On October 29, 2016, at least five Shia persons were killed and many injured in a gun-and-bomb attack outside a Majlis in the Nazimabad area of Karachi, the provincial capital of Sindh, in Pakistan, where people had gathered for a religious meeting. According to police officials: "Four men wearing helmets and riding on motorcycles came to the house where the religious gathering was taking place in the month of Muharram, and they opened indiscriminate fire on the people standing at the gate."
The Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) claimed responsibility for the attack. The Sunni supremacist and jihadist militant organisation, whose roots are in the heartland of Punjab province, has a history of carrying out sectarian attacks across Pakistan, particularly against Shia Muslims. According to data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), a total of 2,575 Shias have been killed in Pakistan in 454 targeted attacks since 2001. The rise in the killings of Shias is a manifestation of perpetual anarchy that has gripped Pakistan, the "Land of the Pure", with no hope of refuge for the targeted community. The Shias of Pakistan remain the worst hit.
Militant outfits like LeJ and its extremist allies such as the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) -- alternatively referred to as the Pakistani Taliban -- along with subtle state support and ideological backing from religious elites, together form the militant troika that has encouraged and thereby sustained the massacre of the Shias. As a consequence, Pakistani society has been poisoned beyond repair.
The historicity of sectarian dissension goes back to the period after Prophet Muhammad's demise in 632 A.D. when his followers split into supporters of Ali (Shias) and those supporting the companions of Prophet (Sunnis). This broad division between the Shias and the Sunnis has, over a period of 1,400 years, been thoroughly exploited by the power seekers -- both within and without. According to the Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) World Factbook, Shias constitutes nearly 10-15 percent of the population of Pakistan, and are spread across the country. The highest concentration is found in the Gilgit-Baltistan Province, where they constitute a majority.
The Kurram Agency of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) is a Shia stronghold in the tribal belt. Similarly, all urban capitals, namely, Lahore (Punjab Province), Karachi (Sindh Province), Peshawar (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province), and Quetta (Balochistan Province) have sizeable Shia populations.
Sunni militant groups, backed by the authorities at the helm, have sustained a violent campaign against Shia Muslims, particularly since the time of former dictator General Zia-ul-Haq. Prominent anti-Shia groups include the LeJ, the Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jama'at (ASWJ), earlier known as Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), and the TTP. Despite a government ban on these terrorist organisations, they operate freely and brazenly.
Sunni extremist formations have propagated their violent ideologies with impunity and in the most open manner possible. In June 2011, LeJ distributed pamphlets calling Shias wajib-ul-qatl (obligatory to be killed). All Shias are wajib-ul-qatl. We will rid Pakistan of the unclean race. The real meaning of Pakistan is pure land, and Shias have no right to live here. We have the fatwa (religious edict) and signatures of the Ulema (religious scholars) in which the Shias have been declared kaafir (infidel) ... Our mission is the abolition of this impure sect, the Shias and the Shia-Hazaras, from every city, every village, every nook and corner of Pakistan..."
Despite these brazen threats, governments, both at the Centre and in the Provinces, instead of initiating any corrective measures, have taken steps that have worsened the rising graph of attacks against the Shias. No region is safe anymore. While the state is struggling to suppress violence against Shias, the deep-rooted support for militants in society and the weak judicial system in Pakistan has created a situation where hardly any terrorist has been convicted of sectarian violence or other terrorism in Pakistan.
In the past few years, several known militants have been set free by the courts because of the archaic judicial system that is incapable of convicting those involved in the modern-day guerrilla warfare.
Soon after the June 2011 LeJ threat, for instance, on July 14, 2011, Pakistan's Supreme Court ordered the release on bail from Lahore's Kot Lakhpat Jail of Malik Ishaq -- the former operational chief of LeJ, who had been charged in 44 cases, including the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in March 2009, involving the killing of at least 70 people, mostly belonging to the Shia sect. The Court said the prosecution had failed to produce sufficient evidence to support its charges.
On February 22, 2013, police again arrested Malik Ishaq in connection with sectarian attacks in Quetta that had killed nearly 200 people in 2013. However, he was again released on bail on December 23, 2014. Until Malik Ishaq was killed in Muzaffargarh, Punjab, in a gun battle with the Punjab Police on July 29, 2015, he was always getting protection -- either from politicians or the courts. Conspicuously, the state's inaction in mounting effective resistance against the militants is suggestive of collusion and collaboration, each serving the interest of the other. Pakistan has become the operational base for various sectarian militant outfits.
The killing of Shias manifests the existence of an embedded militant troika where three fundamental players: religious heads, militant operators and the state -- work in tandem in massacring the community.
(In special arrangement with South Asia Monitor. The writer is Assistant Professor, Department of International Studies & History, Christ University, Bengaluru. Views are personal.)