Alexander Burnes, the 19th century Scottish traveller and explorer, had a fascinating impression of the Shikarpuri. He was in Kabul, where he met Shikarpuri bankers who offered to provide him with hundis payable in Bukhara (Uzbekistan), Astrakhan (Russia), Nijni-Novgorod (Russia) or St Macaire (France). Burnes took up their offer on Bukhara, and as he writes, “to [his] complete satisfaction.”

Burnes didn’t know at the time, but Shikarpur’s ancient trade and commerce network connected more than just Shikarpur and Kabul; it was the preferred route for merchants travelling from South Asia to Central Asia and vice versa throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

Shikarpur still remains a link between Afghanistan and this part of the world, but for the wrong reasons. “The city is a known smuggling route between Afghanistan and Pakistan,” boomed Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan in the National Assembly. “Terrorists from Afghanistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa pass through Shikarpur to reach Karachi.”

It emerged from the minister’s statement that the city’s ancient trade and commerce network has now been replaced by a terror network. Shikarpur that once exported a variety of goods to Central Asia now apparently imports terrorists from the region: per police claims, the January 30 blast in Shikarpur’s Imambargah Karbala Maula, which claimed the lives of over 60 people and injured over 80, was carried out by an Uzbek national. So far, four suicide bombers have blown themselves up in the district; most of them have been suspected to be Uzbeks from Central Asia.

But why would Uzbek militants head to Shikarpur, once the seat of secular and tolerant education?

Din Mohammed Shaikh, former district coordinator for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) and a resident of the city, argues that most of these “aliens” arrive in Shikarpur because of some connection with the city’s local madressas.

The antiquated system of ‘sardari’ has found one last partner to extend its power: sectarian madressas

“We have been noticing the increasing number of aliens in the area, who come in contact mostly with local madressas and live inside them,” says Shaikh.

Geographically, the district of Shikarpur borders Balochistan on the west and is connected to southern Punjab through Kashmore in the north. Till the early 1980s, there were only three madressas in Shikarpur. Perhaps nobody really ever felt the need for madressa education either, as modern education upheld the legacy of peace and harmony that was lived and practiced by Bhittai, Shah Inayat Shaheed, Sachal Sarmast and Sami Chen Rai.

“With the collapse of modern education system during the 1980s, the city saw the mushrooming of madressas, which not only offered admission to outsiders but also doubled up as musafirkhanas (rest houses) for outsiders to the area,” narrates Shaikh.

“Today, there are about 200 madressas in Shikarpur district imparting religious education only in Arabic, Of the 200 madressas, 74 are unregistered,” Shaikh says while quoting a survey carried out by an NGO.

With the collapse of modern education system during the 1980s, the city saw the mushrooming of madressas, which not only offered admission to outsiders but also doubled up as musafirkhanas (rest houses) for outsiders to the area.

“An estimated 10,000 students are enrolled at these madressas, some 3,000 of them belong to other provinces while those from Sindh belong to upper Sindh districts,” he continues. “Within three decades, madressas have grown from three to 200. In comparison, there are only 150 formal schools, four colleges and one university campus in Shikarpur city.”

The angst is not without reason: going by the growth pattern of madressas in the district, the number of formal schools is widely expected to be further dwarfed by the number of seminaries in the near future. With the closure of hundreds of government schools and the problem of goosro (absentee) teachers, parents prefer sending their children to madressas in the hopes of “free” education, clothing and food.

Members of Sindhi civil society argue that this phenomenon is a reflection of a larger clash: between old institutions, such as the sardari system and madressas, and new institutions, such as the formal education system and the business community. Since Sindh’s sardars are reluctant to let go of their clout, they have found new allies in madressa maulvis.

“It looks like the government deliberately wants to revive old institutions by strengthening the medieval jirga justice system and madressa education,” says Javed Qazi, a civil society activist from Karachi who led a delegation to Shikarpur after the Imambargah Karbala Maula tragedy.

“What we are seeing is a new partnership being cultivated between the sardars of Shikarpur and the maulvis. The sardars’ old partners used to be the Barelvi shrines, but due to the non-expansionist nature of Sindh’s shrines, this partnership could not match the power-grabbing greed of Sindhi sardars,” argues Qazi. “For that reason, now we see new alignments in Sindhi society, with sardars establishing ties with Wahabi madressas. Both the old institutions are promoting each others’ interests in the garb of tribalism and religion.”

