From tolerance to extremism

October 14, 2013

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TENSIONS soared in the town of Pangrio in Badin last week after some local Muslim residents objected to the burial of a Hindu man in a Muslim graveyard. After broadcasting warnings from the loudspeakers of the local mosque, a crowd dug up the body and dumped it outside the graveyard for the family to claim. The episode had all the gruesome aspects of mob justice, with the added perversity that the victim was already a corpse.

This is the latest incident in an expanding picture of extremism in Sindh. Earlier this year, the custodian of the Dargah Hussainabad near Jacobabad escaped a bomb attack, which sparked Barelvi-Deobandi tensions. A later bombing claimed three lives at Ghulam Shah Ghazi’s shrine near Shikarpur. In 2011, a shrine in Mirpurkhas was also attacked and burned.

According to the Pakistan Hindu Council (PHC), the kidnapping, forced conversions, and forced marriages of Hindus are also on the rise — up to 20 kidnapping cases are reported each month to the Hindu Council in Karachi. The PHC also estimates that about 50 Hindu families migrate from Pakistan to India each month to escape the fear of violence and impunity. Accusations of blasphemy (often against Shias and non-Muslims) are also increasingly common — last December, a man accused of blasphemy was burnt alive.

Such incidents in parts of Sindh beyond the urban centres of Karachi and Hyderabad cause special alarm because the area is known for Sufism, tolerance, progressive nationalist politics, vibrant regional-language media, and a strong cultural identity, all of which should offer a strong defence against extremism. Signs that pockets of Sindh are vulnerable to extremism offer the federal and provincial governments an important opportunity to develop a pre-emptive strategy to weed out extremist tendencies before they take root.

Until now, our government’s modus operandi has been to apply band-aid to gaping wounds once they are already infected (think of the futility of strong condemnations and compensation for those who have lost loved ones in sectarian and suicide attacks). The evolving situation in Sindh offers the authorities a chance to reverse this trend.

Moreover, by identifying and addressing the root causes of intolerance, sectarianism, and violent extremism in Sindh, Pakistan’s policymakers can start to get clarity on why extremism spread in other parts of the country, and finally devise a proper counter-extremism strategy going forward.

As in other parts of the country, Sindh’s population has grievances that can be exploited by extremist organisations. Inequality is rife: the PPP’s strong showing in the elections highlights the extent to which the province is in the grip of patronage politics, whereby elites enjoy largesse in exchange for loyalty while the poorest remain alienated and underserved. Much of the local population is not well represented; for example, there is only one directly elected Hindu in Sindh’s provincial assembly. As a result, minority rights are far from guaranteed. When the issue of forced conversions flared up last year, then president Asif Zardari tasked a parliamentary panel to investigate and directed the Sindh Assembly to develop a robust response to such complaints. Not surprisingly, no action appears to have been taken by either body.

While political representation is flawed and under little pressure to deliver, traditional structures are also weakening (the role of Sufi shrines, for instance, has been weakened owing to contested successions and their co-option by those seeking access to prestige, constituencies, and land).

Other chronic challenges include the lack of rule of law, education, and employment. Local police are beholden to waderas and the poor have little recourse to security or justice. Although the provincial government continues to increase the budgetary allocation for education, the funds are poorly utilised and education outcomes are among the worst in the country.

There has been little development of the kind of infrastructure that can boost industry or enterprise, and urbanisation remains uneven with more than 70pc of the province’s population concentrated in Karachi, Hyderabad, and Sukkur. This leads to migration, which creates new vulnerabilities for migrants in cities where extremist groups are active.

The major gaps in service delivery are being filled by extremist groups. Following devastating flooding in 2010 and 2011, the charitable wings of banned groups were among the first responders. Madressahs — more than 17pc of which have been termed sectarian and dangerous by the Sindh home ministry — have also mushroomed in Sindh in the past decade. For now, more than 70pc of these are in Karachi, Hyderabad and Sukkur, those parts of the province that have among the highest levels of sectarian strife. But their growth in rural Sindh should be closely monitored.

Rather than aggressively tackle shortcomings in political representation, rule of law, and service delivery in an effort to snuff out flickers of extremism, the authorities have downplayed the threat. For example, many say concerns about forced conversions and marriages are overstated, pointing to Rinkle Kumari, Lata Kumari, and Asha Kumari, who opted to stay with their Muslim husbands even after their cases were heard by the Supreme Court.

No doubt, incidents that seem like manifestations of extremism, including the one in Pangrio, must be properly investigated. Alternative motivations — business rivalries, land disputes — should be exposed where relevant so that the spectre of extremism does not haunt locals or perpetuate narratives of conflict where none are needed.

But such investigations will also be the first step towards uncovering where and how extremist forces are active, and these should be met with strong responses by the local authorities. This would be the foundation of an effective, pre-emptive counter-extremism strategy, one that the provincial government would be wise to adopt before it’s too late for parts of Sindh.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

huma.yusuf@gmail.com