External Affairs

Terrorism is Threatening the Syncretic Tradition of Sindh

It is not as if my motherland has turned conservative or that peace has failed. If anything has failed, it is the state which is refusing to protect its own citizens

Lakhi Darr, Shikarpur. Credit: YouTube

Lakhi Darr, Shikarpur. Credit: YouTube

Jacobabad, Sindh (Pakistan): Sindh has a rich history of religious tolerance and love. Before Partition, Shikarpur was an important economic hub, and was even known as the Paris of the region. In the recent past, Zia ul Haq tried but failed to launch mujahideen extremists here. Sindh has traditionally been a centre of Sufism. But in 2015, two deadly terrorist attacks on Shias – in Shikarpur in January and Jacobabad in October – have shaken the confidence of the people and in particular the minorities.

Jundallah claimed responsibility for the first incident while it was the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi which claimed credit for the second. Both organisations are supposedly being decimated by the Pakistani army in Operation Zarb-e-Azb, launched in 2014 and directed against different militant groups. Some 60 people died in the Shikarpur Lakhi Darr imambargah, while 24 people were killed in the bombing of the Jacobabad muharram procession.

Shikarpur is my hometown, and Sindh is my province. So after the Jacobabad incident, I decided to go from Karachi to Jacobabad and Shikarpur to write about the rise of terrorism there. A local journalist tried to dissuade me, saying I could get all the information I needed on the phone. “Of course, I can,” I thought to myself, “but these cities are mine too, why shouldn’t I come?”

In my lifetime, I have not seen anyone differentiate between Shia and Sunni. Indeed, Shias are an integral part of Pakistani society and Hindus often join Shia religious events. Why is it that Shias are being targeted in Sindh, I asked myself. When I entered Sukkur and Shikarpur, I saw many mosques and men with long beards walking about early in the morning. What is the need for so many mosques, I thought. Wouldn’t one or two be enough?

A Shia leader speaks 

When I reached Jacobabad, I approached Allama Maqsood Domki, Shia scholar and secretary general of the Majlis-e-Wahdat-e-Muslimeen (MWM) Balochistan, a political party which works for the protection of Shias and for Shia-Sunni unity. Allama Domki has been actively looking into the terrorist incidents and undertook a long march in the wake of the terrorist attack in Shikarpur. The area around his house seemed undeveloped. I couldn’t find any school other than a madrassa. Two security guards guided me to his place. Domki came to the door and greeted us. At the room he uses to welcome guests,  known in Sindhi as an ‘Otaaq’, the walls have posters of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Allama Maqsood Domki. Credit: Veengas

Allama Maqsood Domki. Credit: Veengas

I asked Domki what he thought was the reason behind the attacks on Shias in Sindh.

“It is the arming of the mujahideen against Russia in Afghanistan that has led to today’s terrorism problem. Terrorism is planted because they want to divide common people in Sindh, Balochistan, Punjab – between Pathans, Punjabis, Sunni-Shia etc.”

I said that it was easy to criticise the US, but the fact is that Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran are also divided and fighting each other.

Domki responded: “Yes, divide and rule is the oldest policy.  The Saudis promoted Wahhabism and supported the mujahideen. Since day one we have opposed them; the Shias did not take part in Saudi-funded jihad. This jihad has had three phases: In the first, Pakistan fully participated in supporting the mujahideen and assumed that it could make Afghanistan into the fifth province of Pakistan. When Pakistan cannot hold even four provinces, how does it think it can manage a fifth? Then there was Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden; the third phase is that of Daesh – the Saudis brought together terrorists from 80 countries to attack the shrine of Hazrat Zainab (in Damascus). It was only when Daesh attacked the Saudis that Imam Kaba declared that Daesh was a terrorist organization. In Pakistan, those who fed snakes (meaning the Pakistan establishment and army) will find that tomorrow the snakes will kill their own masters, he said, echoing Hillary Clinton’s famous advice to the leaders of Pakistan: “You can’t keep snakes in your backyard and expect them only to bite your neighbours.”

Complicity of the state

I asked Domki which organisations were supporting terrorist attacks in Balochistan and Sindh.

“In Balochistan, the Pakistani state has given a green signal to terrorist organisations to divert attention from the Baloch freedom movement. Some Pakistani institutes are thinking if they allow religious terrorist groups in Balochistan, then they can weaken the movement for freedom. I want to tell them that this is a big mistake. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa had “Sarhadi Gandhi” (Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan), whose ideas were unacceptable to the Pakistani state, and now you can see that the leader of the National Awami Party,  Asfandyar Wali Khan cannot walk freely due to threats of terrorism. The Baloch, who should follow Akhtar Mengal (leader of the Balochistan National Party), are now following Mulla Ramzaan Mengal and Haji Mengal of the banned terrorist Ahle-Sunnat wal Jamaat (ASWJ). The ASWJ and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi both have a green signal from the Pakistani state”, said Domki.

