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Look within: The Lal Shahbaz Qalandar attack and why Pakistan must introspect

Vivek Katju | Updated on: 18 February 2017, 5:58 IST

The 16 February terrorist bombing of the Lal Shabaz Qalandar shrine at Sehwan Sharif, arguably Pakistan’s most revered place of worship, was the country’s most devastating attack in two years. It caused 100 deaths and twice as many persons were injured.


More significantly, like the terrorist attacks at other Sufi shrines such as Lahore’s Data Ganj Baksh and Shah Noorani’s at Khuzdar in Balochistan, this one too highlighted the country’s descent into violent bigotry.


As Pakistan picks up the pieces, it is apparent that, like France’s Bourbon Kings, its rulers ‘learn nothing and forget nothing’.


Repeating previous responses to heinous terrorist bombings of religious places and academic and civil and military state institutions Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa quickly visited Sehwan, met the wounded, reviewed the security situation, issued orders to relentlessly eliminate terrorists and called on the people to remain united.


The Army chief also assured the nation that Pakistan’s security forces shall not allow hostile powers to succeed. He also declaimed on Twitter – “Each drop of your nation’s blood shall be revenged and revenged immediately. No more restraint for anyone”.


Over the last 36 hours Pakistani security forces claim to have killed over a hundred terrorists.

Mounting pressure


The Shahbaz Qalandar terrorist attack was part of 10 attacks launched over five days across Pakistan. These included an attack in front of the Punjab Provincial Assembly on Lahore’s famous Mall Road on 13 February that left 14 dead and 87 injured.


Lahore is the bastion of the Sharifs – Nawaz Sharif’s younger brother Shahbaz Sharif is the Punjab Chief Minister. Besides, in many ways, Lahore is the heart of the Pakistani establishment. For these reasons, an attack in Lahore is particularly infuriating.


The Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA), now an offshoot of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) which had earlier also declared allegiance to the Islamic State, claimed responsibility for the attack. Pakistan has alleged that the group operates out of Afghanistan. Consequently Pakistan conveyed its “grave concern” through diplomatic channels to Afghanistan on JuA’s activities and asked them to “urgently eliminate” the terrorists. Thus on this occasion, while General Bajwa did not name the “hostile power” – it is clearly Afghanistan.


The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the Shahbaz Qalandar shrine attack. In the wake of this terrorist attack, Pakistan has indefinitely closed the border. The move puts pressure on Afghanistan for reasons of trade and movement of people.


The Pakistan Army also summoned Afghan embassy officials and gave them a list of 76 persons, demanding that they be handed over to Islamabad. Normally armies do not directly make such approaches to a foreign embassy’s officials, but the Pakistan Army is no ordinary army.


General Bajwa also wants to show that he will purposefully and directly act to defend Pakistan’s interests.


Nawaz Sharif's Foreign Policy Advisor Sartaj Aziz spoke to Afghanistan’s National Security Advisor Hanif Atmar and demanded action against the JuA who he blamed for the terrorist attacks over the past few days. He also expressed Pakistan’s disappointment at Afghanistan for not taking action against the JuA.


Blame game

Pakistan’s actions clearly seek to shift the blame abroad instead of looking at the real causes of continuing terrorism in the country. The country has claimed great success in the Zarb-e-Arz operations that began in 2014 in North Waziristan against the TTP.


They also have said that they are making progress in the implementation of its comprehensive National Action Plan against terrorism.


The terrorist attacks in the past week, therefore, are of severe embarrassment.


The fact is, there is no desire in the Pakistani establishment to seriously examine why things have reached such a sorry pass. Why are many Pakistani Muslims calling others practising differently from the way do as apostates and therefore ‘wajib-e-qatal’ (deserving of death)?


Why has Pakistan become so far-removed from what many of its rulers claimed they wanted it to be – a moderate Islamic state? Why has Pakistan become a breeding ground and the epicentre of terrorism?


Going downhill

In the 1970s Pakistan had accepted Saudi Arabia virtually as a big brother. This allowed the sharper and harsher Islamic mazhabs of the Arab Peninsula to gain ground.


Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto also cravenly agreed in 1974 to declare the Ahmediyas as non-Muslim. Fanatical and jihadi forces were further strengthened when President Zia-ul-Haq made the country a frontline state in the US’ campaign against the Soviet presence in Afghanistan. He also pushed the country towards puritanical Islamisation.


This led to the growth of sectarian Sunni and Shia tanzeems which attacked each other with impunity supported by outside powers.


Finally, Pakistan’s decision to use extremist and terrorist groups as state instruments in Kashmir and in Afghanistan to achieve the country’s foreign and security policy is aimed at spreading the tentacles of violent jihadism deep into the country’s social fabric.


This has pushed the country into a downward spiral which continues till today.



To be moderate, or pretend to?

Recently Nawaz Sharif ordered the renovation of the Katasraj Mandir and named a university's physics centre after Pakistan’s only Nobel Laureate Professor Abdus Salaam whose achievements have been ignored because he was a Ahmediya.


Nawaz Sharif is, even if only tactically, trying to show a moderate path. However, the army is displaying no such tendency. Its use of the tanzeems in Afghanistan and India continues and the recent house arrest of Hafiz Saeed is only an eyewash.


The only violent groups that are targeted are those like the TTP that have turned against Pakistan.


It is supremely ironic that after interfering in Afghanistan’s affairs for decades through different proxies including since the mid-1990s, the Taliban, Pakistan today is accusing Kabul for allowing the TTP to launch attacks from Afghan sanctuaries.


The chickens have come home to roost but there is no sign of a fundamental shift in the Pakistan Army’s thinking. Even the loss of its children in the Peshawar Army School terrorist attack did not bring that about.


It is therefore too much to hope that the Sufi Saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, who is celebrated in qawwalis to the rhythms of Mast Qalandar, will infuse sane thinking in the generals.


Edited by Jhinuk Sen

First published: 18 February 2017, 5:58 IST