By Tushar Ranjan Mohanty
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management
Three Shia students at Karachi University (KU) came under sectarian attack on November 11, 2016, when unidentified assailants opened fire on them in Block 4 of the Gulistan-e-Jauhar area in Gulshan Town, Karachi, the provincial capital of Sindh. One student, identified as Murtaza, died instantly while his colleagues Shahid and Ehsan were critically injured. Gulistan-e-Johar Police Station officials confirmed the sectarian nature of attack.
On November 4, 2016, three cadres of Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), a front organization of the erstwhile Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), were shot dead while returning from a rally organised by the outfit in the Shafiq Mor area of North Karachi. Elsewhere on the same day, two persons were shot dead near Fatima Bai Hospital in Patel Para area under the Jamshed Quarters Police Station in Jamshed Town. An unnamed ASWJ spokesman claimed that all the five victims were associated with their group. Further, a prayer leader, Shafiq Rehman (30), was shot dead in North Nazimabad. The victim was a Pesh Imam (prayer leader) of a mosque.
These sectarian killings came in the aftermath of the October 30 attack on a Shia woman’s mourning Majlis (gathering) in Nazimabad Town, in which five persons were killed when motorcycle borne unidentified assailants opened fire. Pakistani British national Naiyyar Mehdi Zaidi (60) from London and two of his brothers were shot dead, along with another man and a woman, while another six people sustained injuries. Senior Police official Tayyab Muqaddas Haider disclosed, "Two attackers on a motorbike opened indiscriminate fire on the participants coming for the gathering." Al-Alami (international) group of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) claimed responsibility for the attack.
In the wake of these sectarian killings, the Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah sought an explanation from the Deputy Inspector General (DIGs) of these areas on November 5 for their failure to stop these targeted attacks. Chief Minister Shah stated, “This [the killings] shows that there is lethargy and that’s why target killers are roaming free and escape after killing people… Why were police not patrolling these sensitive areas? This is very serious matter that the criminals killed people in an area and after changing their motorcycle carried out an attack at another place without any fear of the Police and other agencies. This is surprising and totally unacceptable.” Briefing the Chief Minister, Additional Inspector General of Police (AIG), Karachi, Mushtaq Maher noted, “They used the same pistol and only changed their motorcycle. I am further investigating the incidents and will submit a detailed report shortly.”
On November 6, in response to the Chief Minister’s reprimand, law enforcement agencies rounded up at least 40 suspects, including a prominent Shia scholar. Allama Mirza Yousuf Hussain, a Majlis Wahdat-e-Muslimeen (MWM) leader, was arrested late in the night of November 5 during a raid on his house at Jamia Masjid Noor-i-Iman in the Nazimabad of Karachi. Hussain, who is a prayer leader at Noor-e-Emaan Masjid, was taken into custody just a day after a former Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) senator Faisal Raza Abidi was arrested from his house in the New Rizvia Society of Nazimabad in the early hours of November 5, over his alleged involvement in sectarian killings. Weapons, including a G-3 rifle and sub-machine guns (SMGs), were also recovered during the half-an-hour long search, before Abidi was shifted to an undisclosed location for interrogation.
Taj Hanafi, secretary general of the proscribed Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) and Allama Mirza Yusuf Husain, All Pakistan Shia Action Committee Chief, were detained in Karachi on November 6. According to the Rangers, Hanafi was arrested from Karachi's Nagan Chowrangi area. An ASWJ spokesman also confirmed that Hanafi, who was to contest the November 24 National Assembly (NA) seat No-298 by-polls, had been arrested.
After a decline in scale and casualties, sectarian violence is once again surging in Sindh, particularly in Karachi, the provincial metropolis and economic hub of the country. Despite efforts by the state to bring peace to the city, sectarian killings continue, putting a question mark on Government claims. According to partial data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management (ICM), Sindh has witnessed 17 sectarian attacks out of a total of 31 incidents throughout country in 2016; in 2015, Sindh accounted for 30 out of 53 such attacks. Of thee 17 attacks during the current year, only one incident was reported outside Karachi.
