Heart of darkness: Shia resistance and revival in Pakistan

Updated 12 Oct, 2016 12:17am
Mourners at a Muharram procession near Nisar Haveli, Lahore | M Arif, White Star
Mourners at a Muharram procession near Nisar Haveli, Lahore | M Arif, White Star

Ahsan Mahboob stares at the sky. It is the colour of molten silver — dark and mournful. Out of the grey firmament drop flakes of white snow, light as leaves, ominous as bad tidings. In the predawn twilight of November, Quetta’s Alamdar Road looks like a frozen lake, shadows of half-naked Shia Hazara mourners etched across its length. Their hands rising in slow rhythmic moves, cutting through the dim morning air with an elegant swoosh and falling in a cadenced thump on their bare chests.

Mahboob would not be at the site if he had the option. On Quetta’s snowy nights, water freezes in pipes and icicles form on the deadened branches of juniper trees. But he has to be here to provide security to this annual Muharram procession that has been on the road for more than 12 hours. Clad in multiple layers of warm clothes, he paces up and down to keep himself warm. Every 10 minutes, the cold gets too much for him and he shuts himself in his police van parked nearby.

The mourners, meanwhile, continue their slow journey to the morning and the far end of the road where the procession will end at a graveyard. They seem oblivious to pain and cold, and their combined never-numbing impact. Mahboob has no idea what burns inside them — what rage, what frustrations, what revenge.

A few months later, in January 2013, these mourners were on the streets for a different reason — and in a different manner. Teary-eyed, they sat silently, their expressions sombre and their bodies wrapped in shawls and long coats — hundreds of women, children, old men and young boys occupying a stretch of Alamdar Road for days, along with the coffined remains of 106 of their dear ones, all killed in two terrorist attacks on January 10 that year. Their silent, non-violent but firm protest forced the provincial government to step down, accepting its failure to protect the lives of Hazara Shias living in Quetta.

Seven decades ago, a man by the name of Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychologist and Holocaust survivor, knew a thing or two about the meaning of protest and defiance. Fighting death and desolation at a Nazi concentration camp near Prague, he did not know that his entire family and everything he held dear had perished. “A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the ‘why’ for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any ‘how,’” he wrote in his memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning, published years later.

The half-naked men flagellating at four in the morning in sub-zero temperature is an ethereal manifestation of what Frankl wrote. The mourners believed they would exist as a community only as long as they could assert their identity in the most forceful, most flagrant manner. Those refusing to bury their dead as an act of peaceful civil disobedience might have even gone a step further: they seemed to have found out the ‘how’ that could work best for them.

On an early March day this year, narrow alleys off Alamdar Road are deserted, people preferring the comfort of heated indoors over the smell of heavy rainfall from the previous night that scents the entire neighbourhood. There is chill in the air of Mariabad and a sense of mournful expectancy characteristic of a locality under siege.

This exclusively Hazara neighbourhood is cordoned off from the rest of Quetta with checkpoints administered by over-active Frontier Constabulary (FC) officials. It is hard to say if they are always as vigilant as they were that day; they could well have been prompted into action by intelligence reports that three suicide bombers entered Quetta over the last four days, planning to target Hazara Shias once again.

Photo by Mohammad Ali, White Star
Photo by Mohammad Ali, White Star

Abdul Khaliq Hazara’s face exudes what Mariabad has become a symbol for — compassion that is rooted in suffering. He narrates the story of a June 8, 2003, terrorist attack on a police van on Quetta’s Sariab Road. All 13 police cadets killed in that attack were young Hazaras, many of them from Mariabad. After that incident, says Khaliq, his kind face glistening with anger, we had no choice but to launch a political party of the Hazaras for the Hazaras by the Hazaras.

A month later, he, his friend Hussain Ali Yousafi and other political activists from their community launched the Hazara Democratic Party (HDP). In January 2009, militants of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LJ) killed Yousafi, then chairman of the party. Since then, Khaliq has taken over, fighting a two-way battle — one inside his own community over what he calls their erroneous ways of protesting and the other against the state which fails very regularly to provide them protection.

When members of his community took over Alamdar Road with the coffins of their loved ones in 2013, he, along with a few others, observed a hunger strike for three days on the same road, though at a different venue. “Would they have stayed there with the corpses if the weather was hot?” he asks, expecting an answer but knowing it does not matter.

It was not the first time that Khaliq had separated himself from other Shia protesters. In 1984, Quetta witnessed its first Shia uprising when Tehreek Nifaz-e-Fiqh Jafriya (TNFJ) rallied here against General Ziaul Haq’s moves to enforce a state-supported Sharia in Pakistan and put forward a 14-point charter of demands which included abolishing the police’s power to revoke licences for Muharram processions. Khaliq was a college student then and a member of the Hazara Student Federation. He, however, did not take part in the TNFJ protest that, in an unintended endorsement of his boycott, resulted in the death of six policemen. He warned against the dire consequences of raising sectarian boundaries too high to scale for anyone trying to remain within the national mainstream. “In a country with only 20 per cent Shia population, how would it work to have the state enforce Shia jurisprudence? It will only make matters worse.” Thirty years later, his apprehensions are becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Protest, it may be argued, is sometimes the mechanism of both the first and last resort to achieve an objective that cannot be otherwise obtained. It is, however, the occasion that, more often than not, determines the nature of the protest it engenders.

