Pakistan’s polity is in a crisis. Its society is in turmoil. And the country is in a state of flux, waiting to survive the deluge and see another day. On top of all that comes the deepening Barelvi–Deobandi divide, which has existed ever since the former was sidelined by Pakistan’s ruling elite in the exercise of forging a nation and the latter, with its puritanical and codified rendering of Islam, was embraced.
Since its inception, the Barelvis had been ranged against the Deobandis in terms of their interpretation of Islam.
As history has recorded, the Barelvis, rising in the Bareilly town of Uttar Pradesh, in India, had supported the formation of Pakistan, heeding the call of the Muslim League led by the Shia leader1 Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Not surprisingly, they form the majority of the country’s population, ranging between 50 to 60 per cent. They are the most predominant in rural Punjab and Sindh.
But Barelvis followed the rise of the Deobandis. The sect was founded by Ahmed Raza Khan in 1880 to uphold the traditionalist practices of Islam in the Subcontinent. The Deoband school of Islam, on the other hand, was born in 1866 at Deoband, also in UP. Six Islamic scholars gave birth to the sect. But both sects follow the Hanafi School of Islamic jurisprudence as opposed to the Salafi code, prevalent in Saudi Arabia and many other West Asian countries.
“¦the divisions between the two sects have continued for more than a century, the current troubles are a watershed because they have burst upon the scene at a time when Pakistan is facing a deep crisis with Islamic radicalism”¦
Since its inception, the Barelvis had been ranged against the Deobandis in terms of their interpretation of Islam. The Barelvis distinguish themselves by deifying Prophet Muhhamad. They consider that he is omnipresent and is not just of flesh and blood but also a “light.” The Deobandis, while revering the Prophet, argue that he is the Perfect Human—but a human.
The Barelvis make the Prophet a semidivine figure with unique fore-knowledge about the world. The Deobandis reject this vision. The former follow many practices of Sufism; they use music in the form of their prayer. They seek the mediatory role of religious teachers. They believe in the ascending, linked and unbroken chain of Pirs (holy personages) leading up to God.
While the divisions between the two sects have continued for more than a century, the current troubles are a watershed because they have burst upon the scene at a time when Pakistan is facing a deep crisis with Islamic radicalism—owing allegiance to the Deobandi–Hanafi or Ahl-e-Hadith-Salafi schools—wrecking the country. The Barelvis, who constitute the majority in the Punjab and Sindh provinces of the country, had become subjects of sporadic attacks by Deobandi militants ever since the mid-1980s, when the mujaheedin war began in Soviet-controlled Afghanistan. In the current phase, the periodic violence culminated in a major attack on 1 July this year at Lahore’s famous Data Darbar sufi shrine—a highly revered place of worship for the Barelvis.
The countrys political leadership seems increasingly incapable of staving off polarisation within the majority Sunni community into two contending camps.
The reverberations of the suicide blast, which killed 35 people and left another 175 injured, could be heard even in early December, when the quasi-political Barelvi outfit Sunni Ittehad Council launched a march from Islamabad to end at Lahore, in front of the wreckage of Data Darbar. The move flustered the provincial government of the Punjab so much that it deployed the police and paramilitaries on the route, commanded them to stop the march and detained those who wished to take part in it. All this was done ostensibly to provide security to the marchers and save them from any egregious attack by the Deobandi militants.
This only pointed at the disquiet in Pakistan’s society, which went beyond the usual cycle of violence perpetrated by the Islamic radicals. Many believe that the well-laid matrix of Pakistan’s political class, based on increasing politicisation of Islam through state support of Deobandi extremism, while being safe in the knowledge that an ordinary citizen of Pakistan would remain unaffected because he is far removed from it all ensconced in the mysticism of Sufism, is coming unstuck.
While it was engaged in bloody battles in the countrys west and northwest against a well-armed and organised insurgency, the political situation was deteriorating as the economic condition of the country headed south.
The country’s political leadership seems increasingly incapable of staving off polarisation within the majority Sunni community into two contending camps. The military, the only institution of Pakistan still standing reasonably unscathed, is so complicit in fanning the Deobandi flames—both for using them in the context of the Indo-Pak dispute and as a policy hedge in Afghanistan—that it can hardly be a neutral referee in the emerging battle.
