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Pakistan Backgrounder

All developing societies confront the problem of accommodating a variety of groups that owe allegiance to - often ideologically - conflicting views and Pakistan is no exception. What distinguishes Pakistan from other South Asian countries, however, is the easy and abundant availability of weapons, the control of the state largely by a Punjabi-Mohajir elite in the earlier phase that led to ethnic tensions with other provinces. The failure of economic growth strategy made the state more dependant on Islam as a binding force for society and polity. This increased ethnic tensions as regional groups began to assert their cultural and nationalist agendas. The movements in Baluchistan and Rural Sindh were the result of provincial demands. Failure of successive regimes in fulfilling any of their stated developmental agendas led to a basic legitimisation crisis and all regimes, beginning Bhutto’s, began to promote Islam in the affairs of the State. General Zia took this policy further when he began promoting Islamists in the Pakistani Army, which was never done before as it was sought to be a relatively secular institution.

The process of Islamisation of the State and the Afghan war were turning points in the role of Islamic orthodoxy in Pakistan. This also brought into Pakistan a more codified and strict Wahabi Islam from Saudi Arabia. The role of Pakistan as frontline state, serving American interests in the war against Communist Soviet Union, led to a major fall out for Pakistan and its society. America stopped its campaign to check the growth and export of heroin in the wake of larger strategic interests, which had a catastrophic impact on Pakistani society. The number of drug users in Pakistan today stands at 3. 2 million. This was one of the major offshoots of active involvement in the Afghan crisis and the state's decision, in the early eighties, to be a conduit for Western weapons bound for the war in Afghanistan.

There have been a number of consequences of this involvement in Afghanistan, and many of these have fostered violent internal conflicts in Pakistan. They include:

  • The migration of Afghan refugee groups to major urban regions of Pakistan added to antagonisms within the Pakistani society, especially in Karachi where ethnic strife increased.

  • The shift in the Afghan movement where Pakistan began backing rabidly pro-Islamic elements after the Afghan movement had failed to arrive at a pro-Pakistan and pro-Saudi solution gave a fillip to Islamists in Pakistan.

  • The establishment of a powerful network of militant madarssas, originally set up to train volunteer 'students' - Taliban - for the war in Afghanistan. These madarsas combined weapons training with a fundamentalist and violent interpretation of Islam. The 'victory' of the Taliban in Afghanistan has freed substantial numbers of these 'students', as well as their motivators and mentors; who are now progressively turning their attention to other areas of conflict, including Pakistan itself.

  • Drug trafficking which was encouraged for the short-term motive of financing the Afghan resistance movement and which, now, is the most important source of finance for most militant groups.

State support of these militant groups who were meant for external threats is likely to endanger the Pakistani establishment, as they seem to have acquired a relative autonomy over the years.

The authoritarian character of the state whose formation and later development has led to the control of the institutions of the state in the hands of a select elite, where all dissent meets with violent suppression, have further fuelled violence in society. It is significant that Pakistan has spent nearly half of its 52 years of independence under military dictatorships.

The crushing of the Baluch insurrection in 1973, with the use of overwhelming force, is a dramatic example of this military response. In this case, an estimated 55,000 tribal guerrillas were met with about 70,000 troops from the Pakistan Army before the revolt was quelled. The Air Force was used in these operations for bombing a large number of villages. These operations were also backed up by the bombing of villages in Baluchistan by the Iranian Air Force, ordered by the Shah of Iran. About 3,000 were killed on both sides in this civil war. Small groups of tribal guerrillas continue to operate from mountain bases in this province and frequent military expeditions are sent to quell these guerrilla groups.

Sources of Major Ongoing Conflicts

Sectarian Strife: The roots of the conflict can be traced to the use of religion by General Zia -ul- Haq (1977-88) as a tool for regime legitimisation. Devoid of a democratic constituency, Gen. Zia turned to the right wing Islamic elements for support. His attempt to create an Islamic polity and society was an attempt to gain legitimacy. These goals subsequently coalesced with the national security goal of building close linkages with the Afghan Mujahideen after the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979. During the eighties, consequently, a complex network developed between the Afghan mujahideen, domestic religious groups in Pakistan, and the Pakistani State, with a generous supply of weapons from the US. The combination of easy availability of arms and a growing motivated cadre resulted in the rapid spread of violence from Afghanistan to Pakistan itself. Religious scholars in Pakistan say militancy among the rival extremist groups intensified with shift from a broad support of Afghan groups fighting the Soviets to specific support of hard-line Islamic groups who were supported in the later phase after the Soviet withdrawal. The training camps established for training Afghan guerrillas underwent a change. . Establishment of just training centres gave way to growth of religious schools training students in Islamic ideology.

Pakistan - particularly central and southern Punjab - served as the ground where young freedom fighters were trained; in Punjab, especially Southern Punjab, there have been problems because of Siraki language. Therefore this area provided even recruits for Islamic militancy. Almost the entire leadership of the militant Sunni outfit, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, is made up of people who fought in Afghanistan.