Inside Imambargah Azakhana-e-Zehra in Saddar, Karachi | Arif Mahmood, White Star
Inside Imambargah Azakhana-e-Zehra in Saddar, Karachi | Arif Mahmood, White Star

A protest that initiates a movement and a protest that has to be done because there is nothing else left to do are three decades apart as far as Shia history in Pakistan is concerned. From a vociferous – verging on violent – march in the capital that once shook a military regime in the 1980s, to silent protests with dead bodies in recent times, the community seems to have traversed the distance between power and powerlessness — at least in some places in the country.

At walking distance from Lal Masjid – an emblem of puritanism and the violence that spurs it on – was once a hockey ground, which was usually vacant like most of the capital city in those distant days. On July 5, 1980, this ground was overflowing with more than 50,000 Shia activists. They had gathered under the banner of the newly-formed TNFJ and its leader Mufti Jafar Hussain to assert their distinct sectarian identity in a national context heavily informed by religion. A year earlier, Zia had enforced the collection of zakat through government agencies, among a slew of Islamisation measures. This enraged the Twelvers, the largest of Shia sects in Pakistan — paying zakat to the state was anathema to their sectarian beliefs.

The Islamabad event was the culmination of a series of protests that had started from Bhakkar in 1979 — the same year when Ayatollah Khomeini had led a Shia revolution in Iran, toppling a Westernised monarchy and enforcing a religious state that follows the Jafri fiqh, or jurisprudence. Those who led and took part in this movement in Pakistan essentially wanted to be treated differently from others around them. They were asking for exemptions on the basis of their sectarian identity as much as they were looking for special financial favours. Waiver from zakat sat uneasily with demands for state subsidies for pilgrimage to holy shrines, jobs for Shia clerics in Shariat courts and even guarantees for inviting Shia scholars from Iraq and Iran to visit Pakistan at government expense in the same way that visits of Saudi scholars were being sponsored.

Also read: Sect in motion

Zia’s initial response to these demands was an outright rejection. In a speech in Karachi, he reiterated the majoritarian principle to assert that Islamisation in Pakistan would follow the Hanafi fiqh. This was not acceptable to Shia activists. The revolution in Iran had given them confidence that the right number of supporters, driven by the right amount of religious zeal could achieve anything if they managed to get together at the right place and the right moment.

And, so, on a sweltering midsummer afternoon, they gathered at the hockey ground near Lal Masjid despite the curfew and government generated rumours that their gatherings had been cancelled. Their leaders immediately started talks with the ministry of religious affairs and the negotiations continued for hours without any outcome. The delay irked the protesters and then it started annoying them. Impassioned and agitated, they started moving towards the federal secretariat which houses all the important government offices. The administration panicked; police, already deployed around the ground in large numbers, were ordered to baton-charge the protesters to force them to stay where they had been. Next, they used tear gas shells, but nothing could deter the protesters even after one of them, a young man by the name of Mohammad Hussain, was hit by a tear gas shell and killed. They reached the secretariat and waited outside, threatening serious violence if their demands were not met — an hour passed, then another and another. At the end of a 12-hour siege of the secretariat, the government bowed down and accepted their demands.

This was the protest of first resort — and a manifestation of the empowerment of a minority pushing itself violently away from the majority.

Majlis Wahdat-e-Muslimeen central leader Raja Nasir Abbas addresses a rally at Shikarpur’s Lakhi Darr Chowk | Mohammad Ali, White Star
Majlis Wahdat-e-Muslimeen central leader Raja Nasir Abbas addresses a rally at Shikarpur’s Lakhi Darr Chowk | Mohammad Ali, White Star

Early this year, Shias – and their Sunni neighbours – gather at Shikarpur’s Lakhi Darr Chowk, a week after a suicide bomb attack on a local imambargah on January 30, 2015, claimed 61 lives. The symbolism of the space for their gathering is even more pronounced here than it was with the proximity between Lal Masjid and the hockey ground back in 1980.

This mostly male congregation, with just a handful of women, is taking place right next to a clock tower constructed in 1935 by two Hindu businessmen — as a monumental manifestation of Shikarpur’s surviving religious diversity. To one side of it is Diwan Kulfi — the city’s famous dessert dating back to early 20th century and named after its Hindu creator; to the other is a road leading to Imambargah Karbala Maula, a major centre for Shia get-togethers; to the third is a road lined by shops selling the famous Shikarpuri pickles and leading to a Hindu ashram where preparations for the upcoming Navaratri festival are under way; and to the fourth side are colonial-era French-inspired apartments that once housed Christian families. Encircled by these emblems of coexistence, the thousand or so protesters are grieving. No shrill slogans for them, no administration-defying marches, no calls for attacking the institutions of the state. The police don’t raise a baton, let alone fire a tear-gas shell, to disperse them.

This is a protest of last resort: a metaphor for the powerlessness of a community trying to rally support on a divisive sectarian basis in a town that has known better days.

No demands for a military action, no anti-government tirade come close to inciting the aggrieved as much as the mention of those who lost their lives in a highly unequal battle about 1,400 years ago.

Not that the congregation lacks fervour altogether. On occasion, it seems as charged as any assembly of a deeply hurt community. When Raja Nasir Abbas, a central leader of an exclusively Shia political party, Majlis Wahdat-e-Muslimeen (MWM), makes an impassioned appeal to commence a long march to the Governor House in Karachi, the audience responds positively with gusto. The speaker, however, knows – as do the people in front of him – that the march is not going to make a difference; so his next appeal is to the military to carry out a security operation in Sindh against religious and sectarian militants in the same way it is conducting one in the tribal areas.

From taking on a military dictator to appealing for the soldiers’ support, Shia politics and activism in Pakistan seem to have undergone complete transformation over the last three and a half decades.

