Sectarian threat looms large in south Punjab

The impoverished region is 'fertile ground for militants'

Sectarian threat looms large in south Punjab
A swarm of young madrassa students gathered around the main Imambargah in Rahim Yar Khan. “Shias are infidels,” they shouted. “Death to America! Death to Iran!” Some vowed to attack Shias to avenge the death of Malik Ishaq.

Malik Ishaq, the chief of the banned Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), was killed along with 13 aides in a reported gunfight with the police. But many in the crowd insisted he had been killed deliberately because of pressure from local Shias, and Iran, with which Pakistan has recently started mending ties.

The mob tried to burn down the Imambargah, police says, but they were stopped by cops led by Tariq Elahi Mastoi, the district police officer in Rahim Yar Khan. A number of suspects were arrested from the site, while the rest of the crowd was dispersed. The police, who were on high alert, had to patrol the city.
The mob tried to burn down the Imambargah

A catastrophe was averted, but the threat continues to loom large. The situation in Rahim Yar Khan and other major cities of South Punjab is tense. Followers of Malik Ishaq and Lashkar-e-Jhangavi (LeJ) are angry, and some of them may target political leaders, policemen and Shia citizens.

Punjab Home Minister Shuja Khanzada had told reporters that he was among 20 key politicians and bureaucrats who could be targeted. He had then told a gathering in Lahore that the killing of Malik Ishaq was part of the National Action Plan (NAP) against terrorism. “Intelligence based operations are being conducted throughout the province,” he was reported as saying. “The operation against Malik Ishaq was also a part of the plan. Action will be taken where ever the state’s interest is compromised.”

On August 16, he was killed in a suicide attack at his home in the Attock district, along with 18 visitors. Although the Taliban splinter group Jamaatul Ahrar has claimed responsibility, the government does not rule out the involvement of LeJ.

 Late Col Shuja Khanzada
Late Col Shuja Khanzada

“I swear by the blood of Shuja Khanzada that I will turn Pakistan into a cradle of peace.” Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif said at a condolence meeting of the provincial cabinet. “I pledge that we will not rest till the eradication of terrorism from the country.”

But the greater threat of violence against Shias, especially in the underdeveloped southern regions of Punjab, will not be possible until the government controls the foreign funding of sectarian groups as well as any madrassas that preach hatred, and take measures to improve the economic conditions, analysts say.

“If the police had not controlled the situation, they would have set the entire city ablaze,” said Mastoi, the top police officer in Rahim Yar Khan. He says the government has decided to take stern measures against all terrorist groups, and it will go after their financiers too. “We are trying to reach the people who gave them funds for so long making them stronger and stronger,” he says. Among them, according to Mastoi, was a gang of dacoits. “Those dacoits gave them regular donations.”


Two madrassas have recently been shut down in Rahim Yar Khan, for spreading hate and for becoming centers of terrorist activities.

Allama Asif Naqvi, vice president of the Shia Ulema Council, believes such measures should have been taken a long time ago. “If they had been dealt with in time, the Shia community would not have seen so much bloodshed,” he says. He fears Malik Ishaq’s death may become an excuse of renewed attacks against Shia Muslims. “We are the prime targets now, and the state must protect us.”

Noted cleric Allama Tahir Ashrafi, who is the leader of Pakistan Ulema Council, shares some of these fears. “Malik Ishaq is dead, but a lot of clerics who issue decrees justifying killing of Shias and Ahmadis are alive,” he says. “And if they are not taken care of, many more Malik Ishaqs will appear.” He says sectarian groups have fought over collection of funds, and squeezing their supply of funds is among the key ways of dealing with them. “Their finances have to be stopped,” he says.
"A dacoit gang gave them regular donations"

Tahir Ashrafi came under severe criticism after he was photographed with Malik Ishaq following his release from jail after he was acquitted by the Supreme Court. But he says he had gone to negotiate with the LeJ chief, and had only met the man thrice in his entire life. “It was on the request of the government that I went there so that I could convince him not to kill Shia and Ahmadis,” he says. “I negotiated with him and he promised he would not kill members of these communities any more. I can show you a document in which Malik Ishaq made this promise in writing, and said he will live his remaining life peacefully.” For that, Ashrafi says, he has no regrets. “I will meet anyone, even people I disagree with, if it helps make peace.”

Abdul Kareem Sudwani, a veteran Jamaat-e-Islami activist from Rajanpur, believes there is more to the issue than difference of beliefs. “South Punjab is a fertile land for ISIS and Taliban because of the abject poverty that exists here,” he says.

Of the 1,764 wanted men in Punjab, 729 are from south Punjab

Of the 1,764 suspects on the Punjab government’s ‘wanted’ lists, 729 are from Southern Punjab, according to a provincial official who asked not to be named.

“Parents cannot afford to send their children to schools, and therefore they send them to madrssas where they get education, food, clothes and even pocket money,” says Sudwani. There are many madrassas in the region but not too many schools, he says. “The boys who go to some of these madrassas are used by their mentors against rival religious groups, and sometimes even against the state.” He says the activities are supported by “dubious sources of funding.”

The writer is a freelance journalist