Bloody Sectarian Legacies
understand the anti-Shia massacres at Karbala and Baghdad in
Iraq (about 180 fatal casualties) and at Quetta in Pakistan's
Balochistan (41 killed ) during the Muhurrum procession on March 2,
2004, one has to go back to the creation of Pakistan in 1947.
When Pakistan was
formed in 1947, the Shias were amongst the major land-owners of
Pakistan's Punjab, its granary, and many of the Sunnis, who migrated
to Pakistan from India's Punjab, were largely poor landless farm
workers, who had to earn their livelihood in their country of
adoption by working in the farms of the Shias. The perceived
exploitation of the Sunnis by the Shia landlords started the process
of the polarisation of the two sects of Islam in Pakistan.
polarisation largely due to economic reasons was given a religious
twist by Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan's military dictator of the 1980s,
after the overthrow of the Shah of Iran and the triumph of the
Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. To counter the growing political
assertiveness of the Shias and their political party, the
Tehrik-e-Jaffria (TEJ) Pakistan, which generally supported
Mrs.Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP), he encouraged
and assisted Sunni extremist organisations such as the
Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP).
With his blessings,
the SSP challenged the right of a woman to come to political power
and projected the Shias and Mrs.Nusrat Bhutto, the mother of Benazir,
as the surrogates of Iran. The SSP also started calling for the
declaration of the Shias as non-Muslims and for the proclamation of
Pakistan as a Sunni State.
Even before Zia
seized power in 1977, Pakistan used to see sectarian tension and
clashes between the Sunnis and the Shias, but this violence took a
virulent form in the 1980s. There were many targeted attacks on
Shias in the Sindh and Punjab provinces of Pakistan and in the
Northern Areas of Jammu & Kashmir (Gilgit and Baltistan, where
the Shias are in a majority), which has been under Pakistani
occupation since 1947-48.
The last years of
the Zia regime saw the Shias of Gilgit come out with a demand for a
separate Shia State consisting of Gilgit and the Shia majority areas
of Punjab and the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). They wanted
the Shia state to be called the Karakoram Province and remain part
of a confederation of Pakistan.
The Zia regime
crushed the Shia movement ruthlessly. In August 1988, the Pakistan
Army inducted a large Sunni tribal force from the NWFP and the
Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), led by Osama bin Laden,
into Gilgit and it massacred hundreds of Shias and crushed their
revolt. The hatred of the Shias for Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda
dates from this period.
Shortly after this
massacre, Zia died in a mysterious plane crash. Though the report of
the enquiry commissaion has not been allowed to be released by the
Army, it is generally believed by many in Pakistan that the crash of
the aircraft was caused by a Shia airman on board the flight. In
October, 1991, Lt.Gen. (retd) Fazle Haq, a close associate of Zia,
was assassinated in Peshawar, the capital of the NWFP, by Shia
The virulent anti-Shia
ideology of the SSP was also exploited by the intelligence agencies
of the USA and Iraq in their attempts to destabilise Iran and have
the Shia clergy ruling Teheran overthrown. As a result of the
support from the Saddam Hussain regime, the SSP, which was an
anti-Pakistani Shia and not an anti-Iran movement, started targeting
the Iranians living in and visiting Pakistan too in the 1990s. There
were many attacks on Iranian civilians, diplomats and military
officers coming to Pakistan for training. The SSP was also used by
the intelligence agencies of the USA and Iraq to instigate the Sunni
Balochis of Iran to revolt against Teheran.
Pakistani and Arab terrorists such as Ramzi Yousef, now in
jail in the US for his involvement in the New York World Trade
Centre explosion of February,1993, Maulana Masood Azhar of the Jaish-e-Mohammad
(JEM), Fazlur Rahman Khalil of the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM) and
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian, started their career as
terrorists as members of the SSP and participated in many of its
anti-Shia massacres in Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan.When al-Zarqawi,
along with some other Jordanians, many of them of Chechen ancestry,
came to Pakistan in the 1980s to join the Arab mercenary force
trained and armed by the CIA and the ISI and used against the Soviet
troops in Afghanistan, his passport gave his name as Fadel al-Khalayleh,
which is believed to be his real name.