On the other hand, Pakistan’s army under its current chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, has taken to the stratagem of keeping the politicians as a buffer in the process of governance while it enjoys real power without public accountability. Thus, they now want the anti-insurgency operations in North Waziristan to be launched by the army to be consensually “owned” by the politicians before they move a finger.2
But often, the army loses patience with the political processes. As Wikileaks’ revelations of the cables of the U.S. embassy in Islamabad have shown, the distrust between the army chief, Kayani, and the president, Asaf Ali Zardari, runs deep. While Zardari thinks that he could even get killed, Kayani in a conversation with the then U.S. ambassador, Anne Patterson, talks openly of replacing the president.
But Kayani’s political savvy was expressed in the words of Patterson in the 12 March 2009 message to her headquarters in Washington. She noted that “The scenario Kayani hinted at was one in which he would pressure Zardari to resign (and presumably leave the country). This would not be an official Army ‘coup’; it would leave the P(akistan) P(eople’s) P(arty) government led by Prime Minister Gilani in place and preclude the need for elections that likely would bring Nawaz (Sharif) to power.”
In the middle of last year, the army was deeply troubled by the all-encompassing chaos within the country. While it was engaged in bloody battles in the country’s west and northwest against a well-armed and organised insurgency, the political situation was deteriorating as the economic condition of the country headed south.
Kayani told Patterson in the conversation referred to above that the corps commanders of his army had been telling him that the civilian government was not taking action in terms of the economy and security of the country. But at the same time, the army was busy striking deals with the local terrorist leaders to gain respite when stretched. Mullah Omar, the Afghan Taliban chief, wielded enormous influence on these terrorist groups as he exhorted them to reduce, if not eliminate, their attacks on the Pakistan army.
The army was then—in the mid-1990s—busy fighting terror gangs in the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies (FATA). The military resources were stretched to the extreme. And the troops strained. Those battles were ugly and dirty.
Even the U.S. embassy was cabling headquarters in September 2009 that there were enough credible reports of “extrajudicial killings” of detained terrorists in the custody of the Pakistan army and its paramilitary, Frontier Corps. As early as on 10 September 2009, Patterson was writing to Washington, “A growing body of evidence is lending credence to allegations of human rights abuses by Pakistan security forces during domestic operations against terrorists in Malakand Division and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. While it is oftentimes difficult to attribute with accuracy any responsibility for such abuses, reporting from a variety of sources suggests that Frontier Corps and regular Pakistan Army units involved in direct combat with terrorists may have been involved.
The crux of the problem appears to center on the treatment of terrorists detained in battlefield operations and have focused on the extra-judicial killing of some detainees. The detainees involved were in the custody of Frontier Corps or Pakistan Army units. The allegations of extra-judicial killings generally do not/not extend to what are locally referred to as “the disappeared” — high-value terrorist suspects and domestic insurgents who are being held incommunicado by Pakistani intelligence agencies including the Inter-Services Intelligence Division (ISI) and Military Intelligence (MI) in their facilities.”
The crux of the problem appears to center on the treatment of terrorists detained in battlefield operations and have focused on the extra-judicial killing of some detainees.
Over the 60 odd years that Pakistan had been in existence, the army had gained the people’s faith as the only state institution which had integrity and fairness and was judicious. This belief had survived despite the military reverses it received in 1965, 1971 and 1999 at the hands of India. The corporate body of the army was not overwhelmed even by the normally debilitating vivisection of the country because of the formation of Bangladesh. But, this weather-proof image took a huge battering because its troops had to contend with its local population with brutality. Of course, it had to be said that the army was primarily an army of the Punjab, where 50 per cent of the people of Pakistan lived in an area that was 25 per cent of the country’s total size. And the people this army was killing were from the periphery besides being ethnically dissimilar. The politicians never put any salve on the society either.