The protesters in Shikarpur appear to be aware of the change. Their eyes wander as they listen to speech after speech replete with generalised demands and clichéd explanations of the state of Shias in the country. Perhaps they feel nostalgic about a past that was different, perhaps they are missing the loved ones lost to the terrorist attack or perhaps they are constantly on the lookout for suspicious outsiders.

Also read: Brotherhood thrives in Karachi's religiously diverse quarters

Amongst them is Abbas Raza Shah. A Bhutto fanatic, Shah beams with pride as he talks of having hosted Benazir Bhutto every time she visited Shikarpur. His conversation about his leader comes to a sudden halt as he sees his deceased brother’s son approaching him, one of his three nephews orphaned in the attack. “What difference do these rallies make? These leaders are here for their own sake,” he says. “We don’t really care much about politics. We just want to live in peace.”

Shah’s despondence echoes the obvious schism between the vigour displayed on stage and the response on ground — until someone raises the name of the martyrs of Karbala. No demands for a military action, no anti-government tirade come close to inciting the aggrieved as much as the mention of those who lost their lives in a highly unequal battle about 1,400 years ago. The commemoration of this long past, yet extremely evocative, event in Muslim history is, perhaps, what Shias in Pakistan now increasingly employ as an outward manifestation of their sense of victimhood, internalised over centuries of mourning and self-flagellation.

In March, Quetta’s much-awaited annual fruit harvest is still a couple of months away. Until local apples and apricots become available, the city will have to import fruits from other provinces and Afghanistan. For Dawood Hazara, that doesn’t seem to make much of a difference. As a fruit vendor in a Hazara Town bazaar, his work routine is not his choice — regardless of whether he is offering his customers local fruits or the ones brought in from outside.

Sharp at eight every morning, an FC convoy takes Dawood and his fellow shopkeepers to a wholesale market in a vehicle surrounded by armed personnel. As they buy their merchandise, security officials watch them closely — every movement scrutinised, every purchase monitored. This uncomfortable arrangement has its origin in a painful incident: on February 16, 2013, a bomb blast demolished the fruit and vegetable bazaar, killing 84 people and injuring 169 others.

Dawood and his fellow merchants get only two hours to finish their business at the market. No going around to bargain for the best deal, no small talk with their suppliers. At the stroke of 10 am, the FC men honk, announcing departure. The traders must get back to the van immediately or they will be on their own. If there is one thing that they know well, it is that being on their own for people of their community is never a good idea in Quetta.

Like a naughty teenager grounded for a misdeed or a white-collar criminal under house arrest, Hazaras are free to roam around within their own neighbourhoods — Mariabad and Hazara Town. These are rather nice neighbourhoods — in fact, far better designed and aesthetically pleasant than most of Quetta’s other localities. People here have everything – tailors, boutiques, groceries, malls, eateries, jewellery shops – except the assurance that they will be alive tomorrow and will enjoy the choice and freedom to move around in the city they call home. A prison, no matter how vast, comfortable and luxurious, is still a prison.

Protest, it may be argued, is sometimes the mechanism of both the first and last resort to achieve an objective that cannot be otherwise obtained.

Fleeing or hiding from an enemy one cannot fight makes logical sense, though human beings have a propensity to behave illogically more often than following a sensible course of action — more so in matters of the heart. How else does one explain the increasing size and intensity of Muharram processions, the rising number of Shia-only organisations in political and social spheres, and the growing tendency to wear clothes and accessories that assert a Shia identity?

In the last decade or so, Shias have ghettoised themselves, both by closing themselves in exclusive neighbourhoods and through a heightened sectarian consciousness and assertion of identity that alienates more than it integrates. This really is a double-edged sword. Where it creates a sense of solidarity within the Shia community, it also makes the members of the community stand out and, as columnist Khaled Ahmed puts it, become “easy to kill”.

Right at the beginning of Brewery Road, that lies between Hazara Town and the rest of Quetta, is an empty plot of land that also serves as a taxi stand. A strikingly large number of yellow cabs are parked here. “A lot of Hazaras were being targeted in public transport so we started our own transportation service with these cabs,” explains Haji Mehram Agha, a resident of Hazara Town. “People carpool to visit the city. It is much better this way.” That being an obvious overstatement, he quickly adds that there have been incidents in which these taxis were also targeted for the simple reason that “they stand out”.

Only two months after this conversation in Quetta, the community bus of an otherwise low-profile Shia group – Ismailis – came under a deadly attack in Karachi for the same reason: it stood out. Its passengers and signs and symbols on its sides all had an unmistakable whiff of sectarian exclusivity about them. Unidentified terrorists stopped the bus near Safoora Goth on May 13, 2015, killing 43 people including women and children. (Since then, Ismaili Shia authorities in Pakistan have issued instructions to remove any outstanding features from the community transport that may give away the sectarian affiliation of its passengers.)

Inside an imambargah in Shikarpur | Mohammad Ali, White Star
Inside an imambargah in Shikarpur | Mohammad Ali, White Star

Shia-specific charities and community projects offering services only to Shias, too, are emerging as another manifestation of the community’s insular approach.

On a pleasant day in February 2015, administration at the Islamabad Club does not allow a Shia leader, Khwaja Muhammad Murtaza, to give a press interview in one of the club’s meeting rooms because the rules prohibit it. “They will never let a Shia do that,” is Murtaza’s annoyed response.

