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Pakistan and the Nature of Sunni-Shia Relations for India
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Prateek Kapil | Date:04 Feb , 2017 0 Comments
Prateek Kapil
is an Associate Fellow at CLAWS.

Sunni-Shia relations are as old as the history of Islam but they are very peculiar in nature. The sectarian relations often thrive in the presence of external enemies, undergo violent interaction in the absence of one and are subservient to forces of nationalism. The nationalist legitimacy to a sect is an important factor in Shia-Sunni relations of a particular country. Hence we see the nature of the country’s nationalism influencing the nature of sectarianism. Iran and Saudi Arabia are the hubs of sectarianism in West Asia respectively but the difference in economic capability has seen Saudi Arabia dominate the region with its unconditional funding to Sunni regimes, groups, right down to the level of madrassas. For a country so dependent on oil, Saudi Arabia has been the primary strategic actor in the region keeping the market competitive and not letting the peace dividend reduce the price of the precious commodity. Saudi Arabia has used a particular brand of Islam to disrupt this otherwise united Islamic religious community. Iran has countered this process. Shias don’t have the population comparable to Sunnis, so Iran has staked a claim to leadership of the Muslim community by placing itself against any external intervention in West Asia. Therefore, we are at a stage where interaction between the two regional powers determines the politics of the region including the non-state actors. This transformation[i] of the Sunni-Shiite struggle dates to the 1979 Iranian revolution and its aftermath, when conservative regimes in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, faced with Tehran’s claim to lead Muslims world-wide, responded by challenging the Islamic credentials of Shiite ayatollahs. In Pakistan, home to the world’s second-largest Sunni and Shiite communities, military dictator Zia ul-Haq directly encouraged in the 1980s[ii] the creation of deadly Sunni sectarian groups that now regularly massacre ordinary Shiites throughout the country. In the last of such attacks, gunmen opened fire on a bus in the city of Karachi[iii], killing more than 40 members of the Ismaili branch of Shiite Islam.   Pakistan has come to be the laboratory for testing Islamic, nationalist and sectarian and nascent reformist ideologies.

There were reports[iv] that the Uri attack on an Indian army base was carried out by the Sunni group Sipah-e-SahabaPakistan (SSP) working under the command of the India centric- JeM. The SSP was an offshoot of the Sunni group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi- a group which has continued to defy the Pakistan Army’s NAP with terrorist attacks[v] on Pakistani targets including minorities. The SSP was formed as a reaction to counter Shia-groups inside Pakistan. It had publicly expressed support for Saudi Arabia in the Yemen conflict and warned Iranian leaders. Iran on the other hand, was accused by the Afghan government for supplying rockets[vi] to Taliban to counter Islamic State. Iran has dismissed these reports as baseless and insists it has ‘brotherly relations’ with Kabul.The Afghan government was accused of supporting Saudi Arabia against the Houthi rebels. This was not well received in Tehran. America on its part has been cautious in approachduring the Obama administration following the chaotic post-conflict situation in Iraq and Libya. China and Russia[vii]are making inroads for influence through contacts with Taliban in Afghanistan.

The fight against ISIS is the only consensus in the region but Iran and Russia are not willing to put pressure on governments and other non-state actors as shown with stark clarity in Syria. Inevitably, an increased pressure on non-state actors is expected with President Trump’s declaration of ‘Wiping Islamic radical terrorism from the face of the earth’ at the inauguration. Both the rationale and the how of that declaration remains profoundly unanswered in terms of Trump’s approach to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. On the contrary, his campaign was entirely focused on rolling back the Iran deal and with that, the improved political relations between the two countries.

The sweeping blanket ban on immigrants from some countries of the region is another setback to improved political relations between America and the region. The executive order on refugees punishes entire populations without any reasonable criteria. President Obama’s strategy was premised on improving relations with Iran, Afghanistan and India and keeping Pakistan, Syria and Saudi Arabia in check without starting a new ‘American war’ in the region.

However, Pakistan’s motivation level to keep the pressure on India and Afghanistan is historic and is freshly boosted by China’s sustained support. Pakistan has become a salad bowl of ethnic and sectarian rivalries. The propensity for alliance making amongst these various non-state actors inside Pakistan is extremely high. Hence SSP, which had hitherto focused on targets inside Pakistan, provided terrorists under the command of JeM to attack an Indian Army base in Kashmir.

Although the Sunni-Shia rivalry is intense, the base of Islamic unity is still very strong under threat from external intervention which means that external enemies will keep providing the rationale for Islamic unity. For Pakistan, India is that external enemy. India therefore has to engage with nation states instead of non-state actors in this region so that it does not present any further opportunity for non-state actors to portray India in the same light as America has been so far. The Russian and Chinese strategy to engage non-state actors like Taliban is not suitable for India. India has strived for cordial relations with Saudi-Arabia, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan on a state to state basis with continuity. It is the only country to stick to the ‘Afghan led Afghan centric reconciliation’ inside Afghanistan, consistently. It has maintained good relations with Iran in the face of US sanctions in the pre-JCPOA period. India has had a good bilateral working relationship with Saudi-Arabia albeit without common interests. India’s own Muslim community is the bulwark against Islamic extremism taking root in India. Historically, Indian Muslims have stayed clear of sectarian rivalries of West Asia which explains the failure of Al-Qaeda and ISIS to penetrate the Indian social fabric. Pakistan however, has utilized the sectarian rivalry with ex-Army Chief Raheel Sharif[viii], now heading the Saudi anti-terror force. How this will be received in Shia dominant countries and groups is open to question but it does not make much difference to India. It merely demonstrates that Pakistan’s deep state remains the center of attention for global war on terrorism.

Pakistan’s civilian government riddled with corruption charges as demonstrated by the release of the Pakistan People’s Party Punjab white paper[ix] is preparing for the coming year with more hope than isolation. Change of administration in America, Chinese and Russian outreach to Afghan Taliban, improvement of Pak-Russian relations and Iranian willingness to accommodate Taliban against ISIS coupled with long term projects of CPEC are boding well for the future. This explains the statement by the Pakistani Prime minister[x]that Kashmir is an ‘integral’ part of Pakistan. India needs to intensify diplomacy with Saudi Arabia and Iran to safeguard its interests against use of terrorism by Pakistan and more importantly, to neutralize the sectarian angle that is given by Pakistan to declare equivalence since Pakistan is also a ‘victim of terrorism’. The terrorism is self-inflicted and the terror groups directed against India are not sectarian but Pakistani and primarily anti-Indian.



[ii] Ibid.










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