Will the fear ever end, or will I have to pick up a gun too?
Effective policing is the only solid way to control the violence, something that is still unfortunately lacking.
The last six months have seen over 50 Shias killed in three bus attacks, while the overall numbers are much higher if incidents of targeted attacks on Shias in war-torn Parachinar and the rest of FATA, Balochistan, and Gilgit-Baltistan are included.
For the Shia community in Islamabad, a sizeable share of which is from G-B, dinner table conversation over the Eid weekend focused directly on a worrying ‘what-if’ scenario, namely, the possibility of a militant Shia response to the violence and the fallout from such violence. This is not a recent change. Three years back, an attack on an imambargah in Islamabad cost a child’s life, and it was only police intervention in keeping the suicide bomber away from the building that kept the death toll low.
Ten years back, a Lashkar-i-Jhangvi attack on an imambargah in Rawalpindi left 11 dead. Arrests were made, and the suspects were freed.
Malik Ishaq, the head of the banned group, and a man who has openly admitted to over 100 murders, not only walks free, but rubs shoulders with leading politicians at Difa-i-Pakistan rallies. He also gets police protection and a stipend from the Punjab government. Meanwhile, his victims’ families await justice.
A unique minority
The Shia community, though numerically a minority, are not in the same category of the other oppressed people of Pakistan (ie every Pakistani who is not a Sunni man). There are around 50 million Shias in Pakistan, as opposed to about 5 million ‘others’.
While the ‘others’ do not constitute the majority population in any city (there are only a few tiny villages in Sindh where Hindus form the majority), there are a number of cities and larger areas where Shias constitute a sizeable majority, especially in G-B and western Pakistan. If these populations were to turn on the Sunni minorities to avenge violence against Shias in other parts of Pakistan, the violence could escalate into a communal violence situation similar to the 2002 Gujrat riots in India breaks out, except in this case, demographics suggest the affected area would be much larger than a single province, creating an untenable situation for the government or military to address.
Any student of history will tell you that Pakistan’s location and demographics make it a key battleground for proxy wars. However, the forces behind this particular proxy war are not western or eastern in the traditional sense, in fact they are nations referred to as key allies in the ‘Muslim Ummah’. Both theocracies — one monarchical, one pseudo-democratic — lack a direct land border, meaning a direct war between the two is unlikely. However, they can export the war to a state which accepts aid from both of them.
Both are accused of supporting extreme elements among the two major sects of Islam, and the military top brass’s close ties with the monarchy — which along with Pakistan once helped prop up the Afghan Taliban, an ideological brother to the local taliban groups — means that militant groups aligned with the monarchy often appear to be above the law.
Allegations of ‘deep state’ support for the Afghan Taliban and certain Pakistani Taliban elements fighting in Afghanistan is another issue. Pervez Musharraf tried to purge the army top brass of extremist-sympathisers some ten years back. Unfortunately, decades-long links with the Afghan Taliban, coupled with the radicalisation of education and new emphasis on religion as inspiration for the fighting forces introduced some 30-odd years back, meant that with the passage of time, new sympathisers rose in the ranks. Wikileaks cables on the Haqqani network are proof that the connection worries both, foreign allies and domestic policymakers.
While deweaponisation is almost impossible in a country where inefficient but functional small arms are dirt cheap and the age-old custom of owning swords has been replaced by the custom of gun-ownership, it must be part of the agenda to resolve this issue. The military has a key role to play here, as it is already present in or around many of the better known illegal weapons manufacturing regions in the tribal areas. However, the final solution lies in the elimination of elements attempting to radicalise society, and the rehabilitation or elimination of those that are already radicalised. Short-term truces with radicals only allow them to regroup, and the belief that the ‘assets’ in question have any positive net value has long been disproven.
The Sri Lankan conflict shared a few similarities with Pakistan’s current problem, and was only crushed when the government of Sri Lanka went ahead with an all out effort to crush the LTTE, sending in a fighting force about five times as large as the LTTE. This was preceded by a successful move to cut off LTTE supply lines, thereby limiting the defensive capabilities of the group. The relatively swift final battles were won by bringing all LTTE-controlled areas under government control, eliminating their top leadership, decimating their fighting force, and rehabilitating those who surrendered.
The spread of radical elements across the country changes the manner in which such an effort would be conducted, but not the final objective. While peaceful resolution should remain an option, sometimes the foundation of peace must be laid on spilt blood.
The dehumanisation of certain ‘rival’ groups by religious leaders and indeed by entire communities is largely due to misunderstanding. Ghettoisation only further contributes to the repetition of many concocted reasons to hate other groups. These can be addressed in the long run through education, but in the short run, effective policing is the only solid way to control the violence, something that is still unfortunately lacking.
In the meantime, dinner table fears of communal violence will continue to grow.
Read more by Vaqas here or follow him on Twitter @vasghar