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Though there has been an inherent sectarian fault line, what is happening today is substantial and lethal than the earlier violence witnessed primarily in Punjab during the 1980s and 1990s. There are at least five factors, which should make the ongoing sectarian war in Pakistan as different from its earlier avatars, making it deadlier and lethal to combat.

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D. Suba Chandran
Professor
International Strategic and Security Studies Programme (ISSSP)
National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore

The recent sectarian attacks all over Pakistan highlight the other ongoing war within Pakistan. Though there has been an inherent sectarian fault line, what is happening today is substantial and lethal than the earlier violence witnessed primarily in Punjab during the 1980s and 1990s. 

There are at least five factors, which should make the ongoing sectarian war in Pakistan as different from its earlier avatars, making it deadlier and lethal to combat. First, the sheer geographic spread of the sectarian violence and the inter connectedness. Sectarian violence during the 1980s and 1990s were primarily centred on few districts of Punjab (in and around Jhang), select pockets in Karachi city, and occasionally in Kurram Agency in FATA. Rest of Pakistan hardly witnessed any heavy dose of sectarian violence. 

Today, the geographic spread of sectarian violence is substantial and covers the entire country. From targeting the Shia pilgrims visiting Iran in Balochistan to bus passengers in the Karakoram Highway in Gilgit-Baltistan, and from Khyber and Kurram Agencies in FATA to the city of Karachi, the new Sectarian War in Pakistan is no more limited to few districts of Punjab, as had been the case during the 1980s and 90s.

Though different sections of the Shia community present in various parts of Pakistan, the level violence against them was not this vehement in the past. For example, the nature and extent of violence against the Hazara community in Balochistan is a new phenomenon. Balochistan has always witnessed violence of nationalist variety, but hardly on sectarian lines, until now. And Sindh, the land of Sufis, is now under attack.

Emergence of the TTP during the last decade seems to have provided a bridge in linking the dots. Today, the TTP and the erstwhile sectarian groups based in Punjab have become symbiotic; the involvement of Punjabi sectarian groups against the Shia communities in FATA and Balochistan is no coincidence. Both in terms of geography and the perpetrators, there is a huge expansion in sectarian violence.

Second major difference in Pakistan’s sectarian war today is related to intensity and violence. Today the militants use suicide bombing in the mosques belonging to the Shias and Ahmediyas; the extent of human and material damage is substantial when compared to the sporadic outburst in Punjab during the 1980s and 90s. The sectarian groups’ linkages with the TTP have further increased this lethality. Else the sectarian groups would not have had the access to either weapons or training, including the use of human bombs.

Third major difference in the sectarian war is related to its external linkages. During the 1980s and 90s, the sectarian differences within were primarily fuelled by the Cold War between Pakistan and Iran. Zia’s zealousness in using the religion and the Iran’s fear of growing Pak-US linkages in the then Af-Pak construct did have an impact on the Shia-Sunni violence then. Emergence of sectarian groups such as the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and Lahkar-e-Jhangvi during this period was no coincidence. 

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

Fourth major difference between the sectarian war in Pakistan today and then, is related to State’s ability to control. During the 1980s and 1990s, the sectarian groups in Punjab had the support of Establishment. With funding support from outside and with the TTP linkages, sectarian groups in Pakistan no more need the Establishment; their survival is secure and expansion assured. 

Perhaps, the State may still retain some contacts and influence over the sectarian groups in select pockets, for example in Balochistan. But in Punjab today, the State may neither be able to control nor calibrate the sectarian violence. Worse, the State – both political and military Establishment seems to be afraid of targeting these sectarian groups. Consider the case of Mumtaz Qadri, the assassin of Salman Taseer, the then Governor of Punjab. How to explain the disappearance of the case records from the courts, witnesses not turning up, and turning blind eye to the pro-Qadri lawyers commotion in the Courts? 

Perhaps, the military and political Establishments are not confident of taking the sectarian groups. The fear of sectarian war expanding and getting centred in the heartland Pakistan (read Punjab), is the biggest fear/nightmare for Pakistan. As long as the fighting takes place in the FATA, the State can use the military, Airforce, and even the American drones to target them. When it comes to the heartland, the State cannot use any of the above, and will have to be heavily dependent on the police force. How confident is the Establishment today, that the local police will be able to combat the sectarian militants? Both the political will and military capacity of the State to control the sectarian menace today is suspect. And that makes the War even lethal.

Finally, the growing sectarian militancy is also a new phenomenon in terms of its ability to neutralize the erstwhile ethnic and nationalist movements Balochistan and Sindh. With no outlets to reach out to the State and with the governance process worsening day by day, the sectarian groups may be able to project themselves better than the nationalist movements – either of Sindhi or Balochi varieties. Perhaps, the State may even be tempted to consider such a process in its interest. In the short term it may yield dividend, as it is happening in Balochistan; the sectarian war here has substantially changed the discourse from being led by the tribal Baloch Sardars. In the long run, however, it will hurt Pakistan even more.

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

The above was originally published in the Hindu