On Jan 10, over 100 people were
killed and 200 injured in a spate of bombings in Quetta that were
clearly targeted against the Shia Hazara community. Just 10 days
earlier, a convoy of buses carrying Shia pilgrims was targeted at
Mastung. On Jan 18, a Shia legislator belonging to the Muttahida
Quami Movement (MQM), along with his armed security guards, was
assassinated. Two members of the Sunni sectarian outfit,
Ahl-e-Sunnat wal Jamaat, were also killed in Karachi the same day.
Hardly a day passes when there is no sectarian violence in
Pakistan; the targeted killings of people belonging to rival sects
in places like Quetta, Karachi, Parchinar and Gilgit-Baltistan
have become the norm.
Sectarian violence in Pakistan is a logical offshoot of the
exclusivist "Two Nation Theory", which required an object of hate.
Having asserted that Muslims were a separate nation, it was
essential to define who was a Muslim. A judicial commission
consisting of Justice Munir and Justice Kayani of the Pakistan
Supreme Court, constituted in 1954 to ascertain if Ahmediyas were
Muslims, could not give a ruling as no two ulema could agree on
the precise definition of a Muslim.
Islam had ceased to be a monolith immediately after the death of
Prophet Mohammed. The schism originated on the issue of inheriting
the Prophet's temporal and spiritual legacy. Shias believe that
Hazrat Ali, the prophet's nephew and son-in-law, was the rightful
heir and that the prophet, during his lifetime, had given adequate
indications of this. As such, the Shias do not recognise the first
three caliphs (religious rulers regarded as the successors of the
Prophet) and consider them usurpers. As far as Shias are
concerned, Ali ibn Abi Talib was the first imam, whereas the
Sunnis consider him the fourth Rashidun (righteous) caliph, and
Muawiyah the first caliph of the Umayyad dynasty.
By the end of the Battle of Siffin, where Ali's armies confronted
Muawiyah's, new strands emanated within Islam, besides the
existing two. In due course, the believers were divided into
various sects and sub-sects.
The persecution of minority sects under various regimes has been a
fact of history and led to the practice of 'taqiyya', wherein the
people concealed their beliefs and came out only when the
circumstances were conducive. The cleavages between the main sects
were aggravated after the Iranian revolution as it contributed to
a renewed confidence amongst Shias.
In Pakistan, after the separation of the eastern wing, when the
numbers of non-Muslims became insignificant, the fanatic adherents
of the exclusivist "Two Nation Theory" looked for new objects of
hate and turned their ire towards their co-religionists, who
differed from their own version of Islam. Consequently, the
violence was used to settle scores not only between Shias and
Sunnis but also between different strands of same sect.
Meanwhile, in 1974, the Pakistani state acquired the Right of
Takfeer (to declare someone who calls himself Muslim as an
unbeliever) and declared Ahmediyas as non-Muslims. Since then,
there have been repeated demands for declaring adherents of
various other sects and sub-sects as apostates.
Former president, General Zia-ul Haq, through his narrow
interpretation of Islam and closer identification with Sunni
beliefs, further exacerbated the sectarian differences. He made
any disrespect to the companions of the prophet (Sahabahs) a
cognisable offence (some Shias indulge in Tabarra, criticism of
first three caliphs, who were Sahabahs). He ordered that 'zakat'
(obligatory payment under Islamic law) would be deducted directly
from bank accounts. The Shias refused to abide by it and protested
en masse, forcing the general to exempt them from the deduction.
This led to the consolidation of Shia identity as a person had to
declare that he was Shia to ensure that zakat was not deducted.
Sunni sectarian outfits gained a lot of ground during General
Zia's rule. Saudi and Iranian funding to respective sectarian
outfits have allowed them to thrive through the subsequent
It is essential to understand the dynamics of sectarian violence
in Pakistan. Although estimated to be around a fifth of Pakistan's
population, the Shias have had disproportionate share of power.
Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Nazimuddin, Mohammad Ali Bogra, Iskander
Mirza, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Gen. Yahya Khan and Benazir Bhutto
were all Shias, and even today the president and the chairpersons
of both houses of parliament are Shias. Generally, Shias are
better educated and even richer. Many of them are successful
lawyers and doctors.
Initially, the Sunni outfits thrived by pitting the poor Sunni
tenants against the rich Shia landlords in Jhang district of
Punjab. As it is not easy to identify Shias, generally the Sunni
militants target prominent Shias, whose sectarian identity is
known due to their eminence. Other targets are clerics, Imambarah
and processions specific to Shia community like the Ashura and
Chelhum processions. Also, the Shia pilgrims travelling to holy
places in Iraq and Iran by buses have become their targets.
Of late, they have used suicide bombings quite effectively to
target Shia congregations. Shia retaliation has by and large been
restricted to targetting Sunni clerics preaching hatred against
Shias and members of Sunni militant organisations.
There are, however, some exceptions to the general pattern. In
areas where Shias are in a majority, like Parchinar in Kurram
Agency and Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, they
fight pitched battles with the Sunni outfits. Secondly, in
Karachi, due to its large population, Shias are able to come out
in strength and protest. It is also in Karachi that the largest
numbers of Sunni militants have been killed in reprisal.
Finally, there are the 500,000 Hazaras in Quetta, who are Shias
and migrated from Afghanistan more than a century ago. They are
ethnically Mongoloid, which makes their identification as Shias
quite easy and, consequently, Sunni sectarian militants on
vehicles pick off Hazaras as easy targets. Of over 400 Shias
killed in sectarian violence in Pakistan in 2012, the largest were
To further complicate matters, the Taliban have climbed on to the
sectarian bandwagon to spread their influence outside the Pakhtoon
belt. Most large-scale attacks on Shias, especially in Sindh and
Punjab, bear clear Taliban signatures.
Worse, there are accusations that "the omnipotent security
establishment" has been supporting Sunni militants in Balochistan
and Gilgit-Baltistan, where many dreaded sectarian militants have
been let loose. It appears as if "the establishment" perceives
sectarian violence to be an effective antidote against nationalist
movements in these restive regions.
Sunni militants have not confined their attacks to mainstream
twelver (Ithna Ashari) Shias but have also targeted smaller
sub-sects of Shia Islam like Ismailis (followers of the Aga Khan)
and Dawoodi Bohras. It is ironical that in a state where the head
of the state, Asif Ali Zardari, is Shia, not a day passes when
some Shia is not targetted for professing his faith.
Alok Bansal is a Pakistan expert and Senior Fellow at
the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi. The views
expressed are personal. He can be reached at email@example.com
The views expressed in the write-up are author's own.