Sitting in the outdoor cafe of the highly secure club, the recently retired chairperson of Markazi Isna Ashari Trust, looks downright scared. Every waiter or a guest passing by is scrutinised with his piercing eyes, his words are uttered in hushed tones, sentences cut short if someone is standing too close. He has every reason to be cautious. “I am on their hit list,” he says with forced composure, more to reassure himself than anyone else.

He was in the vanguard of a Muharram procession in 2013 when it came under unexpected attack in Rawalpindi’s Raja Bazaar, resulting in the death of eight Shia mourners. In the subsequent violence, miscreants from both Sunni and Shia sides engaged each other in freestyle fighting, using all kinds of weapons including firearms and setting a number of Sunni mosques and Shia imambargahs on fire. The trust he chaired for five years is trying to help Shia victims of the riots and providing legal help to those arrested, and being tried, for rioting.

Another major project of the trust does not have to do with rioting. It is more about providing a safe and well-equipped place to Shias in Islamabad and Rawalpindi to practice their faith. The project, according to the trust’s website, envisions the construction of a large establishment comprising of a mosque, an imambargah, a medical centre, a conference hall, a mortuary and bathing rooms for dead bodies, a library, and a community/wedding hall. Its estimated cost is a massive 490 million rupees and it is scheduled to be completed by 2016.

Also read: The (un)imagined citizens of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan

Three years ago, Ismaili Shias in Lahore celebrated the inauguration of a state-of-the-art multi-purpose jamatkhana, or community centre, in their city. Its architect, Hafiz Sherali, built it as a “centre which represents our respect for our past, our belief of today, and our hope for the future”. Like many other newly-built Ismaili jamatkhanas across the world, it heavily reflects Ismaili identity, providing history of the Fatimid caliphate in Egypt and stressing the lineage of Ismaili imams as a descendent of the Prophet of Islam.

Most parents know that rectifying behaviour through punishment works only to a certain extent. In many cases, it makes children defiant, more resolute in their behaviour than they were before. This is exactly what anti-Shia violence is achieving in a sharp contrast to its stated objective of suppressing Shias out of existence. Over time, mundane acts and routine activities, such as building a place of worship, setting up a community centre or even bringing out a mourning procession, have transformed into something bigger. They have become not just useful but also essential tools in ideological warfare. They scream, as an analyst points out, “we might not be able to fight back with guns or bombs, but we will fight in our own way”.

When you are a minority group whose collective memory is drenched in martyrdom and opposition to the perpetrators of violence, these are the battles you pick: you do whatever you feel will help you resist and survive — and you do it big.

In Pakistan, where persecution of minority communities within and outside Islam is but one of the many afflictions hurting the body politic, such ideological warfare also intersects with economic and social inequality. Shias or Ahmadis or Chrisitans are killed not just because of their religious beliefs and practices but also because the state fails to provide social and economic infrastructure to these communities to get out of their voluntary and involuntary isolation.

The state’s failure, thus, accentuates the need for community activism. Shaheed Hur Foundation, a recently set up charity in Karachi, offers educational scholarships to anyone who is willing to take money from an organisation named after a Shia war hero from Karbala.

And then there is a hospital in Hangu.

As one travels there from Kohat, the first 30 or so villages on the road are predominantly Shia. These include Ibrahimzai, the hometown of Aitzaz Hasan, a 15-year-old boy who saved his school from a Taliban suicide bomber, sacrificing his own life in January 2014. Between Hangu city and these Shia localities are a series of Sunni-dominated villages. During intense sectarian strife that engulfed this area from 2006 to 2009, there were times when Shia villages would be cut off from the city for days on end. Pregnant women, the sick and the elderly would be without any medical facilities. Khurshid Jadwi, an MWM activist and a local resident, along with others, set up Al-Zehra Hospital in a village to cater to their needs. Its sectarian identity and the nature of its exclusive clientele were highlighted in its very name.

Preparations for Muharram underway at Bodla Bahar’s shrine in Sehwan | Arif Mahmood, White Star
Preparations for Muharram underway at Bodla Bahar’s shrine in Sehwan | Arif Mahmood, White Star

LJ hitmen bombed the hospital while it was still under construction in December 2010. The blast not just damaged the hospital’s structure also demolished many houses in the vicinity and killed 11 people, injuring many more. Jadwi and his associates still went ahead and finished the construction of the hospital.

When you are a minority group whose collective memory is drenched in martyrdom and opposition to the perpetrators of violence, these are the battles you pick: you do whatever you feel will help you resist and survive — and you do it big. This, as has been argued earlier, is a quicksand: the more Shias try to secure themselves, its seems, the more exposed they get.

Those in Shikarpur count themselves luckier than their sect-fellows in other parts of Pakistan. Not that the city doesn’t have any law and order problems: the provincial and federal governments seem oblivious to its social and economic needs, its strategic location on the transit route between Karachi and Punjab makes it an easy target for terrorists moving between the north and the south of the country and it has a history of being a favourite hideout for criminal gangs. Yet, sect and religion are not part of the problems facing the local residents — at least not so far.

In the aftermath of the February 2015 attack on a local imambargah, people here ensured that the local Shia population did not feel isolated. It was Faisal Soomro, a Sunni schoolteacher, who was amongst the first ones to reach the site of the blast, along with many of his Sunni friends, to evacuate and rescue victims of the attack. There were as many, if not more, Sunni blood donors at the hospital as there were Shias. Even in protest rallies, Sunni participation was significant.