On June 20,1994,
Ramzi Yousef and al-Zarqawi, at the instigation of the Iraqi
intelligence, caused an explosion at Mashad in the Iranian territory
adjoining Pakistan which killed a large number of Shias.Zarqawi,
along with the late Riaz Basra, the leader of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi
(LEJ), the militant wing of the SSP, helped the Taliban in the
capture of Kabul in September, 1996.
subsequently helped the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the massacre
of the Hazaras (Shias ) of Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden never liked
Saddam, whom he looked upon as an apostate because of his secular
and socialist policies, and the proximity of the LEJ and al-Zarqawi
to Saddam's intelligence agency created differences between them and
Despite this, the
LEJ joined bin Laden's International Islamic Front (IIF) for Jihad
Against the Crusaders and the Jewish People after it was
formed in 1998 and has remained loyal to bin Laden.Till 2002, the
anti-Shia activities of the LEJ were confined to Punjab and Sindh.
Balochistan remained largely free of anti-Shia incidents.
changed after the arrest of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad (KSM) by the
Pakistani authorities at Rawalpindi in March, 2003, and his handing
over to the USA's Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).It was
reported that KSM had fled from Karachi to Quetta in
September,2002, after the arrest of Ramzi Binalshibh and from there
shifted to Rawalpindi fearing betrayal by the Hazaras (Shias) of
Balochistan, who were suspected of helping the US agencies in their
hunt for bin Laden because of their anger over the massacre of the
Hazaras of Afghanistan before 9/11.
It is this
suspicion, which was behind two anti-Shia incidents in Quetta last
year. In the first, Hazara policemen under training and, in the
second in the first week of July, 53 Shia worshippers were killed.
This suspicion against the Shias has increased in recent weeks in
the wake of reports, contradicted by the Pakistani authorities, that
President Pervez Musharraf has agreed to permit the US troops to
comb for bin Laden in the FATA and the Pashtun majority areas of
The massacre of the
Shias in Quetta on March 2 was in reprisal partly for their
suspected collaboration with the Americans in their hunt for bin
Laden and partly for the murder of Maulana Azam Tariq, the
leader of the SSP, last year, allegedly by Shia extremists.
In a message
disseminated by Al Jazeera TV before the invasion of Iraq by the
coalition troops led by the US last year, bin Laden had called for a
united struggle against the Americans by the Sunnis and Shias of
Iraq forgetting their sectarian differences. While continuing to
describe Saddam as apostate, he appealed to the Shias and Sunnis not
to let their differences come in the way of a joint resistance
against the Americans.
Even before the
invasion, terrorist elements of the IIF started moving to Iraq via
Saudi Arabia and Iran for starting a jihad against the Americans.
The first group to go was from the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM). They
went to Saudi Arabia as Haj pilgrims and from there crossed over to
Iraq. Subsequently, Arab-speaking volunteers of the Lashkar-e-Toiba
(LET) and the LEJ also started going to Iraq in small numbers. Many
of the Arabs of Chechen ancestry, originally belonging to Jordan and
Saudi Arabia, who were in the South Waziristan area of the FATA,
also joined them.
Neither the HUM nor
the LET had in the past come to notice for indulging in anti-Shia
massacres in Pakistan though some leaders of the HUM had originally
been members of the SSP. Of those who have gone to Iraq from
Pakistan, only the members of the LEJ had indulged in anti-Shia
massacres in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the past and could be
expected to indulge in similar massacres in Iraq without any
hesitation. The Iraqi resistance fighters are unlikely to indulge in
the kind of massacres carried out at Karbala and Baghdad on March 2.
The needle of suspicion, therefore, strongly points to the LEJ.
Their action in
targeting the Shias of Iraq arises partly from their
deeply-ingrained anti-Shia reflexes and partly is a reprisal
for the perceived collaboration of the Shia leaders of Iraq with the
American troops. If al-Zarqawi wanted to promote a civil war in Iraq
by instigating Shia-Sunni clashes, as alleged by US officials,
the LEJ, with which he has had a history of association in the past
and which would not hesitate to massacre Shias anywhere in the
world, would be the ideal tool in his eyes.
Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt.
of India, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies,
Chennai, and Distinguished Fellow and Convenor, Observer Research
Foundation (ORF), Chennai Chapter.