Sectarian violence in Karachi is just another chapter in Pakistan’s long history of violence against minorities. Sectarian strife has afflicted Pakistan virtually from the moment of its birth, but has escalated continuously since 1979, with the then President General Zia ul-Haq’s ‘Islamicisation’ of Pakistani politics. Shias resisted this process as the ‘Sunnification’ of Pakistan, since most of the laws and regulations introduced were based on Sunni Fiqh (Jurisprudence). Notably, in July 1980, 25,000 Shias gathered in Islamabad to protest the Islamicisation laws. But the more the Shias protested, the more were they targeted, and the strife widened. The violence worsened after September 11, 2001, and the expulsion of the Taliban from Afghanistan, eventually forcing then President Pervez Musharraf to ban some 104 terrorist and religio-extremist groups, including the LeJ and SSP, under growing international pressure.
Different sectarian terrorist outfits, including LeJ, LeJ-al-Alami, SSP and Sipah-e-Muhammad Pakistan (SMP), among others, are major players in engineering sectarian strife. The most prominent among these has been LeJ, which was formed in 1996, when it formally separated from SSP, to play a dominant role in bringing the culture of takfir (declaring others as being outside the pale of Islam) into the mainstream, along with physically eliminating sectarian ‘others’. LeJ aims to transform Pakistan into a Sunni state, primarily through violence. In response, Shia militant groups such as Sipah-e-Muhammad Pakistan (SMP) emerged, pursuing a strategy of tit-for-tat retaliation.
Sectarian violence routinely increases, especially in the month of Muhrram, the period of Shia mourning for the martyrs of the battle of Karbala, including the family of Imam Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet, in AD 680, at the hands of the Umayyad Caliphate. Unlike previous years, however, Muhrram passed relatively peacefully in 2016, unlike the previous year, when a suicide bomber targeted a Muharram procession near a park in the Lashari area of Jacobabad District, killing at least 22 persons, including eight children on October 23, 2015. Government had made robust plan for making 2016 Muharram month peaceful. Around 6,150 Police personnel were deployed for the main procession of 9th day of Muharram in Karachi. For the security of over 346 Imambargahs (Shia places of worship), 567 Majalis (gatherings) and 279 processions, more than 19,519 Police personnel were deployed.
Due to the implementation of the National Action Plan (NAP) and Operation Zarb-e-Azab (Sword of the Prophet), the financial and logistical support of various terrorist formations has suffered significant damage, resulting in a change in their strategy from large scale attacks to smaller hit and run strikes. Cadres of sectarian outfits have overwhelmingly hit soft targets, instead of attacking major processions and establishments.
The Sindh Government has launched a crackdown against 93 madrassas accused of fuelling sectarian violence following a recent uptick in sectarian killings in the metropolis. The madrassas have been described by officials as ‘nurseries of sectarian militants’. On November 3, the Sindh Government’s Apex Committee decided to launch a crackdown on drug dealers and criminals involved in street crime, besides compiling a list of people, particularly seminary students, who have been to Afghanistan, Iran and Syria in recent years. Earlier, on October 25, during a special meeting held at Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah's House to review the law and order situation in the Province, 93 madrassas in Sindh were identified as having ‘solid links’ with terrorist or banned outfits, with intelligence agencies claiming they had credible information about the activities at these madaris. The Chief Minister directed the Police and Rangers to begin an operation against madaris harboring terrorists.
Under the NAP, geo-tagging of 7,724 madrassas has been completed by the Sindh Special Branch and IT Branch on September 5, 2016, helping security agencies define the exact location of these seminaries and to maintain a strict watch on them. Of this total 3,110 madaris are in Karachi, 1,290 in Hyderabad, 750 in Mirpurkhas, 1,536 in Sukkur and 1,037 in Larkana Division. Reports indicate that there are a total of 10,030 madrassas in Sindh, of which 2,309 have been sealed after different allegations against them, while 1,184 are yet to be registered. The Special Branch has written a letter to the relevant departments to take action against unregistered madrassas so that they are not used in any terror-related activities. Earlier on June 6, 2016, Sanaullah Abassi, AIG Dr. Sanaullah Abbasi Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) Sindh disclosed, further, “Since implementations of National Action Plan (NAP) in December 2014, the Sindh Police have shut down and sealed 167 unregistered seminaries.”
Pakistan’s two-faced strategy on Islamist terrorism and extremism was, however, exposed on November 4, when the purportedly ‘banned’ organized a huge rally in the heart of Islamabad, reducing the NAP and the Government’s ‘strategy’ against sectarian terrorism to ridicule. Pakistani duplicity on terrorism continues, and will yield it own harvest of blood in the foreseeable future.