Sectarian strife in Pakistan

DIVIDED: Tensions have led to the establishment of militant organizations like the Tehriq-e-Labaik that preach religious intolerance. Photo credit: Reuters
By G Parthasarathy

Deobandi and Bareilvi alignments a challenge to governance and peace

 India has done well to establish a back channel for talks with Pakistan’s military. A major result has been the signing of an agreement for a ceasefire across the LoC in J&K.

The two major schools of Islam, which emerged in the 19th century in the territories of present-day India, have traditionally been described as Deobandi and Bareilvi. The sects emerged from the efforts of many Muslim clerics and thinkers who fled from Delhi following their persecution by the British after the Mughal rule ended. Deobandi practices were widely adopted in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, and by virtually all Pashtuns in Afghanistan. The Deobandis thus established a firm foothold amongst the Pashtun population in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Most importantly, while the Bareilvis remained content with their influence in the subcontinent, the Deobandis reached out to people in the Arabian Peninsula in the 19th century. This was an initiative that has paid rich dividends through Saudi financial backing of Deobandi organizations.

Thanks to the FATF and actions by the US and its allies, Pakistan is being squeezed to end support to such groups.

The most far-reaching decision by India’s Deobandi leaders was to make common cause with the secular ideals of India, while supporting the struggle led by Mahatma Gandhi for India’s independence. The main center for study and learning of the Deobandi school of Islam was and remains the Darul Uloom, located at Deoband in UP. While sections of the Bareilvi leadership initially shared the views of their Deobandi compatriots, those mainly living in Pakistan, eventually chose to support the Partition. On November 3, 2009, Jamiat-i-Ulama-i-Hind, a group of Deobandi scholars, dedicated to the welfare of Muslims in India, met at Deoband and condemned suicide bombings and attacks targeting innocent civilians. This amounted to direct criticism of Pakistan’s propensity to use terrorism as an instrument of state policy.

The Bareilvi population in Pakistan’s Punjab province soon found that it had little political space to operate in. The military extended support to groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and the Afghan Taliban that worked jointly with the military establishment. While the JeM organized the attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001, the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack was masterminded by the LeT. Moreover, the ISI midwifed the close relations of these groups with the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Bareilvis were soon finding that despite their influence and political support in Pakistani Punjab, they were losing political relevance in Pakistan. Ever since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Pashtuns, who are predominantly Deobandi, dominated the attention and patronage of the ISI, and, indeed, in the world. The Taliban also have what they believe to be Deobandi credentials and collaborate closely with Wahhabi-oriented groups like the LeT and the JeM.

Pashtun Deobandis in Pakistan’s northwest and in southern Afghanistan became natural allies of Gen Zia-ul-Haq, after he overthrew and hanged ex-PM Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. General Zia brought in a new phase of ‘Islamization’ of politics and developed close relations with radical Islamic elements in Pakistan, most notably the Jamaat-e-Islami in Punjab and Sind, and the Pashtun Deobandis in the north. The Soviet Union then made the folly of invading Afghanistan, enabling the US to join Pakistan in waging a Saudi-backed, Deobandi-oriented jihad against the Soviet forces. Wahhabi-oriented organizations in Pakistan joined this jihad. The ISI developed links with the Jamaat-e-Islami in J&K and used this Deobandi-oriented force to facilitate its jihad in J&K.

Given Bareilvi practices of virtually worshipping the Prophet, Saudi Arabia treats them as heretics. According to Najam Sethi, the Editor of Pakistan’s Friday Times, the Bareilvis in Pakistan, and particularly in the majority Punjab province, have responded to critics by actions ‘borne of the religious passion to defend and uphold the Prophet of Islam, from blasphemy by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, at home and abroad’. This led to the establishment of a politically oriented, militant organization called the Tehriq-e-Labaik, which soon swept across towns and villages, preaching religious intolerance in Pakistan’s military-dominated Punjab.

The first victim was a Punjabi Hindu woman, Asia Noreen, popularly known as Asia Bibi, who was convicted and sentenced to death for allegedly making blasphemous comments. She was arbitrarily handed the death sentence by hanging — a verdict that was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2011. She, thereafter, immediately fled to Canada.

The Tehriq-e-Labaik attained notoriety, when one of its members, a security guard, assassinated the Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, for supporting Asia Bibi. The guard was treated like a revolutionary hero by the outfit. It now has substantial political clout in the Punjab province. It virtually brought Punjab to a standstill during recent demonstrations to demand the expulsion of the French ambassador, because of alleged disrespect shown in France to the Prophet.

Thanks to the threats of sanctions by the Financial Action Task Force and strong actions by the US and its European allies, Pakistan is being squeezed to end support to such groups. Pakistan is also realizing that faith alone cannot hold a nation together, especially in the face of sectarian differences. Neither the Tehriq-e-Taliban, which is now waging a low-intensity conflict within Pakistan, or even the Taliban leadership in Afghanistan has ever recognized the Durand Line as an international border.

India has done well to establish a back channel for talks with Pakistan’s military. A major result has been the signing of an agreement for a ceasefire across the LoC in J&K. Pakistan’s mercurial PM, Imran Khan, meanwhile, has rejected a proposal to import Indian agricultural products, which he had initiated and approved earlier. He certainly does not enjoy global popularity. The world has noted that it was General Bajwa who first met Crown Prince Salman in Saudi Arabia, before the Crown Prince gave an audience to Imran Khan last week. US President Biden is yet to meet or speak to Imran Khan.

(The author is Chancellor, Jammu Central University & former High Commissioner to Pakistan)

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