The annual Muharram procession passing through Karachi’s M A Jinnah Road is such a spectacle that many non-Shias come to witness it every year. Faheem Siddiqui, a news reporter, was among them on that day in late December 2009. He also took his only son and a niece with him. When he came back home, a few hours later, he was alone. A suicide bomber blew himself up in the crowd of 10,000 mourners, killing 43 people, including Siddiqui’s son and niece.

Now a host for a crime show on a television channel, Siddiqui himself was severely injured in the attack and did not witness the immediate aftermath of the blast. In an exceptional show of violent retaliation, hundreds of Shia mourners started shooting firearms in the air and targeting a nearby market. They attacked anyone they could find – journalists, rescue workers, security forces – and looted and burned down 3,000 shops in the process.

Four years later, in November of 2013, a similar episode of rioting took place in Rawalpindi’s Raja Bazaar. When shots fired from an unknown direction hit a Muharram procession, the mourners took away weapons from the police personnel and fought back, violently. In a matter of minutes, a large part of the bazaar was torched and hundreds of shops were damaged.

Women mourn at Imambargah Karbala Maula in Shikarpur a week after a blast that left 61 dead | Mohammad Ali, White Star
Women mourn at Imambargah Karbala Maula in Shikarpur a week after a blast that left 61 dead | Mohammad Ali, White Star

When everything fails, even the most sacred principles must be compromised, if not for power, then for survival. In a security situation that guarantees no protection to a besieged Shia community, violent retaliations have become far more pronounced in recent years — but still rare when compared to attacks on them.

Tit for tat killings in southern and western Punjab (in 2011, five Sunni boys were killed at a billiards club in Darya Khan town and two Sunni clerics were abducted and killed in sectarian rioting in Bhakkar in the summer of 2013) are one example of this phenomenon. So were the activities of Sipah-e-Mohammad Pakistan in the early 1990s. Formed in response to the assassination of Arif Hussaini, a central leader of TNFJ, the organisation was responsible for carrying out multiple terrorist attacks on the main leaders of Sunni sectarian organisations as well as for target-killing many Sunni activists. At one stage, it became an elaborate combination of sectarian terrorism and crime.

Writing in the June 1994 issue of the Herald, Aamer A Khan noted: “The Sipah-e-Mohammad Pakistan is believed to be one of the most well armed groups in the Punjab. Unlike the Imamia Student Organisation, whose violence was restricted mostly to the campuses, the workers of the Sipah are suspected of a wide range of undercover activities, which include large-scale gun running operations, to raise funds for their political purposes.”

A huge blast suddenly rips through the air. A pickup van parked next to a catering business blows up, throwing 150 kilogrammes of explosives in all directions with the force of a volcano and speed of a storm.

The organisation was finally banned in 2001. But most Shias, including spirited sectarian activists, do not see Sipah-e-Mohammad Pakistan as their representative organisation for various reasons. Firstly, it largely went against the narrative popular among Shias that they are the followers of mazloomeen ki nasl (descendants of the oppressed) and inheritors of shahadat ka virsa (heritage of martyrdom). Secondly, major Shia political organisations such as TNFJ never quite endorsed Sipah-e-Mohammad Pakistan. As Khan wrote two decades ago, “The Sipah members also believe that the [TNFJ] leadership’s incompetence was primarily responsible for allowing [Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan] to grow unchecked.”

The Sipah-e-Mohammad Pakistan’s failure to have a wide popular appeal is precisely why violent Shia retaliation remains sporadic and episodic.

If you turn right from Shahrah-e-Faisal onto the road that passes by the Central Ordinance Depot and go straight north, you’ll soon see a tea stall. A small road branches out from here and leads to what, in the last two years, has come to be known as Abbas Town, but in reality is a complex of residential apartment buildings (the actual Abbas Town is a little further ahead). Two main buildings in the complex – Rabia Flower, which is Sunni-dominated, and Iqra City, which is Shia-dominated – stand opposite each other in this Karachi area with no history of sectarian violence. The road passing through the apartment complex is usually crowded with men, sitting on patio chairs discussing politics and the stock exchange.

On a Sunday evening in March 2013, the place is abuzz with chatter; men savour the last bits of their lazy hours before they have to get ready for another long work week. Unlike men by the roadside, Shahneela Zeeshan, a Shia homemaker living in Rabia Flower, is not lazing around. She is going about her usual Sunday chores such as washing and ironing her four children’s school uniforms with an air of unhurried contentment.

A huge blast suddenly rips through the air. A pickup van parked next to a catering business blows up, throwing 150 kilogrammes of explosives in all directions with the force of a volcano and speed of a storm. In a matter of seconds, the prattle over tea cups turns into screams and a haunting cacophony of ambulance sirens. When the residents finally count their losses, 72 of their near and dear ones have been killed, almost half of them being Shias. Others are passers-by and unintended victims. Many of the dead are men who were having tea a little while ago. Shahneela and her three-year-old son, Hur, are also among them.

A video released by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan on January 28, 2014, offers another proof of increasing militant hostility towards Ismaili Shias. Entitled Battle of Hind, the video accuses them of being agents of the West.

Alyaan, her eldest son, chuckles as his father, Zeeshan, narrates how he met his mother. They grew up as friends in the same neighbourhood. She was the studious type — hardworking, reliable, organised. He was the mercurial type, always wanting to try something new, always avoiding responsibility. She used to coax him to study and if he didn’t, she would complete his homework, too. When he got rejected by a girl, a medical student whose parents found Zeeshan below their daughter’s standard, he returned to his friend, dejected and torn. “Who would want to marry me, Shahneela?” he asked. In her calm and collected tone, she replied “I’d marry you”. And that was the last time Zeeshan ever grieved about anything — that is, until she died.

