Sectarianism has been on the rise for at least three decades as discussed in the last blogpost (See Rise of sectarianism and Pakistani Religious Nationalism). Due to the low capacity, ignorance or benign neglect of the Pakistani law enforcement agencies, the hydra of sectarianism got stronger and stronger and like in the case of mythical creature, banning one sectarian organization resulted in creation of two or more new ones. This is the story till 2015 which has the potential to be a game changer for Pakistan's fight against sectarianism.
However, before discussing what is happening in 2015, it is worthwhile to mention two developments that led to the changes that are witnessed in the current year. First, Nawaz Sharif, a right wing conservative and a sympathizer of Pakistani Taliban (mainly Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)) rhetoric, came to power in 2013 and tried to start talks with the TTP. After months of negotiations, the talks failed to take off ground as terrorist acts continued, making it clear to everyone, except the diehard supporter of the TTP, that the TTP are not interested in peace. Secondly, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif appointed General Raheel Sharif (no relation of Nawaz) as the new Chief of Army Staff in November 2013. Compared to his predecessor General Kayani, General Raheel had a different opinion regarding how to react to the TTP's attacks on Pakistani state assets. General Kayani usually did not immediately react to the TTP attacks. However, soon after his appointment, General Sharif started responding to every major terrorist act by promptly bombing terrorist hideouts in the tribal areas. After it became clear that talks are useless, General Sharif started a large scale military action against the TTP in North Waziristan in June 2014. The TTP responded to this action by more terrorism. On 16th December 2014, seven TTP terrorists entered an army-administered school in Peshawar and killed 145 people, including 132 teenage students (See Peshawar School Massacre).
The year 2015 thus started with a major change in Pakistani elite mindset. For the first time in nearly three decades, everybody agreed that religious extremism is a threat to Pakistan's existence. After this massacre, any sympathy for the TTP in the public space ended and even diehard TTP supporters, almost all religious parties, had to support strict action against Taliban. It was decided by the civilian and military leadership that a comprehensive National Action Plan (NAP) would be devised to end all kinds of terrorism, including sectarian violence. Special military courts were established under 21st Amendment in the 1973 Constitution to speedily convict and sentence those involved in religious terrorism. Under NAP, it was also decided to ban and take strict action against those making hate speeches and publishing hate pamphlets, books etc. (See Pakistan announces a national plan to fight terrorism, says terrorists’ days are numbered). Some specific points related to sectarianism in the NAP are reproduced below:
- We will act against literature, newspapers and magazines that are spreading hate, [ideas of] beheading people, sectarianism, extremism and intolerance.
- Banned organizations will not be allowed to operate under another name.
- Action is being taken to stop religious extremism and to protect religious minorities.
- The registration and regulation of seminaries (madrassas) is being planned.
- Decisive action is being taken against elements that spread sectarianism.
However, while there were visible changes regarding NAP implementation in other areas, action against sectarianism was halfhearted at best. Gruesome sectarian violence resumed; banned sectarian organizations continued to operate; and hate literature remained available in print as well as on social media. Just one month after unveiling of the NAP, on 30th January 2015, more than sixty people were killed in Shikarpur, Sindh in a bomb blast inside Shia mosque (See At least 60 killed in blast at Shikarpur imambargah). Two weeks later, on February 13, twenty people were killed in an attack on a Shia mosque in Peshawar (See Pakistan Battles Rising Sectarian Violence). On May 13, forty three Shia Ismailis were killed in Karachi when gunmen attacked their bus (See 43 killed in attack on bus carrying Ismailis in Karachi).
So, there was widespread skepticism about Pakistani state's commitment to stop sectarianism. It was argued that various political parties and the military continue to see sectarian militias as allies in promoting their agendas. For example, Arif Rafiq, an expert on sectarianism in Pakistan, said to German broadcaster DW (See Examining Pakistan's growing sectarian violence):
The military as well as civilian politicians need to ease out of partnerships with groups that foment hate toward Shiites and other minorities in the country. The longer Pakistan's leaders continue to directly or indirectly aid hate groups, the longer it will be struggling to put out the fires started with its own hands.
So, killing of Malik Ishaq in 29th July, one of the most notorious sectarian militant leader, who boasted of killing more than hundred Shias, was against the run of the play. Not only Malik Ishaq was killed but his two sons and his second-in-command was also killed by the police. Malik Ishaq was in and out of jail for most of the last fifteen years, accused of being involved in hundreds of sectarian incidents but he was not convicted as witnesses and judges were threatened by him and his organization. It is widely believed that Malik was killed in a staged fight by police as he could not be convicted in a court. (See Malik Ishaq: Pakistan Sunni militant chief killed by police).
Does this means Pakistani state has finally decide to take on sectarian militants? It is too early to come to definite conclusion. However, things and events are snowballing. Army action in North Waziristan led to the Peshawar massacre which led to action against religious militants all across the country. While attacks by the TTP decreased, sectarian militancy continued, making the NAP a mockery as far as sectarian violence was concerned. There was pressure from public and media to punish sectarian militants. So, Malik Ishaq was killed. The cycle is continuing as according to many analysts Malik Ishaq's killing has led to the death of Punjab Home Minister Shuja Khanzada in a terrorist attack on 16th August (See Punjab home minister Shuja Khanzada killed in terror attack). Khanzada was not an ordinary minister. He was a close confidant of Prime Minister's brother Shahbaz Sharif, who is the Chief Minister of the Punjab province. He was also close to military hierarchy as he was himself an retired army officer, who had served in Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Military Intelligence. His death was widely condemned and both political and military authorities promised to bring his murderers to justice.