PITY the nation where the blood of innocents comes cheap and murderers live under state patronage.
Malik Ishaq is not an ordinary criminal. The co-founder of Lashkar-i-Jhangvi has been charged in more than two dozen murder cases. But the frightened judges have not dared to convict him. Instead, he would be served with tea and cookies by the court staff during the trial.
From his jail cell he saw to it that no witness survived to give evidence against him. “Dead men do not talk,” the man who confessed to being involved in the killing of 102 people reportedly told the court. Not surprisingly, the Supreme Court acquitted him in 2011 — for lack of evidence.
Who would, in any case, come forward to give evidence against a man whose family was well looked after and paid a monthly stipend by the Punjab government while he was in jail? It was an unforgettable spectacle when hundreds of activists of the banned outfit armed with automatic guns and rocket launchers came to receive the LJ leader when he was released from Lahore Central Jail in 2011.
No action was taken by the administration against those violators of the law. Since then the LJ leader has been living under government protection, freely spreading sectarian hatred.
Predictably, following his release from jail Pakistan has experienced a massive upsurge in the sectarian violence targeting members of the Shia community and other religious minority groups, blamed on the LJ.
Yet, the Punjab government has failed to crack down on terror networks and instead tried to appease the extremists. The LJ continued its activities under the banner of Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) with its main base in south Punjab.
It was merely an eyewash when the Punjab government detained Malik Ishaq under the Maintenance of Public Order just to calm public protests last week. Interestingly, he was allowed to address his supporters and a press conference before being escorted by the police to a rest house. He is to be detained for a month.
Such pampering of a notorious militant leader raises some questions about the position of the PML-N on religious extremism and militancy. This politics of appeasement becomes much more dubious with the reports of the party trying to strike a seat adjustment deal for the upcoming elections with the ASWJ of which Malik Ishaq is now vice president. This politics of expediency may win the party a few more seats in the upcoming elections, but the move would provide further space to religious extremism already on the rise in Punjab. Not only is the province a base of outlawed militant outfits like LJ, it has also witnessed some of the most gruesome attacks against religious minorities in recent years. The brutal killing of Dr Ali Haider, a leading eye surgeon, and his young son in Lahore last week is a grim reminder of the spreading violence and growing stridency of sectarian militants in the country’s most powerful province.
Yet, there is either a complete state of denial or political opportunism has prevented the administration from taking any effective action against the groups involved in militant violence not only in Punjab, but also in Quetta and other parts of the country.
There are also other factors explaining the party’s flawed stance on militancy and religious extremism. Many members of the banned Sunni sectarian groups, after being proscribed by Gen (retd) Musharraf’s military-led government, have reportedly joined the PML-N. Therefore it is not surprising that the PML-N members were alleged to have been directly involved in the attacks few years ago on a Christian neighbourhood in Punjab’s village of Gojra. Houses were burned down killing members of the Christian community.
The ongoing war of words and blame game between the federal and the Punjab provincial government demonstrate the non-serious attitude of our political leadership in dealing with the growing menace of militancy. There is a complete absence of a narrative that could unite the nation against the religious extremism threatening to tear apart the country’s social fabric.
The LJ which was formed in 1990 is closely associated with the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The banned sectarian outfit has not only been involved in terrorist attacks in Pakistan, it has also expanded operations across the border in Afghanistan. Afghan officials blamed the LJ for an attack on a Shia shrine in Kabul in 2010 killing dozens of people.
Defying their proscription, the extremist sectarian groups have openly been circulating their hate literature and their hardline madressahs spread across Punjab province have become the main centre of recruitment.
While PML-N leaders vociferously deny the presence of any militant stronghold in their province, many terrorist attacks have had roots in the impoverished southern Punjab districts. The militants are mostly members of banned organisations like Jaish-i-Mohammad beside the LJ and the Sipah-i-Sahaba. According to a media report, more than 44 per cent of the 20,000 madressahs in Pakistan are located in Punjab province, many of them with links to these radical outfits.
Most of these madressahs, particularly those located in south Punjab, are financed by Arab Islamic charities. There has not been any effort made either by the provincial government or the federal government to stop these sources of funding that have contributed to the radicalisation and the rise of sectarian extremism in the region.
Thousands of militants from Punjab, particularly from the southern districts, have not only been fighting Pakistani forces in Waziristan and other tribal areas, but also waging so-called jihad against the coalition forces in Afghanistan. In recent years some districts of south Punjab have become sanctuaries for the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan.
It is not only the failure of the Punjab government, but also the inaction of the security agencies and the federal government that has allowed militancy and extremism to rise. The country could be in the throes of a sectarian civil war with the collapse of state authority. The liaison between the Punjab government and sectarian militants has created a threatening situation. There is a need for a coherent national counter-extremism stance and a counterterrorism narrative to save the country from complete disaster.
While Quetta may have been the scene of the latest Shia massacre, it is Punjab which remains the centre of gravity of religious militancy in the country. This monster of large-scale killings may show its ugly face in many parts of the country if not countered now.
The writer is an author and journalist.
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