By Malik Siraj Akbar
In a statement issued on October 23, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has urged the Pakistani government to bring to justice the perpetrators of recent terrorist attacks on Shia Muslims that killed over 40 people, including several children. The attacks took place in the provinces of Balochistan and Sindh for which a banned, yet proactive, Sunni extremist group, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), claimed responsibility. The Secretary General has reiterated that nothing justifies terrorism and called upon the Pakistani government "to do its utmost to protect its citizens, including all minorities."
There is a problem on the government's side when it comes to dealing with extremist violence. The Sunni groups attack the Shias so frequently that it takes them only a few more days to stage a renewed assault. That said, every new incident helps in covering up the previous one no matter how high a death toll it causes. New attacks enable the police and investigators to close old cases and pretend to be working on new ones. You must be wondering what the police do in the meanwhile when there is no fresh attack. Doesn't it build public pressure on the government? Of course, it does. The government certainly as an effective plan to deal with such situations: blame the Indians.
Suhail Anwar Siyal, the Home Minister for the Sindh Province, where a suicide bomber killed around twenty people in Jacobabad district, admitted that the LeJ had accepted responsibility for the carnage but, in spite of that, he still insisted that it was the Indian intelligence agency, the Research and Anlysis Wing (RAW), which had "spread across Sindh". The Minister was reluctant to blame or criticize the LeJ because he faces a more immediate threat to his safety from the deep-rooted Sunni outfit(s) than a foreign country. So why risk antagonizing the extremist outfit when it is safer and convenient to blame a foreign intelligence agency and quickly get exemption for one's own shortcomings? The minister's role still remains pertinent because if not he then who else will take action against these criminals?
The recent attacks, especially the one in Jacobabad, should not solely be taken as a continuation of the past attacks on the Shias. It is the harbinger of a much larger problem that has been brewing for several years and has now come of age. The rise of militant Islam in Sindh province is deeply disconcerting given Sindh's rich history of tolerance, diversity and acceptance of different religions and sects. Unlike the provinces of the Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, Sindh had remained uncompromising to share space with the Taliban and other militant groups on the land of the Sufi traditions. Sindh is home to 94% of Pakistan's Hindus. Except for Karachi, the province's capital, where Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other terrorist groups have consolidated their grip in recent years, the rest of the province provided no sanctuary to religious extremists. But that now seems history as these armed groups have started attacks outside Karachi in interior Sindh. That is bad news because Sunni militants do not only increase threats for the Shias but they also detest moderate Sunni sects and, worse, the Hindus.
In a January 2015 report Conflict Dynamics in Sindh published by the United States Institute for Peace, authors Huma Yusuf and Syed Shoaib Hassan warned that extremist organizations were increasingly active in Sindh's central and northern districts. Sectarian militant groups and the anti-state Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) were consolidating their presence in the province in the rural areas.
"The escalating activities of extremist groups are having an impact on the province's pluralistic society," they observed and urged Islamabad to "ensure that the province does not become a new base for militants in the same way that FATA and southern Punjab are."
A more recent report New Haven of Terrorists published last month by the Washington -D.C.-based Sindhi Foundation and authored by a veteran credible journalist, Hassan Mujtaba, portrays even a more gloomy picture of Sindh. According to the report, several radical groups, including the pro-Taliban Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, sectarian organizations, such as Sipah-e-Sahaba and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LEJ) have increased recruitment, donation collection and other activities in Sindh. Better presence in Sindh for these extremist groups means access to safer sanctuaries and new rich sources of wealth. In Sindh, they can redouble their resources by attacking NATO trucks and containers and kidnapping rich Hindu businessmen to extort money.
Back in July 2009, BBC correspondent Nisar Kokhar had reported about a fifty percent increase in religious schools in Sindh. These seminaries are generally blamed for churning out Jihadists and offering them safe hideouts. In that report, one progressive Sindhi activist had shared his concerns about the future: "I fear the construction of so many religious schools in Sindh will give birth to a new generation of extremists and conservatives on the land of the tolerant Sufis."
As luck would have it, those feared days have arrived for Sindh.
The new generation of extremists seems to be absolutely clear about what they should be doing as their first steps. They have started to attack and destroy Shrines of many of the Sufis who preached peace and coexistence. According to Zia Ur Rehman of the Lahore-based the Friday Times, unidentified assailants attacked and burned the shrine of one venerated Sufi, Hazrat Noor Shah Bukhari, in Mirpurkhas.
After all, who is radicalizing the young Sindhis? How is the Jihadist culture expanding so rapidly?
Yusuf and Hasan, the authors of the USIP report, provide shocking information how these extremist groups take advantage of natural disasters, such as the floods of 2010-11, and pose as humanitarian groups while going there to recruit fresh fighters. For example, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the charity organ of the terrorist group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, they wrote, established 13 relief camps and 6 medical centers soon after the floods in Sindh in order to win the hearts and minds of the people. One sectarian group, Ahle Sunnat Wal Jama'at (ASWJ) "is currently on a recruitment drive in Sindh--by some
estimates the groups has signed up twenty-five thousand members in Sindh outside Karachi in recent years."
It might sound like a cliché that Pakistan has hard times ahead. The Pakistanis have already seen the worst imaginable times while dealing with violent extremism. Islamabad can't afford to give one last remaining of its four provinces to the Taliban and sectarian groups. If Sindh falls in the hands of Sunni extremists, the price the whole country will have to pay is going to be much higher than what they have paid so far.