The bombing at the Shikarpur, Sindh imambargah (mosque/worship place) may have been carried out by the terrorist group Jundullah but over 60 Shia who perished there were actually slaughtered by collective national apathy. While the Shias were picking up the bits and pieces of what remained of their loved ones after Jundullah’s bomb ripped through the imambargah, the Prime Minister (PM) of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, was literally joking about his lunch being subpar at the Karachi Stock Exchange ceremony. The PM did not say one word of sympathy for the Shias of Shikarpur at the time. At the same time the self-exiled leader of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), Altaf Hussain, was live on assorted television channels along with his lieutenant Ishratul Ibad, the governor of Sindh, and the business tycoon Malik Riaz. None, including Hussain, who is known for his long-winded speeches, bothered to utter even a single line about the tragedy that shell-shocked Shia were going through right at that moment.
The chief of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), Imran Khan, fared better at his press conference, which was also being televised live then and spent about three out of 20 minutes offering commemorative prayers for the fallen Shia and condemning the attack. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) that has been ruling Sindh since 2008 took the cake, however, for callous pettiness: it suspended the area’s police Station House Officer (SHO)!
Most political parties have now deplored the barbarity perpetrated on the Shia during Friday prayers but little if any action is expected beyond these mealy-mouthed denunciations. The National Action Plan (NAP) against terrorism apparently consists of mere condemnations, token mourning and the perpetual refrain that “no Muslim could have done it”. For all practical purposes, it is a national inaction plan. Jihadist atrocities against the Shia are nothing more than a pinprick on Pakistan’s skin. Tens of thousands of Shia have been slaughtered in a slow genocide over the past several years, yet those who publicly vow to purge Pakistan of the Shia roam free. The banned anti-Shia terrorist outfit Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) continues to operate under the Ahle-Sunnat-Wal-Jamat (ASWJ) garb and at their rallies its president, Muhammad Ahmad Ludhianvi, and its general secretary, Aurangzeb Farooqi, do not even pretend that the two are separate entities. Aurangzeb Farooqi carries on with his vitriolic anti-Shia speeches and activities right under the nose of the Sindh government. Similarly, Ludhianvi led a virulently anti-Shia rally on the government-run Gomal University’s grounds in Dera Ismail Khan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, just a few months ago.
The ASWJ leaders’ non-stop hate speeches and incitement to violence provide the breeding milieu and recruitment grounds for bombers like the one who carried out the Shikarpur massacre. The stated mission of the SSP since its foundation on September 6, 1985 by Haq Nawaz Jhangvi has been to make life so difficult for Pakistan’s Shias that they either abandon their faith and rituals or the country. The SSP/ASWJ wants Pakistan declared a Sunni state and the Shia as kafirs (apostates), along with a ban on them from observing their rituals publicly. While the SSP/ASWJ claim to pursue this agenda through “constitutional” means, it remains joined at the hip with the internationally banned terrorist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), named eponymously after the SSP’s founder. The creed, tactics, logistics and funding of the SSP/ASWJ have not changed much in the 30 years of its existence. While a lot is said about the outfit receiving funds from Gulf Arab countries and individuals, successive governments have conveniently ignored the terror group’s local financial patrons since its inception.
In the book Lived Islam in South Asia: Adaptation, Accommodation and Conflict, Mariam Abou Zahab notes: “Sheikh Yousaf, once a small contractor of Jhang settled in Lahore, had become very rich in the 1980s. He now owns Hasnain Construction Company to which the contract of the Islamabad-Lahore motorway, among other lucrative contracts, was awarded. This former MPA, well connected in army circles, was the major financier of Haq Nawaz and of the SSP in general, providing Pajeros and the like, financing election campaigns.” Yousaf was to later contest elections on a Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) ticket against the SSP. The overlap between the extremist-militant outfits and the country’s political and security establishment as in Sheikh Yousaf’s case continues to date. The SSP did turn on Mr Nawaz Sharif in his second prime ministerial stint and tried to bomb his motorcade in January 1999. Mr Sharif’s government then wrote a “non-paper”, in Pashto, to Mullah Omar’s Taliban government in Afghanistan asking for the return of nine LeJ terrorists, including its co-founders Riaz Basra and Akram Lahori (who is currently on death row), as well as to shut down four training camps. Not coincidentally, eight of the nine LeJ men were at camps run by the Harkat-ul-Ansar, which was a Pakistani security establishment proxy fighting in Kashmir then. At the behest of his Pakistani handlers, Mullah Omar spurned Mr Sharif’s request to extradite the LeJ terrorists.
As in the 1990s, the SSP/ASWJ/LeJ continue to consort with other domestic and transnational jihadists such as the ones elements of the security establishment inducted in Balochistan and Sindh over the last few years to neutralise the secular nationalists. Traditional Baloch secular nationalism and historic Sindhi Sufi asceticism, however, is no match for modern, militarised jihadism with powerful patrons. Parts of southern Punjab and Sindh, especially those next to or near Balochistan like Shikarpur, are teeming with anti-Shia jihadists. The ruling political parties are reluctant to act against these bigoted killers as they fear them and also do not wish to annoy their patrons in the security establishment. Journalist Carlotta Gall had noted in her book, The Wrong Enemy, that when the LeJ’s current chief, Malik Ishaq, was negotiating with the GHQ attackers on behalf of the army, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani “asked Ishaq to ‘please stop sectarian killings’ but the Sunni extremist and longtime protégé answered, ‘We are your children, but we will not follow this.’ Kayani had no response. He remained silent.” Malik Ishaq’s words remain a damning indictment of the Faustian pact that the security establishment has had with his ilk. Taking a cue from the security establishment, many political parties adopted the policy, ‘If you can’t beat them, join them’, giving the killers velvet-glove treatment.
The PPP stalwart from Sindh and the leader of the opposition in Sindh, Mr Khursheed Shah, is right in questioning the failure of the intelligence agencies in preventing the Shikarpur massacre but is he and his parliamentary colleagues ready to hold their feet to the fire? I am afraid not. The Shias of Pakistan are doomed to face a vicious cycle of apathy and massacres.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and he tweets @mazdaki
This article first appeared in Daily Times, a leading newspaper of Pakistan. Click here to go to the original.