Survivors of cataclysmic events, such as Zeeshan, acquire a peculiar bent of mind. Consider this story from the early 1940s: a big group of Jewish men was walking in one long line, tired from the miles covered, dreading the number of miles left, being transferred from one concentration camp to another. Among them was Frankl. He later wrote, “I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world may still know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when a man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way – an honourable way – in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfilment.”

Two years after the Abbas Town blast took away the love of his life and his son, Zeeshan finds the fond memories of the time he spent with his wife as the sole source of bliss in his otherwise tumultuous existence. Sitting across a framed photograph of him and Shahneela, her hand on his chest, his arm around her shoulder, Zeeshan takes a long puff of his cigarette and exhales. “We are okay now, but sometimes, I miss my best friend.”

A man flagellating at a Muharram procession in Kharadar, Karachi | Arif Mahmood, White Star
A man flagellating at a Muharram procession in Kharadar, Karachi | Arif Mahmood, White Star

As we wait to be let in outside Haji Muhammad Rafiq Mengal's house, my local contact asks me, “Does strong scent give you headache?” Amused at this random question, I tell him it doesn’t. “That makes one of us.” The moment I step into Mengal’s drawing room, I realise what occasioned the question. The place is redolent with an assortment of fragrances. Mengal loves scents and likes sharing them even more. (He gives me a shiny, dark purple bottle of God-knows-what fragrance which still rests on my desk, right next to a studded golden bracelet Aitzaz Hasan’s aunt gave to me on my visit to Hangu as a souvenir — a proximity rich in sectarian irony.)

Even more ironic is Mengal’s disillusionment with the government. It flies in the face of innumerable books, articles and columns which accuse the rulers of being in collusion with Deobandi groups of which he is a part. (He is among the most important provincial leaders of Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), a renamed version of the banned Deobandi sectarian outfit Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, seen as vocal exponent of further Sunnisation of the state.) For him, official “disregard” of the status of the Prophet of Islam’s most trusted companions, the sahaba, is an outright rejection of Islamic faith.

It is almost puzzling to hear him describe the government’s policy as “choron ki chhutti, chowkidaaron pe pabandi” (set the thieves at large; put the guards in chains). This sounds eerily similar to what a Shia leader said at a rally at Shikarpur: “[The government] does not go after the murderers; it comes after the victims.” I wonder if the two rivals are really that different.

Also read: Caste away — The ongoing struggle of Punjabi Christians

Shias in Jhang have been voicing similar anti-government complaints over the past many months. Between December 2014 – when the implementation of the National Action Plan against terrorism started – and February 2015, scores of Shia activists have been arrested and detained in the city.

When a local journalist spots the flag of the banned Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, known for its violent anti-Shia politics, at a local sports arena owned by the government, he voices the concerns of many who worry over Punjab government’s handling of the sectarian environment in and around Jhang. “A banned organisation hoisting its flag on top of the main gate of a government property — if this is not a sign of the government’s backing [for anti-Shia organisations] then I don’t know what is.”

Similar worries were prevalent among Shia activists and members of civil society in Quetta after a banned sectarian organisation held an award ceremony on March 13, 2014 for its ‘celebrated’ hitmen inside a government-owned hockey ground located quite close to the Chief Minister’s House and the Governor House. One particular song played at the gathering was about a strategy to attack Shias in the manner of hard-hitting batting during a cricket match: “sixes and fours instead of Misbahul Haq’s tuk tuk (defensive pushes)”.

“The saddest thing about [what has happened to Hazara Shias in the last two decades] is that we didn’t have any protectors. Everyone had complete freedom to kill whoever they wanted,” says Khaliq, the president of a Hazara party. In Shia villages across Hangu, the feeling of insecurity generated by the government’s failure is even more acutely articulated.

“The saddest thing about [what has happened to Hazara Shias in the last two decades] is that we didn’t have any protectors. Everyone had complete freedom to kill whoever they wanted.”

With Orakzai, North Waziristan and Kurram agencies – tribal territories all controlled by Taliban until recently – watching their villages from the mountains above, Shias of Hangu find themselves between the proverbial rock and a hard place. In the plains below, Sunni settlements skirt around their villages in a semicircle. Between 2006 and 2009, this region was practically a warzone. Not a single month of Muharram in those four years passed without one or more terrorist attacks.

Eventually, civil society activists and religious leaders compelled the government to take action to forge a peace agreement. According to Irshad Ali, who heads MWM’s Hangu chapter, the agreement has brought some measure of peace to the area, though many villages, such as Ibrahimzai, still face dire threats and occasional attacks — some of them terribly brutal.

Baqir Hussain and Kamran Hussain, young residents of Ibrahimzai related to each other, came under one such attack on a fateful day in October 2014. The two boys were collecting firewood on a hill near their village when they were kidnapped by men belonging to ASWJ. Kamran returned home two months later after his family paid a huge sum of money in ransom. Baqir never did. When his captors sent his remains, stuffed in a sack, to his parents, they chopped off his head and demanded three million rupees to return it. The family could not put together that amount of money.

On December 24, 2014, Kamran stumbled upon the severed head of his friend near Ibrahimzai police station. The shock and horror of that discovery surpasses any impact of brutalities he suffered during his two-month detention.

Also read: Acts of faith — Why people get killed over blasphemy in Pakistan

On a chilly morning early this year, four men sit in the hujra of Imran Shah, a local political activist. They all lost their sons in a bomb attack on February 1, 2013, in a Hangu bazaar. They see the attack – that took away the lives of 28 people – as having resulted from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government’s failure to enforce the peace agreement in letter and spirit. “The agreement has only decreased the clashes and subsequent curfews, but it has still not ended the ongoing persecution of Shias,” says one of them.

