A SERIES of atrocities recently committed against members of minority communities shows that the canker of sectarian violence is posing for Pakistan a much greater threat than is generally realised, especially by the establishment.
The killing of 29 Shia pilgrims near Mastung set some kind of a record in bestiality; the innocent travellers were forced to alight from their bus, lined up and cut down in cold blood. That this was no isolated act by some mentally deranged gangsters was soon confirmed when a similar event, though on a smaller scale, was reported from Quetta and an extremist organisation, supposedly banned by the government, accepted responsibility for both outrages.
These incidents should be seen in the context of the killing and harassment of the Hazara community in Quetta, that have been going on for years, and the excesses being committed against the Shias in Kurram Agency.
Three conclusions are obvious. First, the size of the population threatened by the wave of sectarian violence has increased by a wide margin. Secondly, the targeted groups are no longer threatened with loss of job or property; their right to life itself is denied. And, thirdly, the addition of minority-bashing to the Al Qaeda’s agenda has greatly enhanced the strength of the forces that are challenging the state of Pakistan in this regard.
Discrimination including violence against communities that are non-Muslim by choice (Hindus, Christians, Sikhs et al) and those put in this bracket against their will (Ahmedis) has been on the increase for several years. That meant about five per cent of the population, or nine million people, were threatened. Even that was not a small number. The addition of the Shias to the people earmarked for extermination should raise the figure of endangered Pakistanis to 15 to 20 per cent of the population — 27 to 36 million people. Does it not put the need to combat sectarianism at the top of the national agenda?
Traditionally, attacks on minorities were limited to demands for their purge from services, denial of promotion or recruitment, exclusion from housing colonies and similar forms of economic and social discrimination. Now the target groups are threatened with physical liquidation. In some cases, the possibility of one escaping death by ‘conversion to Islam’ is not even mentioned. Such threats carry seeds of pogroms that no sane person can possibly contemplate with equanimity.
So long as violence against the Shia community was the work of local hate-preachers employed or aided by some politicians in the Khanewal and Jhang districts any conscientious district official could deal with them. Now there is considerable evidence of organisational link-ups between anti-Shia militants of Punjabi origin and the Sunni extremists in the Al Qaeda-Taliban high command.
The danger of the anti-Shia drive being made into a duty under jihad cannot be ignored. That could increase sectarian prejudices among the government personnel. The religio-political parties that do not oppose militants and inwardly support them are unlikely to protest against Shia killings (as they do not condemn killers of Ahmedis or those who defend the blasphemy accused), leading to a wider acceptability of Shia killings. The government’s ability to deal with violators of the law will surely decline.
The increase in anti-Shia sectarian violence is fuelling intolerance in other areas. The excesses against the Ahmedis are on the increase. Every now and then an Ahmedi is killed for his belief. The intimidation and harassment of an Ahmedi couple who burnt their savings to set up a college in Duniyapur, in Lodhran district of Punjab, continues unabated. The latest is a movement for a complete social boycott of Ahmedis in Pachnand, Chakwal district, that includes expulsion of Ahmedi boys and girls from schools, boycott of Ahmedi shops and refusal to allow them seats on buses. The persecution of a Christian student by unjustly accusing her of blasphemy is just one of the many forms anti-minority mania can take.
Many factors have contributed to the growth of sectarian violence in Pakistan, beginning with flaws in the theory of the state and the various steps taken towards its theocratisation. But one of the main factors has been the state’s failure to deal with the element of criminality in sectarianism. Most of the perpetrators of horrible crimes against the minorities have remained untracked.
Many instances of collusion between sectarian killers and law-enforcement agencies have come to light. Cases against leaders of sectarian gangs have failed because of police reluctance to place evidence against them before the courts. But while failure to arrest sectarian killers can be understood because of difficulties in identifying them, no excuse is available in the case of known instigators of sectarian hatred.
All over the country, bookshops are full of publications that preach hatred against non-Muslims and the various Muslim sects and call for violence. Oral statements are made to the same effect from a variety of forums. Members of minority communities are receiving death threats through letters signed by persons who can be identified by the addresses of their organisations and phone/fax numbers. By declining to proceed against these hate-preachers the state indicts itself of complicity with some of the most despicable criminals in the country.
And this despite the fact that hate-preaching and incitement to sectarian violence have been recognised as crimes for 150 years. Action can be taken under a variety of laws, including the Pakistan Penal Code and Maintenance of Public Order Ordinance. Suppression of sectarian violence and hatred was in fact one of the objectives for which the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1997 was enacted. It defines an action as terrorism if it “incites hatred and contempt on religious, sectarian or ethnic basis to stir up violence or cause internal disturbance”. One does have serious reservations about this law but if it can be invoked against students (for making modest demands) and lawyers (for demanding the rule of law) its non-application to those who propagate sectarian hatred is a scandal of the first order.
True, violence and discrimination against the minorities is only a part of the mess that has been created in Pakistan by systematic abuse and exploitation of people’s belief. It will take a lot of concerted effort over a long time to restore sanity of thought, but there can be no delay in guaranteeing the minorities the protection of the law.
The point cannot be over-emphasised. If the state of Pakistan cannot afford the protection of law to the Shia, the Ahmedi and any other community, no additional evidence will be required to brand it as a failed state. Indeed, a state that puts five to 20 per cent of its population at the mercy of bloodthirsty goons forfeits its claim to be accepted as a modern state. What is at stake is not only the life and liberty of a Hazara, or an Ahmedi or a Christian citizen; at stake is the survival of the Pakistani nation. Denial of minorities’ rights has always meant that the majority has taken the suicide path.