that the graffiti had nothing to do with sectarianism, everyone went home peacefully. “We found that two children of the area, namely Umar and Usman, quarreled with each other and expressed their mutual anger through graffiti,” says Makhdoom Syed Mahmoodul Husain, a Shia member of the committee.

Interviews with local residents reveal that the main reason behind peace and sectarian harmony in Khairpur Tamewali is the positive role of religious scholars and influential leader of both sects. “Sunni clerics accompany Muharram processions and Shia leaders pay regular visits to Sunni madrasas,” says Mufti Muhammad Abdullah As’ad, the principal of a local Sunni madrasa and the member of the peace committee. “Such gatherings and visits have removed misunderstandings and played a vital role in bringing people of both sects close to each other,” he tells the Herald.

The members of the committee ensure that all Muharram processions follow their prescribed route and observe mutually agreed timing. They also ensure that Sunni activists do not raise any objectionable slogans while a Shia procession is passing through their areas. If and when an issue arises, no matter whether big or small, the committee members immediately intervene and resolve it before it leads to an unpleasant incident, local residents say. “Even if sectarian violence erupts in the entire country, the peaceful atmosphere of Khairpur Tamewali would not be disturbed,” says Husain. Peace committees are similarly effective in maintaining sectarian peace in Multan. “Clerics of both sects often try to provoke people but members of the peace committees play an effective role in maintaining peace and harmony,” says Amir Dogar, a senior leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party in Multan.

For a peace committee to be able to maintain peace, however, its members have to come up to one condition: They have to be sincere for their cause. When members are not sincere, they make great speeches in meetings of the committee but when they go into their respective communities, they do the exact opposite of what they had said in their speeches, says Israr Hussain, a member of a peace committee in Bahawalpur. Basing the peace and harmony of an entire province on as elusive a commodity as sincerity may turn out to be not a good idea, after all.

Two reporters from Lahore contributed to this report but their names have been withheld due to security reasons