They fared even more poorly. Zardari went after the Sharif brothers—Nawaz and the Punjab chief minister, Shahbaz—soon after assuming power in 2008. On 25 February last year, the Supreme Court ruled that the two leaders of Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) would not be able to contest elections and thus not hold public office. Then, charge de affairs of the U.S. embassy, Gerald Feirestein, wrote home the same day, as put into the public domain by Wikileaks, that “It . . . demonstrates, disappointingly, that Zardari continues to play politics while his country disintegrates.”
What followed was a political crisis of a serious magnitude that led to the conversation referred to above between Kayani and Patterson on 12 March, when the former talked about replacing the president of the country. The Sharif brothers’ disbarment episode got connected to the larger battle of Pakistan’s lawyers to get the government to reinstate the previous chief justice of the court, Justice Ifthikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, whom the Americans consider “politically ambitious.” The latter had been ousted by the military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf that had itself led to his own downfall.
Whether it is the sectarian violence, or the Pakistan armys inability to surgically remove the spectre of Islamic militancy and terrorism without bludgeoning the people into submission, or even the political failure in reinstating peoples faith in the state institutions”¦
These kinds of zero-sum political positioning continue in Pakistan. In the process, the government loses its ability to govern. The people deny them the unwritten covenant for governance by which the former cede their power to a democratic, representative body so that the latter could act in the greater good under stated rules, recorded through a national consensus. Such is the grip of Pakistan’s elite on the institutions of the state and such is their rapacity that the people are losing faith in the ability of the political class to act in benevolence.
The condition of Pakistan’s economy is a case in point. The ability of the government to tax its people—a primary measure of the legitimacy of governance—has been eroded to such an extent that the tax-to-gross-domestic-product ratio has gone down to 9, a steep decline from a 12:1 in 2002. It is not as if Pakistan’s elite is unconscious of the steady erosion of the civil governmental authority. President Zardari sounds desperate in a cable sent by Ambassador Patterson on 23 February this year. The message was about a meeting Zardari had with U.S. senator John, a Democratic Party leader. According to the cable, Zardari expressed his gratitude for U.S. assistance to Pakistan. “He opined that he was ‘a casualty of the world recession’ and needed something to give his people, as all they had since he came to power were price increases. Zardari requested that the USG weigh in with the IMF against further electricity tariff increases. Another increase, he warned, would result in riots in the streets. However, Zardari promised to broaden the tax base and implement a Value-added Tax (VAT), as required by the IMF Stand-by Arrangement.”
The following sections will examine in greater detail each of the issues talked above. Whether it is the sectarian violence, or the Pakistan army’s inability to surgically remove the spectre of Islamic militancy and terrorism without bludgeoning the people into submission, or even the political failure in reinstating people’s faith in the state institutions, each contribute to the lack of peace and stability in the state of Pakistan. In the process, the country remains the global epicentre of turmoil.
The Barelvis are the more superstitious, but also more tolerant, amongst the entire subcontinental body of interpretations of Islam. The Deobandis consider the latter guilty of introducing “innovation” into the religion (Bid’at) and having deviated from the “true” path—the path of Sunnah. They call the Barelvis “grave worshippers” for aspects of the latter’s exotic religious practices. The austere nature of the Deobandi form of prayer militates against such ostentation even though the Barelvi practices make them more inclusive, when the two are compared.
“¦the Deobandis were represented in the polity by the breakaway Pakistan faction of the Jamaat-ul-Ulama-e-Hind, they also had the rump organisation Jamaat-ul-Ulama-Islami (JUI) since 1945, since before the partition of India.
The Barelvis had chosen early, along with the Shias, Ismailis and Ahmaddiyas, to side with the Muslim League for a separate Pakistan, dividing British India. The Deobandis, on the other hand, had a broader goal of turning Hindus to Islam. Hence, they wanted to stay in independent India.
But soon after the formation of the state of Pakistan, the elite understood that they could not Islamise the country with the help of the Barelvis. Considering that the Deobandis had widespread influence on the educated Muslims of the subcontinent, many of their followers also constituted the ruling elite of the new country. They dominated the bureaucracy, the judiciary and the army.
