Extremism in Sindh

Published February 16, 2015
The writer is a freelance journalist.
The writer is a freelance journalist.

HERE’S the problem with a National Action Plan: once launched, it must be implemented. A state with a plan is a proactive, can-do, busy state. Never mind that policies remain muddled, ideological confusion persists, and capacity to carry out the plan is lacking. A plan gives meaning to the smallest gesture — whether effective or not — because at the very least it is ‘part of the plan’.

This must be why the security establishment made a grand announcement last week that the militant group that carried out the sectarian attack in Shikarpur had been identified. The attack was pinned on a group with links to the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan based along the Sindh-Balochistan border. Arrests were made and inter-provincial committee meetings convened. This was the plan in action.

Also read: Extremism comes to Sindh — the counteraction still hasn't

The flurry of state activity in the wake of the Shikarpur attack implies that it was unprecedented. But it was not. Sectarian and militant groups have flourished in interior Sindh in recent years, and — in the days before they had a plan — the authorities did flagrantly little to check the trend.


The rise of militant groups has begun to ravage the fabric of Sindhi society.


By some estimates, sectarian groups have enlisted approximately 25,000 members across the province outside Karachi. The northern districts of Shikarpur, Khairpur and Ghotki, which are closest to the sectarian groups’ original bases in Punjab, are at the highest risk. Clashes between members of different sects in these districts erupt with growing frequency in markets and during religious festivals.

While conducting research last year for a recently published report, ‘Conflict Dynamics in Sindh’, I repeatedly heard politicians and police officials describe interior Sindh as the new base for the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat and Lashkar-i-Jhangvi.

The TTP, Al Qaeda and their various offshoots are also believed to have increased their presence in the province and take advantage of mushrooming madressahs to recruit new fighters, build networks and generate funds. Many of the militants who attempted to hijack a navy frigate in Karachi last year hailed from Sindh. Those who attacked the Karachi airport last June partially planned the attack in the province’s interior, purchasing SIM cards and coordinating in Nawabshah. The ISI office in Sukkur was attacked in July 2013.

In other words, the group that carried out the Shikarpur attack did not come out of nowhere.

Sectarian and militant groups have flourished in Sindh in the presence of a highly politicised and corrupt — and therefore ineffective — police force. They have also taken advantage of the fact that the security forces’ main targets remain separatist and nationalist elements.

The belief that religious fervour is the best antidote to secular nationalism has long guided security policymaking and, as in Balochistan, the authorities have not checked the entrenchment of extremist groups in Sindh probably in the hope of offering an ideological counterpoint to Sindhi separatists and nationalists.

Sadly, the rise of sectarian and militant groups has started to ravage the fabric of Sindhi society. Sufis are threatened, shrines are attacked, Hindus are forced to convert to Islam, and their corpses dragged out of graveyards where Muslims are also buried. Many Hindus who can afford to are migrating, others are relocating from rural to urban areas.

Despite enjoying control at the provincial and federal levels in recent years, the PPP has done little to stop the entrenchment of violent extremists in the province. Earlier this month, under the National Action Plan, the Sindh government called for the establishment of a 1,000-strong Anti-Terrorism Force within the police, which will coordinate with paramilitary and military forces to carry out counterterrorism operations.

Government officials have also made sure in recent days to repeatedly mention the few dozen people who have been arrested in the province on the suspicion that they are engaged in terrorist activities, or for misusing mosque loudspeakers, or for daubing hate-inciting graffiti on walls.

But history has already taught us that a securitised response will not be enough. Violent extremist groups are succeeding in a province long celebrated for its pluralism, tolerance and cultural vibrancy because they are filling a vacuum. Sindh’s feudal and tribal structures are collapsing, but the civilian government and judiciary have not effectively filled the gaps in service delivery and dispute resolution mechanisms.

Young people are migrating to cities at a higher rate than elsewhere in the country, only to find that their lack of education and skills leave them without hope. Ghost schools persist despite Supreme Court scrutiny, and madressahs run by violent extremist groups often seem to be the only alternative.

If Sindh is to be saved from a further decline into extremism, the provincial government will have to do more. They cannot get by on having a plan. The plan will have to work.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

huma.yusuf@gmail.com

Twitter: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, February 16th, 2015

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