The Feb 16 suicide attack on the shrine of Shahbaz Qalandar has sent shockwaves across the country, especially in Sindh which is considered as the last bastion of religious and sectarian harmony in Pakistan.
The shrine is revered by millions of devotees. Its characteristic drumbeat and dhamaal is an icon of spiritual ecstasy.
Sindh, the land of Sufis, has endured traumatic incidents of terrorism during recent years, yet Sindhi society is responding to this challenge with towering spirit and unflinching resolve — political leadership, civil society, local media and common people will not be cowed by this wave of terrorism.
More than 80 people died in the evening on February 16, yet the following day began with the roar of dhamal when mourners broke all barriers and thronged the shrine to demonstrate their defiance to terrorism. After a few days, the shrine was visited by a group of civil society activists that performed dhamal to fight fear.
A hairline crack is already conspicuous in Sindh despite being largely liberal, harmonious and secular. Sufi saints of Sindh are revered by people beyond identities that symbolises the Sindhi culture of inclusiveness, tolerance, diversity and harmony. Perhaps, that is the main reason behind targeting of shrines by obscurantist elements. Bloodshed at the Qalandar’s shrine is a continuity of the streak of blood smeared at the shrines of Shah Noorani, Abdullah Shah Ghazi, Data Gunj Bakhsh, Bari Imam and Rehman Baba.
The fact that the terrorist involved in the recent incident was brought from the other side of the border indicates sheer incompetence of the security web. He must have breached several tiers of security, and several facilitators, before detonating himself.
Such failure of intelligence and security merits serious introspection.
Lahore also witnessed a similar carnage only a few days ago, which was followed by a series of terrorist attacks in Balochistan and KP. These incidents should have been considered as a forewarning by the Sindh government.
Sehwan was among the predictable targets, yet the provincial government took no security precautions to avert any mishap. A place routinely frequented by flocks of thousands was left at the mercy of five policepersons, two dysfunctional walkthrough gates and a bunch of malfunctioning cameras.
Local health facility is grossly understaffed supported by only one ambulance and inadequate supplies. A place like Sehwan should not be equated with normal taluka headquarters to determine the status of health, security and emergency services. Rather than its administrative status, the number of visitors routinely swarming the town and the level of alert should have been used as a benchmark to provide emergency response facilities.
The provincial government underestimated the threat level and failed to act proactively. Two day after the blast was too late for the chief minister of Sindh to order a security audit of worship places.
We know that in recent years militancy has crept into Sindh. The intelligence agencies informed the provincial government only a few months ago about 93 madrassas having solid links with proscribed outfits. Only two months ago, provincial home ministry reported that 62 banned groups were active in the province. The Sindh government had been wrangling with the Federal Interior Ministry over its slouchy response on a 46-page report sent by the provincial government.
The Sindh government’s own inaction was equally confounding, as it possesses constitutional and legal powers to take action against such potentially subversive bodies. The provincial government also failed to implement hitherto announced actions to forestall the terrorists’ onslaught.
In October 2016, the chief minister ordered a crackdown against 93 seminaries for having links with terrorists groups, and on unregistered immigrants living in Karachi. In August 2016, the Sindh cabinet approved a draft of the bill to register all madrassas in Sindh. In the meeting of the provincial Apex Committee, IG police informed that out of 9,590 seminaries reported in the province, 3,087 were unregistered. In February 2016, the provincial government decided to regulate the Friday sermon. According to newspaper reports, the Sindh police had started analysis and audit to trace the funding of seminaries in the province.
Regrettably, all these lofty ideas have yet to see the light of day.
Cowardice on part of the government of Sindh is also evident from the fact that it hastily scuttled an operation launched in November 2016 to lay hands on suspects taking shelter in 93 seminaries under question. The provincial government also backtracked on unanimously adopted landmark legislation against forced conversions to placate religious parties.
The provincial government belatedly decided to launch a crackdown on the Sindh-Balochistan border district one week after the carnage. These areas are infested by extremist groups and the provincial government knew it long before. It needs a comprehensive strategy and a long term plan rather than a reactionary crackdown which will end up in random police witch-hunting mostly targeting innocent people to extract money. Such perfunctory roars are commonly witnessed after every massacre, but each time the government cringes on the promised actions and capitulates before the pressure of religious groups. With the passage of time, the government actions fade away.
The federal government’s slumber on the National Action Plan (NAP) and the absence of a credible action in Punjab has also been a root cause of incessant terrorist acts. It is widely believed that certain elements in the Punjab-rooted ruling party have been pandering to proscribed militant outfits. An uncanny state of denial persists among the PML-N stalwarts.
Two days after a suicide assault that killed 73 people in a recreational park in Lahore in March 2016, Rana Sanaullah challenged that everyone can visit any region of Punjab and show him a single safe haven of militants. Repeated repudiation of action against militants’ sanctuaries in Punjab is commonly construed as an implicit complicity of the ruling establishment of the province.
In January 2017, the federal interior minister flabbergasted the Senate by justifying his meeting with a delegation that included a banned outfit. In February 2016, the minister had also said that madrassas are like a bulwark against terrorism. In the first week of February 2017, Rana Sanaullah successfully exhorted a PML-N legislator to withdraw her resolution seeking sanitisation of syllabus of seminaries by expunging hate speech. A newspaper report on February 20, 2017 revealed that some powerful government functionaries were opposing effective action against sectarian outfits in Punjab for political reasons.
While security establishment liberally uses its muscle to operate in other provinces, its reluctance to launch a decisive purge in Punjab triggers many questions. The Punjab dominated establishment’s laxity on eradicating militants’ safe havens is now spewing its perils in all parts of the country. After failure in containing terrorism, the security establishment found a reason to launch a fresh operation in the country.
After an illusive hiatus, terrorism has returned with its usual horror. Lack of political will is an undeniable reality that revitalises terrorist groups. There is no dearth of verbal gallantry but words often lack congruent actions of the government. Security establishment can use arsenal to halt terrorists’ advance but its more formidable political dimensions need a complex, multidimensional and compressive response that falls under the ambit of political government.
Unless the political leadership stands steadfast with its own towering claims, terrorism cannot be eradicated.