Shah gives a detailed explanation of how the Taliban based in the tribal areas cannot attack Shia villages in Hangu unless they find direct or indirect collaborators among the government agencies. “[The Taliban’s] accommodation, food and transport are all arranged here in this very city — right under the army’s nose,” Shah claims.

In a television interview for a Waqt News talk show, Awami Express, aired on December 14, 2011, host Rizwan Jaffer had invited ASWJ’s central leader Maulana Orangzaib Farooqi. During a heated discussion, Farooqi remarked, “There is a disagreement and then there is conflict. Disagreement will always be there, but it doesn’t necessarily have to lead to conflict. Everyone has a right to practice their religion in their prayer halls. For instance, Ismailis are also Shia but there has never been a conflict with them.”

Mourners preparing Zuljanah for a Muharram procession in Sehwan | Arif Mahmood, White Star
Mourners preparing Zuljanah for a Muharram procession in Sehwan | Arif Mahmood, White Star

Three years later, in August 2014, two Ismaili jamatkhanas were targeted in Karachi, killing two and injuring two others. Five months later, a 50-year-old Ismaili Shia, Muhammad Karim, was shot dead in the same city’s Nazimabad area by an Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan associate. The murderer also revealed that a faction of his organisation was devoted to targeting Ismaili Shias. The members of this faction could also very well be the perpetrators of last month’s bus attack on Ismaili Shias.

A video released by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan on January 28, 2014, offers another proof of increasing militant hostility towards Ismaili Shias. Entitled Battle of Hind, the video accuses them of being agents of the West. The video claims that institutions run by Aga Khan’s development network brainwash young people, diverting them away from Sharia and jihad. It also resents that Ismailis Shias, along with Ahmadis, Christians and other Shia communities, are taking over important political and strategic positions in the government to pursue American and Jewish interests.

So, what has led to a change of jihadi and militant position vis-à-vis Ismaili Shias? One possible answer could be the increasing socio-economic clout that Ismaili Shias have acquired in the past few years with initiatives such as Aga Khan Fund for Development and Aga Khan Education Board.

Even after the creation of Pakistan, the slogan Shia Sunni Bhai Bhai (Sunnis and Shias are brethren in belief) was not universally accepted. As Ahmed points out, there were sporadic incidents of violence in the early years after Partition.

Questions of class and political power, indeed, have been at the core of sectarian problems in many parts of Pakistan. In Jhang, as political scientist Dr Muhammad Waseem explains in Dilemmas of Pride and Pain: Sectarian Conflict and Conflict Transformation in Pakistan, the economic and political eminence of the Shia feudal elite was a major reason for the rise of sectarian strife. Sunni clerics, migrants from India and the emergent trading community realised that they could not succeed electorally unless they had mobilised Sunni voters against this Shia elite that had exercised political dominance for a century, he notes and adds: “It was expedient to manipulate Shia-Sunni differences to weaken the hold of the Shia landlords”. During his research, Waseem found anecdotal evidences of “deliberate attempts by politicians on the Sunni side to provoke violence and mobilise voters against Shia candidates in the name of religion”.

Hazara Shias in Quetta find themselves in a similar entanglement of sectarian ideology and class politics. As journalist Ahmed notes in Sectarian War: Pakistan’s Sunni-Shia Violence and its Links to the Middle East, they “are upwardly mobile in a conservative tribal society because of their focus on education and business”.

Also read: State of fear

A leader of a Shia organisation takes obvious pride in this social mobility when he claims that 87 Hazara Shia women from Quetta have completed their doctoral studies from world-class universities. “They are killing us not just because we are Shia but also because we are so developed,” he says.

This explanation, actually, serves as a precised version of a detailed analysis of the political economy of sectarian violence in Pakistan within the country’s regional and historical milieu.

Many people have this nostalgic view that everyone lived together harmoniously in pre-Zia Pakistan. Intermarriages among the followers of different sects were common and nobody bothered if their next-door neighbour was a Shia or a Sunni — at least this is what we are told by dew-eyed romantics. It is true that sect as the primary marker of identity, or what sociologist Dr Nosheen Ali calls “sectarian imaginary”, was not as pronounced as it is today; Shia-ness or Sunni-ness was only explicitly exhibited on religious occasions. But it is also correct to say that the “sectarian imaginary” entered the collective consciousness of the people of this land as early as the coming of Islam itself.

Early Mughal emperors, too, faced the sectarian question: Babur’s will to Humayun advised the incoming emperor to “overlook the difference between the Sunnis and Shias, otherwise the decrepitude of Islam would inevitably follow”. Humayun’s conversion to Shia Islam under the influence of Safavid emperor Shah Tahmasp, Akbar’s proclivity towards pluralism, efforts to promote Shia Islam by Jahangir’s Iranian wife and her brother’s promotion of what Ahmed refers to as “Shia penetration of the court” all look like good or bad manifestations of Babur’s advice. And then Aurangzeb happened. Fatawa-e-Alamgiri, a 33-volume treatise on Hanafi law that the emperor sponsored declared Shias to be heretics.