The conflict within Pakistan began in the 1980s, when a group of Deobandi militants formed the Anjuman Sipa-Sahaba(ASS) to wage war against the Shia landlords of the Jhang. This organisation was later rechristened as the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP). The Shias formed the Sipah-e-Muhhamad (SMP) to counter the threat from Sunni militant Groups(1993)

Sectarian Violence in Pakistan (1989-2002)

Sectarian Violence in Pakistan

Constructed from media reports
(More Date>>)

An attempt was made in 1995 by moderate leaders to procure peace between these violent groups through the Milli Yakjehti Council (MYC), which brought about a temporary lull in violence. The respite was brief, as the SSP and the SMP failed to co-operate with the peace effort. However, the SSP’s leadership had joined the political mainstream, making an overt adherence to violence difficult. The extremist elements within the SSP, consequently, organised under the leadership of Riaz Basra to form the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). There are also a number of other splinter groups engaged in this strife. These splinter groups formed alliances with other extremists and were supported by a large numbers of madarsas (religious schools or seminaries) across the country.

In 1957, there were just about 150 such schools functioning in the country. The number now exceeds 5,500, with nearly 4,500 having come into existence after 1980. Half of these madarsas are in the Punjab. In May 1998, the Federal Cabinet was informed by the then Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharief, that about 100 madarsas were imparting military training. Press reports, however, suggest that over 750 madarsas were directly or indirectly connected with sectarian violence, and 810 of students of various madarsas were wanted in cases of terrorism. Patterns of retaliatory killings suggest some involvement of the Iranian establishment in the conflict, in solidarity and support of the Shia minority. Iranian diplomat Sadiq Ganji was gunned down in Lahore following the assassination of SSP founder Haq Nawaz Jhangvi in March 1990. Similarly the 1997 assassination of Jhangvi's successor Zia-ur-Rehman Farooqi and 26 others (killed in a bomb blast in the Lahore Sessions Court) saw the alleged revenge killing of Iranian diplomat Muhammad Ali Rahimi and six locals who were killed in an attack on the Iranian Cultural Centre in Multan.

At the non-governmental level, several attempts have been made to end the sectarian conflict through the formation of peace councils which have largely failed due to inflexibility of militant bodies like the LJ which seek to impose their own brand of Islamic rule in Pakistan. The linkage between the madarsas and the militants is further established by the fact that most shoot-outs and bombings originate from or occur at mosques housing these schools. A significant proportion of those killed in sectarian violence are students in these schools.

The provincial government in Punjab has had to face the main burden in dealing with this strife. Two major campaigns were initiated to round up suspects since the problem began. In February 1994, the Manzoor Wattoo government arrested over 200 suspects, but almost all were released on MYC's plea. A fresh initiative was undertaken by the Shahbaz Sharief administration when an estimated 700 suspects from all over the province were arrested. The erstwhile Nawaz Sharief government agreed upon a code of ethics on May 5 with most of the religious and sectarian groups. But the government failed to rope in the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi and the newly formed SMP, the real actors in the ongoing conflict. The move to call out the Pakistan Rangers and the Frontier Constabulary and banning pillion-riding once again were purely administrative steps which failed to yield desirable results. It now remains to be seen how the military administration deals with the situation.

Ethnic Strife:

The roots of ethnic conflict in Pakistan, primarily concentrated in Karachi and other urban regions of Sindh, lie in the concentration of mohajirs (refugees) within a province where a common religion is too weak to build bonds with other population groups who were injected into the area at the time of Partition. Refugees from the Indian Punjab have been successfully integrated into Pakistani Punjab, owing to a common language and culture. (The term ‘mohajir’ refers to refugees who arrived in Pakistan from the areas that fell within the newly constituted India, in the aftermath of Partition. It derives its origin from the term Hijr, the flight of the prophet from Mecca to Medina, a journey that was undertaken to escape persecution due to religious beliefs). Refugees from other parts of India, however, did not undergo any comparable process of assimilation and were initially concentrated in Karachi, though they later moved to other urban provinces of Sindh, such as Hyderabad and Latifabad, as well. These refugees spoke Urdu and had a set of cultural and social values different from the native Sindhis. Unlike the Sindhis, the new mohajir society did not suffer from the restrictions imposed by a feudal order and hence adapted to modern education. Being in the forefront of the struggle for Pakistan, they were naturally in a dominant position and were ardent supporters of Pakistani nationalism, as opposed to the regional identities professed by the Sindhis, Pathans and Punjabis.

Mohajir dominance in Pakistan’s politics was gradually eroded by the Punjabi bureaucratic-military clique, and Federal power gradually shifted to Punjab. This was followed by instances of Sindhi assertiveness, particularly provincial government initiatives, such as imposition of the Sindhi language in education and the adoption of the Sindh (Teaching, Promotion and Use of Sindhi Language) Act in 1972. These actions led to the first violent clashes involving mohajir groups. In 1985, when a mohajir girl was crushed to death under a bus, a fresh round of violence involving the mohajirs and Pathans began, since the latter were perceived to control the urban transport business. Subsequent police intervention led, for the first time, to clashes between the state and mohajir groups, a common occurrence since then.