The sardars’ old partners used to be the Barelvi shrines, but due to the non-expansionist nature of Sindh’s shrines, this partnership could not match the power-grabbing greed of Sindhi sardars. For that reason, now we see new alignments in Sindhi society.

The government is largely absent from running madressa operations, but some 40 registered madressas are funded by the Sindh government from its Zakat fund. Government officials, locals claim, don’t bother checking up on the condition of the government-funded madressas or even the quality of education and syllabus being taught.

Most madressas are run by Deobandi parties: the number of Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI-F)-run madressas is estimated to be around 125 in Shikarpur while the Jamaat-i-Islami runs 25 madressas. There are four seminaries from the Shia school of thought. Some madressas are run by clerics of the Ahl-i-Sunnat and Ahl-i-Hadith schools of thoughts.

Almost all madressas have mosques inside their compounds but the biggest problem is that mosques have all been tagged with a particular school of thought. Because of such associations, a common man dare not go inside “the house of God” which is operated by a rival sect.

“As compared to other parts of Sindh, Shikarpur has undergone a complete transformation and civil society has lost its say,” says a local resident, while talking on condition of anonymity. “A madressa administrator is more powerful if he has the blessings of the area sardar. The nexus between clan and sect has grown so strong that a Sunni sardar of Shikarpur allegedly chose to kill off his rival Shia sardar by sending a suicide bomber to attack him.”

With politics and religion now tied in a relationship, explains Shikarpuri columnist Mumtaz Mangi, it soon became clear that most madressas in Shikarpur were constructed on grabbed land. “Madressas are operating like a mafia and grabbing empty government plots and open spaces along main roads. They are very good at collecting donations in the name of constructing a new madressa,” he says.

“Government authorities seem reluctant to control the expansion of madressas, since policemen were involved in grabbing land for many madressas,” alleges Mangi.

“Because of no government checks or monitoring system, some people with criminal backgrounds have also now established madressas and shelter their gangsters inside them. They blackmail traders and extort money from them in the name of providing food to Talibs; but in fact, Talibs are sent to beg for food from houses. Donations and zakat money are gobbled up by madressa handlers,” Mangi explains.

Inside the madressas, only sect-based education is imparted to students while no employable skills are taught. In turn, those who graduate from one seminary tend to set up another sect-based seminary, since that is the only job they know.

Because only religious education is imparted at madressas, the Talibs began considering themselves as the protectors of faith, and put checks on citizens as if they were state actors. This bred intolerance in society and disturbed any notions of peaceful coexistence, thereby also radicalising young people in the city.

Soon enough, Shikarpur began to see the social impact of this unchecked burgeoning of madressas.

“The city has often witnessed clashes over who becomes the peshimam. Those backed by powerful clans are sure to take over mosques,” argues Qazi. “Because of a lack of skills and unemployment, madressa-educated peshimams defend their jobs at any cost and often indulge in violence to do so. It’s a wrong assumption that madressas serve food and clothes to Talibs. Instead, most madressa Talibs depend on the generosity of the people of Shikarpur for food, cloth and medicines.”

Then there is policing of cultural activities and citizens’ personal lives.

“The frightening part is that Talibs have often been used to attack musical events and bodybuilding contests, which once were a regular feature of city life. The historical Mina Bazaar for women has been shut too after threats from madressa Talibs,” says Mangi.

Shaikh agrees, but adds that young people in Shikarpur are fast becoming radicalised because of the social engineering brought about by madressas. The regime of fear is such that residents of the city now believe that bands of club-wielding Talibs are ever ready to attack any social event they deem as un-Islamic.

“For that reason no musical programme has been held in the city for the last several years. The city’s Mina Bazaar has been closed for an indefinite period. Even nationalist parties like Qaumi Awami Tehrik of Palijo, Jeay Sindh groups and others have stopped holding Jashan-i-Latif, which they once used to hold every year,” says Shaikh.

The absence of cultural activities by Sindhi nationalist groups and the ruling party’s alleged involvement in grabbing power and money has created a vacuum: religious parties find Shikarpur to be an empty field, on which more madressas can be constructed, and over which they can establish their writ. It would be no exaggeration to say that extremists have created a pocket of terror in the heart of Sindh, with no action by the government and not much resistance from the civil society or political parties either.

The writer is a member of staff.

He tweets @manzoor_chandio

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, March 8th, 2015

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