IT is no small achievement that despite high-profile sectarian attacks across the country, including bombings and targeted killings, the Shia and Sunni communities in Pakistan have managed to maintain relative harmony. But as Friday’s incident in the Punjab district of Bhakkar shows, sectarian outfits are constantly trying to stir up passions through violence and provocation. Several people have died in a clash that was reportedly sparked by the murder of a shopkeeper said to be an activist of the extremist Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat. ASWJ supporters had taken out a procession on Friday to protest the murder committed by unknown assailants, but matters got out of hand when the demonstrators were fired upon. Violence escalated after the incident, with firefights between Shias and Sunnis, which has led to a partial curfew being imposed in Bhakkar. The district lies in a sensitive part of Punjab. While sectarian violence has occurred in the district before, Jhang to the east and Dera Ismail Khan in KP to its west also witness communal discord off and on. The region is geographically and sociopolitically distant from Lahore, which has resulted in a hands-off approach to governance on part of the Punjab administration. Such an approach, if not remedied, will be detrimental to the maintenance of peace in the district and the province.

A multi-pronged effort is needed to ward off communal tensions. This would involve security forces ready to be deployed at the first hint of communal trouble, and an effort by political parties, currently overshadowed in Bhakkar by local chieftains, to engage communities and work towards sectarian harmony. The state must also work with community leaders to defuse potential crises. But what is needed most is strong action against the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi and other extremists of its ilk active in Punjab, in order to prevent these outfits from sparking unrest. The Punjab administration needs to pay specific attention to the threat sectarian outfits pose to peace and communal harmony in the province; a passive approach will have disastrous results.

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