Tracing The Roots Of Sectarian Violence In Pakistan

Tracing The Roots Of Sectarian Violence In Pakistan
What price have the people of this region paid for the political agenda pursued by political leaders? An objective analysis of this question from a humanitarian perspective is required to highlight a dark side of our political history that has been consigned to oblivion for various reasons. From the beginning of the Pakistan movement to this date, political leaders kept shifting from one political agenda to another in pursuit of their ultimate goals.

The political agenda for a separate homeland resulted in loss of human lives that were millions in number. A new and independent country, Pakistan, was the prize of all those sacrifices that were laid down by the people in pursuit of this noble cause. We all reconciled with this dark side of our history without learning any lesson from it.

Another similar human tragedy hit the country again when a political crisis emanated from the military operation in the eastern part of the country that left hundreds of thousand people dead or wounded. Out emerged a new country -- Bangladesh -- as a prize for the human lives that were sacrificed for the creation of a separate country. The western part of the country became a new Pakistan after cessation of its eastern wing.

Military dictatorship, having reigned the country for about thirteen years, lost its legitimacy in the eyes of the people and, willingly or unwillingly, they let democracy regain its power in the country. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto ascended as the new prime minster with a new political agenda of Islamic Socialism. Hardly staying in power for seven years, Bhutto was deposed by a military dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq -- carrying a new political agenda of religious fundamentalism as a counter narrative against the policies of his predecessor.

Luck favored Zia-ul-Haq far greater than what he might have ever anticipated, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and the US found in him a real stalwart for waging a jihad in Afghanistan. Religious parties were the second beneficiaries of this new global scenario. Under the new military regime, people became victims of repression not only for their political views but for the religious faith as well. Religious seminaries mushroomed in the length and breadth of the country, producing jihadis to join the ongoing holy war in Afghanistan. As Saudi Arabia was also a key player in this Afghan jihad, a sectarian conflict of Shia-Sunni sects also entered into the fold of the jihad.

Fundamentalists, having gained more strength, left no chance to go untapped that could have enhanced their agenda of religious extremism. Additional blasphemy laws were introduced and harsher punitive clauses were included into the existing laws, school text books were revised in line with the newly emerging fundamentalist religious belief, and new laws were added that impinged upon the women’s right.

Once again, human lives became fodder for keeping alight the torch of the political agenda pursued by General Zia-ul-Haq. Deaths and miseries ensued as the political power of General Zia-ul-Haq further strengthened. How systematically his agenda was pursued can now be analysed and evaluated on the basis of factual evidences that are easily accessible on line.

How religious extremism penetrated into Pakistani society 

A new web portal by the name of “Violence Register” was recently created to provide factual data on sectarian violence as well as other forms of violence committed against the minority religious communities of Pakistan from 1963 to this year. Mixing this data with the data that this writer maintains from the year 2001 to date brings up a factual picture of how religious extremism triggered by General Zia-ul-Haq made its penetration in the society, targeted the vulnerable people of the country, and how it continued surviving even after the demise of its original patron – General Zia-ul-Haq himself.

The first incidence of sectarian violence is found to have occurred on 3 June 1963 in Thehri area of Khairpur when 118 Shia Muslims were killed by a mob of Deobandi Muslims who found the Tazia procession by Shia Muslims to be against their beliefs. It was a sporadic incident as no new followup of it was reported later. It took a decade before another significant instance of sectarian violence was reported on 22 February 1978. The location was Old Golimar in Karachi, the cause was political plus sectarian, and the victims were five Shia Muslims who lost their lives and fourteen who were wounded. A press report claimed that the incident took place when the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) opened its office in Golimar and many Shias joined the party. As the era of General Zia-ul-Haq had already been established in the country, he made it a point to suppress all those political activities that had any link with the PPP. The residents of Golimar claimed complicity of the local administration for providing a free hand to rioters to create chaos in the area.

After a brief lull, a major Shia-Sunni riot took place in Karachi during Muharram holidays that put 60 persons to death in 1983. This was the beginning of the sectarian violence that continued occurring every year, though the frequency of these incidents remained one to two incidents per year. From 1983 to 2000, 35 incidents of sectarian violence occurred in the country that left 1,354 persons dead and 132 wounded. The victims of all these attacks are reflected as “Shias” on the “Violence Register” web portal which perhaps was not exactly the case. However, it is true that a majority of them must have been Shias.

The 9/11 attacks in 2001 forced Pakistan to go through another transformation in its political policies that led the religious militants, once created and patronised by Pakistan, to go astray and categorise Pakistan as their enemy because of its alliance in the “war against terrorism” launched by the USA and NATO forces in Afghanistan. An era of terrorism ushered in the country soon after this new turn in Pakistani politics providing justification to the religious militants to go after all those who they find opposed to the religious ideology they followed and struggled to implement in the country. From a religio-political differences that had been the cause of Shia-Sunni hatred prior to the launch of US led war against terrorism, the religious militancy broadened the spectrum of this religious-based hatred between two sects of the same religion to all other sects and to other non-Muslim communities as well. A “war against infidelty” was the new moto of the religious-based militant organizations.

From 2001 to 2020, the country recorded 1,276 incidents of sectarian and communal violence and the number of victims were 5,070 dead and 8,838 wounded. The highest among them were from Shia community that were 53% of the total fatalities while Sunnis were 23%, and 11% were Sunni and Shia combined who were victims of sectarian clashes between both of them. The remaining 13% were Christians, Hindus, Ahmadis, Sikhs, Sufi devotees, and Zikris. Majority of these sectarian crimes took place in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa (including former FATA region) 40%, followed by Sindh (22%), Balochistan (22%), Punjab (including Islamabad) 15%, GB & AJK 1%. Minority communities bore the biggest burnt of sectarian violence. Despite being 20% of the total population, the fatalities of Shia and non-Muslim communities were 66% of the total fatalities. The same disparity was noticeable on the provincial level too. The combined population of Khyber Pukhtunkhwa and Balochistan is around 47 million or 22% of the total population of the country while the victims of sectarian violence in these provinces are 62%.

The country that was created to save the interests and lives of minority community from the suspected threat of majority community, once gained its separation from the majority community, became a similar threat to its own minority population because of the political policies adopted by the leadership. Ironically, the perpetrators, in most cases, are also from the Sunni majority community who have formed several militant organizations for an alleged cause of purifying the society by all legal or illegal means and feel no shame in claiming their responsibity for the crime they commit. Out of 5,070 fatalities from sectarian violence, 1,150 were claimed to have been committed by Sunni militant groups like TTP (plus splinter groups), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Daish (Islamic State), and Jundullah.

These are few glimpses of what heinous crimes have so far been committed in this “war against infidelty”. The trend of Islamophobia that has begun rearing its head in the non-Muslim countries is as condemnable as the crime of sectarian violence in our country. We cannot raise any voice against Islamophobia until sincere efforts are made to reformulate the political agenda of the country that can bring an end to this detestable crime. With a new move of the country to make peace with the TTP and assimilate them into the mainstream, the chances of any change in government policy appear to be unthinkable at the moment.


The author is a freelance journalist and Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Research & Security Studies