LAHORE: Shivering from a mixture of adrenalin and nerves, Farwa Sajjad took up guard duty outside the Jamia-tul-Muntazir in Lahore's Model Town, the evening of Muharram 6.
The petite 18-year-old was on edge after news reached of the attack on Rawalpindi's Dhok Syeddan, which claimed 23 lives just hours earlier. However, when she saw a woman charging toward the gate of the Imambargah, knew what she had to do.
"Farwa went after her, thinking she is a bomber, the shock has left her with a fever now," explained Zahra Naqvi, one of the three young women on volunteer security outside the Jamia. Fortunately for all concerned, the woman was not a suicide bomber but an over-enthusiastic mourner eager to hear the Majlis.
As Pakistan grapples with a surge in sectarian violence, hundreds of young people in Lahore, like Farwa are placing themselves in harm's way amid growing doubt that the state is capable of providing security. The trust in the police to afford any kind of protection is at an all-time low.
Inside the small tent like make-shift partition, set up for the women devotees’ body search, Farwa took rest while her two friends strictly checked each woman and even their babies.
“Aunty you cannot bring a huge handbag and please next time, use a transparent bag for Niaz (food for distribution among mourners and devotees) too,” said Zahra Naqvi with an authoritative tone, to the slightly annoyed woman attendee of the Majlis.
“We do not care what people think about us being strict, this is for their own good and protection, they must understand and follow the rules,” Naqvi said, in between the alert body searches.
Meanwhile, Saba Syeda Naqi, one of the trio on duty, and their course mate at the religious school of Shia Islam inside the Jamia-tul-Muntazir, explained how the girls ended up working security.
“We were asked by our teachers at school, because after the Gamay Shah attack, we needed to protect our own and there is a huge difference between our security and police’s,” she emphasised.
“We cannot trust the police, you see they just fulfill the formality, and we satisfy our hearts through this security too.”
The Karbala Gamay Shah Imambargah, the main site of Shia Muslims’ procession, saw suicide bombing which killed at least 18 and injured scores, on the death anniversary of Caliph Ali (RA), on Lahore’s Lower Mall, in September 2010.
After this attack, on the following Ashura in 2011 and at the current one the community has made a concerted effort to call young volunteers for security.
“We were at the procession and the security was not enough,” said Naqvi.
“That is why my cousins and I volunteer in different parts of the city during Muharram.”
Right outside the women’s security tent on the main road, two male students of the Jamia, were on duty checking male attendees. On the main road, leading toward the Jamia, armed policemen were standing on pickets, but the final and thorough check was being done by the youth volunteers.
Lahore has had a Haidri Scout Volunteers group for years, but the primary job of the group had been providing first aid to the mourners during the Ashura procession, and then help distribute sabeel or food.
Nabeel* a 21-year-old volunteer for the Nisar Haveli, one of the central sites of Lahore’s main Ashura procession discusses the trust deficit towards the state.
“We do not trust the police’s body search at all. So we ensure that we should at least do those ourselves,” he said.
Other than the Ashura procession of Nisar Haveli which concludes at Karbala Gamay Shah, Model Town has been the site of another procession attended by thousands since partition in Lahore.
Rakhshanda Zaidi or Baji Rakhshanda as she is known by those who visit the Jamia-tul-Muntazir regularly is the organiser of security in the women’s section and looks after administrative affairs.
Baji Rakhshanda said, “The government is soft on the Taliban and groups attacking the Shia Muslims, there is definitely a lax in security somewhere, which leads to the sectarian groups attacking us.”
Media creates fear: Rana Sanaullah
The Punjab government has been criticised for their inability to control sectarian outfits like the banned Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) with roots in the province and now operating in their midst.
Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah holds the media responsible for the prevailing fear among the people of Pakistan and especially the Shia Muslims.
“We have had bombings with very high death tolls in Punjab, but now the tolls are not as high, but the entire nation is scared, which is primarily due to the media’s focus on terrorists’ conquests.”
Sanaullah adds that the image of the terrorist as the winner and the security forces and government as the losers is constructed by the media.
“We try our best and have increased the security. The routes are well-guarded. But in an open arena, with thousands of people gathered at one place, ensuring that the security is foolproof is not possible,” Sanaullah says.
“It is not that the rituals of Ashura take place within closed walls, where it would be easy for us to provide foolproof security, but we do try our best.”
Sanaullah lamented that the policemen on security duty need people’s support instead of criticism.
Attacks on Shias to persist, fear analysts
Human rights organisations at home and abroad have repeatedly stated that the Pakistani state has failed to protect Shia Muslims.
Dr Hassan Askari Rizvi said that since Pakistan’s religious discourse is sectarian and since the state is in retreat in the case of terrorism already, the country would need a generational process to undo the process of religious orthodoxy in politics.
The matter of protecting the vulnerable sections of the society has gone beyond the domain of the police or just one government department, opined Wajahat Masood, Assistant Professor at BNU and political analyst who has written extensively on secularism in the country.
“Security cannot be ensured in a compartmentalisation. The political and economic patronage of every armed group needs to be taken away. Such views, that a group involved in militant activity in Afghanistan or Kashmir, serves a purpose for Pakistani state, need to be forsaken altogether.”
Masood added that the roots of sectarianism run deep, and the ensuing violence may eventually extend to all Pakistanis.
“Saying that just one outfit like the SSP is sectarian is not correct; every outfit with arms like the Taliban are anti-Shia and religious minorities. My fear is that yesterday they came for Ahmadis, the Christians, today they are coming for Shias and tomorrow they will come for me.”
Despite the imminent threat during Ashura, volunteers like Farwa and her friends keep guard with the help of one lady police constable at the Jamia.
As an afterthought, Farwa added, “I might be tired, but please do not think that I am scared because I am the servant of my Imam and I will not deter.”