When Nawaz rocked the Casbah
A gradual but firm pressure is being asserted by the media and the civil society upon the state, the government and the civil-military intelligence agencies — to once and for all —mount a decisive operation against sectarian organisations, involved in a number of acts of terror and bloodletting in Pakistan.
It can be safely assumed that never before in Pakistan has the media and almost all sections of the society so categorically condemned the activities of extremist outfits and demanded an equally categorical action against them. Also interesting is the way those political parties that had largely remained ambiguous in their stance on sectarian and extremist organisations, are also coming under the weight of various quarters to clearify their respective positions in this context.
Such parties do not only include right-wing religious outfits such as the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) or the Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI), but also parties such as the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) and the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N).
The starkest turnaround in this respect was witnessed in Imran Khan’s PTI. Until only a year and a half ago, PTI was sending ‘emissaries’ to rallies led by some of the most controversial sectarian and religious outfits and personalities in the Difa-i-Pakistan Council. And even though the PTI has stuck to its long-standing policy of holding a dialogue with extremist groups like the Taliban, recently it has come down hard on Sunni sectarian outfits, especially the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LeJ).
Soon after LeJ’s brutal attack on the Hazara Shia community in Quetta, PTI chairman, Imran Khan, castigated the LeJ by name. Till Khan’s vocal onslaught against the LeJ, only centre-left parties like the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Awami National Party (ANP), and the secular Mohajir-centric outfit, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), were the ones willing to play the naming game.
PTI, that is being predicted to become PML-N’s fiercest opponents in the coming general election (especially in the Punjab), also went on to lambast the PML-N for having links with sectarian outfits such as the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamat (ASWJ).
The PML-N dismissed PTI’s accusation, describing it as a ploy to dissuade the Shia as well as members of the Sunni Barelvi Muslim majority and ‘liberals’ from voting for the PML-N. But it became tougher for PML-N to respond to PTI’s severe allusions when the social media came alive with old photographs of PML-N luminary, Rana Sanaullah, attending and addressing a rally of the ASWJ.
The LeJ that has owned many of the most gruesome attacks on the men, women and even children belonging to the Shia community, is a breakaway group of the Sipah Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), which was formed in the Punjab in 1985 by some former members of the mainstream JUI.
After rejecting JUI’s electoral politics and the fact that the party had decided to side with secular parties against the reactionary Ziaul Haq dictatorship, these members were also the product of the initial rise of sectarianism fanned by the Zia dictatorship and Pakistan’s involvement in the so-called anti-Soviet Afghan jihad.
SSP held strong anti-Shia views and was often involved in violent acts against the Shia community.
With the consequent formation of the militant Shia group, the Sipah-e-Muhammad (SeM), in the early 1990s, the SSP was hit back by counterattacks by the SeM until the SSP split, and a more militant group emerged, calling itself the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ).
Though SSP and LeJ would eventually be banned in the early 2000s by the Musharraf regime, both have survived through various ‘front organisations.’
SeM too was banned and seemed to have withered away, but some experts believe it might have been reactivated in Karachi due to LeJ’s relentless campaign of murder and mayhem against the Shia.
Though a growing number of media personnel and political leaders have begun to now openly talk about the connections LeJ might have had with members of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies and with the puritanical oil-rich Arab monarchies, the ironic bit is that one of the first mainstream political parties to allude to this was actually the PML-N!
It is very likely that the current PML-N government in the Punjab might have decided to ignore the presence of sectarian outfits such as the SSP (now called the ASWJ) and LeJ as long as they continued to operate outside Punjab.
But it is also true that one of the first concentrated operations against the LeJ and SSP was initiated by the second PML-N government (1997-99).
Newspapers of the era, and perhaps two of the finest books written on the subject of extremist violence in Pakistan, Pakistan’s Drift into Extremism (Hassan Abbas), and Talibanisation of Pakistan (Amir Mir), talk in length about the mentioned operation.
The LeJ was formed in 1996 as a splinter group of the SSP, and by the late 1990s, both the outfits were highly active in the Punjab. In 1998, the PML-N regime led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif unleashed a no-holds-barred police operation against both the organisations, killing at least 36 of the most militant cadres of SSP and LeJ within a matter of months. The operation dramatically decreased the number of episodes of sectarian violence in the Punjab.
SSP and LeJ had tried to topple Benazir Bhutto during her second term as prime minister (1993-96). But they were not expecting Nawaz Sharif (who till then had been known as the ‘establishment’s man’) to break away from the orbit and act against outfits whose seeds were sown by Sharif’s former mentor, Ziaul Haq.
Sharif did this by taking visible action against SSP and LeJ and then bypassing the military high command to peruse peace with India.
In 1999, Nawaz openly began to name the Taliban regime in Afghanistan (posted there in 1996 by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia), for funding and training the SSP and LeJ.
Even though Sharif and his brother Shahbaz (who was Chief Minister of Punjab) managed to put SSP and LeJ on the defensive, both the outfits redirected their anger towards the prime minister and his brother.
In January 1999, LeJ tried to assassinate Nawaz by bombing the Lahore-Raiwind Bridge over which the Prime Minster’s motorcade was to pass. The bridge was blown, but a few minutes too early. Nawaz escaped unhurt, even though one bystander was killed. LeJ then offered Rs135m to anyone who would kill Nawaz or Shahbaz.
Alas, the operation against SSP and LeJ came to a sudden halt when the Sharif regime was toppled in a military coup by General Pervez Musharraf in October 1999.