Until this time, ethnic clashes in Sindh were marked by animosity between Mohajirs on the one side and other ethnic minorities (Sindhis, Pathans) on the other. In 1986, Mohajir Quami Movement (MQM) leader Altaf Hussain provided a new direction to the ethnic strife. The agenda of MQM has been to get a better deal for the Mohajirs from the Punjabi centre and from the Sindhi provincial government, which it sees as oppressive. One of its important demands has been the change in quota policy which it feels is inimical to Mohajir interests. It has not been able to wrest substantive concessions despite using coercion, violence and terror tactics. But some of its demands that Mohajirs be declared as the fifth nationality have not been well received. It has managed to cut across red tape and solve some of the housing problems in the city of Karachi. Its support base is the lower middle class and it has been financed by middle class Mohajirs.

Rather than targeting any specific minority group, the Punjabi dominated state bodies in Sindh were exclusively targeted by the Mohajirs. After this point, ethnic strife in Pakistan has largely involved the Mohajirs and state law enforcement agencies, including the army. As a consequence of disagreement between Afaq Ahmed and Altaf Hussain (the former being a close confidante of the latter) ostensibly on the issue of renaming the organisation, the movement split into two. The new faction which later on came to be identified with its proximity to the army was called the MQM(H). There have been a series of incidents of violence between the two factions in the past couple of years. Whenever there has been a killing, MQM (Altaf ) has often accused its rival organisation of masterminding the killings.

Several bouts of violence have occurred after 1986, when Altaf Hussain first gave the call for a movement against the Punjabi dominated state. These include the reported spate of reprisal killings by drug barons in Karachi, where over one hundred persons lost their lives and several hundred were injured. Several connected instances of attacks on Sindhis and Mohajirs sparked riots in 1988, with Hyderabad bearing the brunt. According to a report, the "streets of Hyderabad were littered with bodies right from Hirabad to Latifabad". The riots claimed over 60 dead in just one day, and more than 250 deaths in this phase of rioting. In a backlash, more than 60 Sindhi speaking people were gunned down in Karachi.

These killings provoked a massive police operation in the city, where over 4,000 policemen, according to press reports, and two thousand according to official sources, from all over the province surrounded the Pucca Qila locality and "fired at the house. This was for the first time in Pakistan's history that an operation been launched where thousands of people were besieged, and water and electric supply was disconnected. Appeals were made from mosques and newspapers offices were flooded with complaints, but nobody could move out as curfew had been imposed in the city". Failing to curb the protests, the police were removed and the army was called in. According to the list provided by a medical superintendent of Bhittai Hospital (Karachi), Dr. Shaiq Ali, 62 dead and 117 injured had been brought to the hospital. The dead also included women. Dr. Shaiq Ali was later murdered at his private clinic on Khai Road.

The most tragic off-shoot of the Pacca Qilla operation is that, notwithstanding the marriage of convenience between the Jeay Sindh Qaumi Mahaz (JSQM) and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a clear divide had taken place between the Urdu and Sindhi speaking people. There was only a trickle of internal migrations before the operation, but the operation triggered a mass exodus of population. The mohajirs migrated en masse from Qasimabad and the interior of Sindh into Hyderabad. Similarly, the Sindhis people moved to Qasimabad from Hyderabad and Latifabad.

While dismissing the government of Benazir Bhutto in 1990, president Ghulam Ishaq Khan had charged that just in seven months from January to July, 1,187 people had been killed and 2,491 injured in Sindh against 99 killed and 166 injured in the other three provinces of Pakistan. This is indicative of the threat to stable regimes from unsettled political issues and extremist agendas. Moreover the ethnic violence has become a feature of the political life of Sindh in particular where the rural urban divide and MQM's control of the urban constituency has alienated them form the Sindhis who speak the sindhi language and have different cultural practices from the settlers in urban Sindh. Efforts to bring about even a common political agenda in rural Sindh amongst groups demanding separation has not borne fruit in concrete terms. The socio-economic agenda of the Jeay Sindh movement which has demanded a separation of Sindh at various points has been unclear though it does gravitate towards separation.

In Pakistan one can easily say that religious and ethnic organisations representing their respective communities are increasingly using violent methods including terrorism and even democratic and legal tools to achieve the ends that they have set for themselves thereby resulting in increasing incidents of violence and terrorism the last decade. In the past ten years another important factor in the internal strife in Pakistan has been the impact of Afghan war in South Asia. Its ramifications include the growth of various Islamic groups that have been implicated in the running feuds between the Sunni and Shia organisations, and the drug Mafia operating in Pakistan which poses a threat to state security in the long run.







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