Last week, a suicide bomber massacred more than 60 people many of them in their early teens or younger, like the boys killed in last December’s attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar at a Shikarpur Imambargah in Sindh during Friday congregation. This happened on the day Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was in the provincial capital, Karachi, to sort out law and order situation. But at a news conference, which he addressed the same evening, he made no mention of the bloodbath. Instead he appeared to be in a jovial mood complaining about the poor quality of food the KCCI served him. That says a lot about this government’s stated resolve to eliminate terrorism.
Leader of the Opposition Syed Khurshid Shah took up the issue in Monday’s National Assembly session criticising the government for what he called an apathetic attitude. Expressing disappointment over the PM’s or the Interior Minister’s failure to visit Shikarpur to empathise with the affected families he said that the entire cabinet had rushed to Peshawar after the school attack but showed indifference towards the Shikarpur tragedy, adding that like those martyred at the Army Public School were “our children” those killed at the Imambargah were also our people. Obviously, the PM and his men are more concerned about maintaining appearances where it matters than the loss of ordinary people’s lives. The sad truth, however, is that Shah’s own party has little to show for its efforts in combating sectarian terrorism. Some of the worst incidents took place in Quetta on its watch, yet it wouldn’t do anything to ensure security of the Hazara community. As a matter of fact, over the last three decades the leadership, civilian as well as military, nurtured some of the violent extremist groups turning a blind eye to the rise and spread of sectarian terrorism in this country.
In the present incident, a sectarian terrorist organisation, Jundullah, has claimed credit for the carnage, saying “our target was the Shia mosque… they are our enemies.” Jundullah is believed to have come into being with US’s backing to cause trouble in Iran. Its original leaders, two Riggi brothers, were captured a while ago at least one of them with Pakistan’s help and hanged by Iran. But their affiliates have continued to launch terror attacks into Iran, also abducting and killing Iranian border guards as well as civilians. A Jundullah offshoot, allied with the TTP (it has now pledged allegiance to the socalled IS), has been hitting local targets, mostly in GilgitBaltistan area.
Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan would have us believe that seminaries and terror outfits are alien to one another. In reality most cadres of sectarian groups, including Jundullah, are madressah alumni. His ministry also remains in denial, contrary to hard evidence, about the existence of foreignfunded seminaries in Punjab, the largest province under PMLN rule. When the issue recently came up for discussion in the upper house, Minister of State for Interior Baleeghur Rehman told Senators, based on information provided by the provinces, that only 23 madressahs receive money from various sources in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE. Out of these, he said, 12 are in KPK, nine in Balochistan and two in Sindh, but none in Punjab. Supporting the minister’s stance in a written reply to a Senator’s question, Punjab’s Special Branch IG claimed that “no madressah involved in receiving financial and training assistance from Islamic countries has come to our notice.” The claim was so outrageous that the Opposition members staged a walkout in protest. The IG needs to take notice of at least one major example that contradicts his assertion: a WikiLeaks cable that reported sectarian seminaries in south Punjab which is where the socalled Punjabi Taliban came from received a staggering $100 million every year from the Gulf states.
Punjab in fact is the home base of, among others, the most dreaded sectarian organisation, LashkareJhangvi, which has spread its tentacles all over the country. That these groups and those of their rival sects emerged from foreignfunded seminaries to fight the Gulf countries proxy war for regional influence is an open secret. Successive governments’ policy so far has been to declare a ban on these terror outfits but to allow their leaders to reinvent their identities and go back to business as usual. As a result of this appeasement policy, the State has made itself look helpless, confining its role to organising special security arrangements during Muharram observances, even holy Prophet’s (PBUH) birthday celebrations whilst people keep getting killed on these occasions and whenever in mosques, Imambargahs and Sufi shrines. Several religious scholars have been murdered too for their disapproval of violent extremism.
In contesting the existence of foreignfinanced seminaries as well as sectarian terror groups the Punjab government seems to want to play it safe. Or is it a manifestation of sympathy for them? Notably, back in 2010 at the height of terrorist violence Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif had stirred a storm of anger and indignation with his statement that the Taliban should spare Punjab since they and the PMLN government were opposed to policies of both General Musharraf and the US. His party is also known to have been fraternising with leaders of certain infamous sectarian outfits, seeking and receiving their electoral support.
Punjab government’s present stance on foreign financed seminaries shows the will to confront the scourge of terrorism is still missing or is too weak. Denial, of course, will not make the problem go away. It can affect the success of the National Action Plan. The security forces are fighting the Taliban in the tribal areas, and also conducting intelligencebased operations all across the country. But military action alone will not help. The political leadership has to play a key role in the effort and in articulating a coherent supportive narrative. It must first stop denying reality.