A man prays at an imambargah in Kharadar, Karachi | Arif Mahmood, White Star
A man prays at an imambargah in Kharadar, Karachi | Arif Mahmood, White Star

Even after the creation of Pakistan, the slogan Shia Sunni Bhai Bhai (Sunnis and Shias are brethren in belief) was not universally accepted. As Ahmed points out, there were sporadic incidents of violence in the early years after Partition. Most notably, around 116 Shias were massacred in Thehri, in Khairpur district, in June 1963. The incident is also regarded as the first instance of mass murder of Shias in Pakistan.

Another year that stands out amid the sectarian history of the country is 1979. That year saw the beginning of Zia’s controversial Islamisation of the state and society, creating a huge disequilibrium in sectarian relations. This disequilibrium became even more pronounced in the context of rivalry between a Shia regime in Iran, which came to power in a revolution that same year, and Saudi monarchy that had to contend with a bloody siege of the Kaaba, also in 1979, and a series of protests led by Shia pilgrims from Iran during the next few Hajj season. Add to the mix an American-aided and Saudi-funded jihad in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union (that, too, having started during that eventful year) and Zia’s lurch towards Islamisation looks like a part of an international scramble for regional and strategic interests in Pakistan’s immediate neighbourhood.

Since then, sectarian troubles have only expanded geographically and numerically and their intensity, too, has multiplied manifold as manifested in the ever-rising number of those killed during acts of sect-motivated terrorist attacks. Some of these changes for the worse can be explained with reference to the rise of various regional and international non-state actors – such as the Taliban, al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) – and their active presence in different parts of Pakistan.

Yet, local factors play a far more vital part in sectarian conflagrations than regional and international ones. After all, there has to be a reason for a fire to exist before anyone can kindle and stoke it from outside. For instance, in much of southern Punjab as well as Jhang, the Shia-Sunni divide has been accentuated by landlord-tenant dynamics, especially after the introduction of universal adult franchise which gave erstwhile powerless groups a sudden say in politics. In Quetta, sectarian genocide is highly influenced by the Baloch separatist movement which sees Hazara Shias as agents of the state or, worse still, as pawns of an Iranian Shia regime which opposes Baloch separatism for its own internal reasons. In Karachi, Shias find themselves targeted as part of an ongoing tussle for power and pelf between Urdu-speaking communities living in central parts of the city and the Pakhtun populace scattered across many strategically important neighbourhoods.

In this messy interplay between religion, region, politics and economy, Shias in Pakistan find themselves receiving the worst end of the bargain.

Like spiralling, expanding waves of a hurricane, Jhang city has, over time, evolved in concentric circles. From a fort built by the Sials, who first came here in the 13th century, it first expanded to a colonial district headquarters in the 20th century with its vast office complexes and sprawling officers’ residences. In between the two episodes, and even after the latter one, the population of the city has been expanding much beyond its original environs. And, over time, modernity has tweaked its periphery into gentrified housing schemes, fancy eateries and wide carpeted roads. Yet, the core of city life – with all its good, bad and ugly aspects – is still centred on its old quarters. A baffling warren of narrow bricked streets, this part of Jhang is an emblem of the city’s complex, and deadly, sectarian dynamics.

The fading, decaying fort that the Sials built still occasionally serves as the nucleus of the coil called Jhang. The current generation of its original occupants uses it as a dera, or a public space reserved for social and political purposes. Usually this dera is a quiet place, in true reflection of the waned political salience of Sials. On a February evening this year, however, there are quite a few men sitting in it on charpoys under the sun, sipping tea. A little further, arrangements for a party are being made: a long-running family feud has been recently resolved and the once-estranged relatives are coming over to celebrate their rapprochement. Overseeing the preparation is Kaka Balli, a middle-aged man in black shalwar kameez, sporting a steel bracelet, literally wearing his Shia-ness on his sleeves.

Imambargah Azakhana-e-Zehra in Saddar, Karachi | Mohammad Ali, White Star
Imambargah Azakhana-e-Zehra in Saddar, Karachi | Mohammad Ali, White Star

Kaka Balli was once a known local thug, with links to smugglers, drug addicts and robbers. In the 1980s, he was also at the centre of a rivalry between Sials and Sheikhs, the latter being a newly arrived business and political family in Jhang. In February 1990, when Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan founder Haq Nawaz Jhangvi was murdered in the city, Sheikh Iqbal, then a member of the Punjab Assembly, managed to have Kaka Balli booked for the murder and a court sent him behind bars for twelve and a half years for a crime he says he did not commit. Later events suggested that Iqbal might have had Jhangvi killed, seeing him as a threat to his family’s political ambitions. Or, at least, this was the conclusion that Jhangvi’s followers arrived at only a year after their leader’s killing. When Jhangvi’s successor Isarul Qasmi was also murdered in 1991, the activists of Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan torched Iqbal’s house and subsequently killed him along with one of his relatives. “[The Sheikhs] took away 12 years of my life, and for what? They are still in power and I am living in fear,” says Kaka Balli, gesturing to a gun hidden underneath his shirt.

He is now at the forefront of a group of people trying to broker peace between the victims and perpetrators of sectarian violence. It was through Kaka Balli’s initiative that the January 8, 2015, hanging of Ikramul Haq alias Ikram Lahori – a convicted killer of a young Shia man – was deferred after some members of the family of the deceased pardoned him. (The pardon ultimately did not lead to a revocation of Lahori’s sentence and he was hanged in a jail in Lahore on January 17, 2015.)

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way,” as Frankl once wrote. Kaka Balli’s decision to choose peace over conflict lights a torch, albeit a small one, to illuminate an otherwise pitch-black national sectarian landscape.

This was originally published in Herald's June 2015 issue. To read more, subscribe to Herald in print.

The writer was a staffer at the Herald