Does the same formula apply to Sindh? I asked. “I do not think so,” he responded, “because Balochistan’s movement is very active, unlike Sindh’s. I request all organisations to unite against terrorism otherwise we will lose the Sindh of (Sufi poets) Bhitai (Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai) and Sachal.”

“From Shikarpur to Karachi,  the banners and flags of banned terrorist organisations are everywhere and they are delivering hate speeches in madrassas. Apex committees and National Action Plan are dramas.” Domki pointed to the reported links between the Muslim League government both in Punjab and at the Centre, especially Minister Rana Sanaullah Khan, with extremists groups. He was also critical of the Pakistan People’s Party but appreciated Bilawal Bhutto’s courageous condemnation of terrorist organisations.

I asked Domki about the role of madrassas. “Sindh’s borders are connected to Balochistan and Saudi funding has come to madrassas in Sindh. While some Deobandi madrassas are good, other Deobandi madrassas are giving terrorists training. Such madrassas are now found across Sindh – in Shikarpur, Jacobabad, Qamber Shahdadkot and elsewhere. The Apex Committee has a list of 48 religious seminaries with links to terror groups: why doesn’t the government make this public? Whenever the state takes action on madrassas then the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) comes on the road protesting. The government needs to look into JUI’s role.”

And what happened to your agreement with the Sindh Government (to root out terrorism) after your long march?, I asked Domki. He responded by saying that the Sindh government was “non-serious”: “We have been protesting, complaining and issuing statements for 10 months. No one pays attention to us.”

When I asked Domki about allegations that some external force was supporting the Shia community, he was slightly angered and said: “We have not done any violent act in revenge and are only asking for justice. This is my city and country; I do not want to disturb it. We are receiving dead bodies and in return we ask for justice.”

Suspicious foreigners in Jacobabad

After interviewing Domki, I went to the place in Jacobabad where the terrorist incident had occurred. The street was narrow and the area undeveloped. I met with families at the dargah. They were in grief at losing their little children. The majority of those killed had been children. They complained that when the Peshawar school terror incident happened, the media reported on it, but nobody protested when the children of Jacobabad were killed. I then met with Bande Ali Jaffari, a leader of Tehreek-e-Jaffari responsible for the Shia community in Jacobabad. He complained that the local police did not provide them proper security even after they had shown them threatening letters from the LeJ. They had observed suspicious activities by Chechens and Uzebks settling in Shia areas and posing as labourers and complained to the police, but the police did not follow up. Jaffari said that foreigners were buying up land in Jacobabad, pushing up prices. They were willing to pay 50 lakh for land costing 20 lakh. He estimated that there were around 50,000 foreigners in the area.

I also met with local citizens and activists who supported Jaffari’s view that the terrorism was being fomented by outsiders – Afghans, Uzbeks, Chechens – and banned terrorist groups working through madrassas. While local tribal chiefs or sardars may support criminal activities in order to maintain power, they would not support anti-Shia terrorism.

The Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) of Jacobabad Sajid Hussain Khokhar claimed that the police was providing full security to the Shia community. “Shikarpur and Jacobabad borders are connected with Balochistan’s areas which are already disturbed. On madrassas, we do not have any information about their involvement in terrorist activities.”

Insecurity in Shikarpur

Karbala Maula Lakhi Dar in Shikarpur

Karbala Maula Lakhi Dar4 in Shikarpur

After spending a whole day in Jacobabad, I traveled to Shikarpur. I wanted to meet the journalist Nasim Bukhari, who was victimised in the wake of his reporting on terrorism for a local magazine. He was wrongly quoted by the magazine, after which a religious group had filed a Rs. 50 lakh defamation suit against him. Bukhari finally managed to solve the problem by writing a letter of explanation to the religious parties. His greatest sorrow was that the journalists’ community, political parties and activists did not support him. He too blamed the madrassas: “I know that a maulvi delivered a speech in a madrassa saying ‘if you kill one Shia you kill 10 kafirs’.” Do such people enjoy, political support? I asked. “Yes, the JUI is the mother of these madrassas but I do not want to blame all members of JUI”, he replied.

I went to the Lakhi Darr imambargah in Shikarpur. The person in charge said their case was being handled by Domki. He added, “The Sindh government helped us but they did not fulfil all their promises. We are still facing threats; the Jacobabad blast was a clear message. We complained about people who may have been involved in terror activities, but the government has not taken any action against them and they still live near the dargah.”

The sun was setting as I headed back to Karachi. I wanted to take a little rest and drink tea at Diwan Hotel, famous in Shikarpur since my childhood. While sipping tea, I reflected on the Sufi/bhakti tradition of Sindh, and the danger that terrorists could destroy its soul of peace and love. I looked around the shop where everyone was drinking tea and eating sweets. I was sitting among them without covering my head with a dupatta, and no one paid attention to me. I realised then that it is not as if this land has turned conservative, or that peace has failed. If anything has failed, it is the state which is refusing to protect its own citizens.

Veengas is a journalist based in Karachi, Pakistan. She was born in Shikarpur.