Ashura was observed peacefully and with reverence amid tight security in the twin cities, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) and Gilgit-Baltistan (G-B), quelling fears of sectarian strife and terrorist attacks on Tuesday.
The biggest procession in Peshawar was taken out from Agha Syed Alam Shah Jaferi Imambargah, which ended peacefully after passing through the designated route. According to Senior Superintendent of Police (Operations) Tahir Ayub the police made elaborate security arrangements for Muharram to maintain peace in the city. Army helicopters hovered over the city the entire day for surveillance. “It was a challenge for us as two religious groups clashed over the ownership of Hussain Imambargah ahead of Muharram, which claimed two lives. Some elements were expected to fan sectarianism in the metropolis,” he said. The police had also carried out pre-emptive raids in tribal areas and arrested people. Around 4,000 security personnel, including contingents from the police, the Frontier Constabulary and Frontier Corps, guarded the walled city,” Ayub said. Rescue services and a bomb disposal squad were also on standby.
Sectarian violence in Peshawar dates back to 1992, when a dozen people were killed and the interior city remained under curfew for over a week. Last year, a Zuljinah procession was hit by a grenade and in 2008, a suicide attack killed at least 14 mourners.
Similarly, the situation in more volatile parts of the province, especially in Hangu and Dera Ismail Khan, which are notorious for sectarian violence, also remained under control. Around 5,000 security personnel were deployed to ensure peace on the eve of Ashura in DI Khan. However, rockets attacks were continuously fired at processions in Hangu, injuring three policemen. About 17 mortar shells also landed in different parts of the city where the processions were being carried out. Six rockets were fired in the evening and incidents of firing were reported in the periphery. Hangu is considered a sectarian flashpoint. In 2005, nearly 50 persons were killed in a suicide attack on an Ashura procession, while around 500 shops were torched in the aftermath. This year, residents had left town, anticipating a sectarian strife on the eve of Muharram.
Taziya, Alam and Zuljinah processions were taken out in the twin cities like elsewhere in the country. In Islamabad, the main procession was taken out from markazi Imambargah G-6/2 while in Rawalpindi, the central processions was taken out from Imambargah Col. Maqbool Hussain .
In a city marred by sectarian violence, unidentified men had fired in the air on Monday, adding to the highly-charged atmosphere in Gilgit, which has been a centre of sectarian rivalry since the 1970s. Over 1,300 police officials, besides Rangers and scouts were deployed. Sectarian violence has claimed over 750 lives in G-B since 1988. “The risk of violence is much higher during Muharram but we have not witnessed any untoward situation so far thanks to people’s cooperation and strict security arrangements,” said Assistant Inspector General of Police Ali Sher.
Sectarian conflict peaked in January 2005 when a Shia cleric, Agha Ziauddin was ambushed and killed near his house in Amphery. The incident sparked a wave of violence in the city, claiming the lives of 22 people in a single day and was followed by various incidents of sectarian killing.
The local administration had to impose a curfew in the city and call in the armed forces. Seven people were target-killed in November. The chief justice of G-B Supreme Appellate Court has accused the police of favouring their respective sects and protecting criminals in a number of cases. But the police has its own version about elements sabotaging peace in the city. “It is not about sectarian violence anymore as the rivalry has morphed into personal enmity in several cases. Those who have lost their relatives in sectarian violence are now avenging their blood,” disclosed a police official.
After Haripur, Mansehra district is the second most sensitive, where sectarian rivalry intensified in the 1990s. Abbottabad, however, has remained traditionally peaceful and sectarian harmony has been maintained since the 1960s.
With additional reporting from Mahwish Qayyum/PPI
Published in The Express Tribune, December 8th, 2011.