While the Deobandis were represented in the polity by the breakaway Pakistan faction of the Jamaat-ul-Ulama-e-Hind, they also had the rump organisation Jamaat-ul-Ulama-Islami (JUI) since 1945, since before the partition of India. But, the latter had fallen into bad times till a charismatic leader, Maulana Mufti Mahmud, arrived on the scene. The new leader even opposed the rise of the military general, Ayub Khan, to political power because he sought to bring modernist influences in Pakistan’s polity and society.
Maulana Mahmud won a parliamentary election in 1963 as an independent, under Khan’s Basic Democracy model, and registered JUI as a political party. In Parliament, for the first time, he argued in favour of higher allocation for the madrassas in east and west Pakistan as he said that it would enhance national interest by increasing understanding and lead to the codification Islamic law.
Maulana Mahmud argued in favour of higher allocation for the madrassas in east and west Pakistan as he said that it would enhance national interest by increasing understanding and lead to the codification Islamic law.
In the general elections held after the ouster of Ayub Khan in 1970, the JUI won its largest number of seats in the North West Frontier Province (now Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa) and the second-largest tally in Balochistan.
But they really did not come into their own till General Zia-ul-Haq gained power in Pakistan. The depth of the changes that the military dictator brought to the state of Pakistan can be understood from a change he introduced into the Pakistan army’s war cry. Earlier, the commandos of the army would launch themselves into operation shouting Nara e Haidary—ya Ali (Call the name of the lion—yes, Ali) to Allah hu Akbar (God is great).
The politics of the change can be understood from the fact that Ali is considered the biggest warrior of Islamic tradition. But he was also the eighth Imam of the Shia sect. So, he was discarded by Zia’s army—despite the martial background of the call—in favour of a direct invocation of god, making it the Muslim god’s own army. The subtlety of the move—yet its enormous significance—eliminating the Shia influence, was not lost on the Sunni Deobandis.
They really flourished soon after the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. As enormous amounts of money from the U.S. and Saudi Arabia poured in for organising the anti-Soviet insurgency, the Deobandi clerics provided the spiritual guidance.
International Crisis Group’s 2002 document, “Pakistan: Madrasas, Extremism and Military,” noted that in the early years of Zia’s rule, till 1982, only 151 new seminaries were established. “During the next six years, as the Afghan jihad gained momentum, 1,000 more opened. According to the last official update in 1995, 2,010 new madrasas had been registered since 1979, raising the total number registered to 3,906.”
“¦Zia and his ISI transformed what was essentially an economic grievance against the Shias into sectarian hatred of the Shias. This marked the beginning of sectarian terrorism in Pakistan.”
Though not all of them were Deobandi madrassas, most of them were. The New York Times wrote on 1 August 2009, “In the 1980s, the military dictator Zia ul-Haq gave land and money to Deobandis, a policy the United States supported because it needed both Mr Zia and fervent jihadists in the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan.”
The report noted that, “Mr Zia also crushed social ferment throughout Pakistan, and the debate on class and social justice that went with it, stifling political growth. To this day, Pakistan retains a colonial-style system of patronage. . . .”
The Shias were excluded from this patronage system. This was also the time of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution in Iran. Besides, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan provided a casus belli for the creation of Jihadist organisations. Saudi Arabian leaders who were known to be good in writing cheques and outsourcing jihad provided the money to Zia’s Pakistan. And the U.S. provided the hardware for the religious crusade.
Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) was born as a Deobandi Sunni mohajir (Muslim migrants from divided India) organisation to contain the Shia upsurge caused by the Iranian revolution. Indian observers who are keen watchers of developments across the western boundary of the country3 have recorded that under General Zia’s, plan the ISI created the SSP. One of these observers wrote, “Many of the landless labourers, who migrated to Pakistani Punjab, started working in the farms of Shia landlords in places such as Jhang, Multan etc. The exploitation of these Sunni migrants by the Shia landlords led to feelings of deep resentment against the latter. In his efforts to use these migrants to counter the (Shias), Zia and his ISI transformed what was essentially an economic grievance against the Shias into sectarian hatred of the Shias. This marked the beginning of sectarian terrorism in Pakistan.”
In a more lasting development, the cadres of the SSP were encouraged to go train in Pakistan as mujahideens and go to Afghanistan and take part in the jihad against the Soviets. The activities of the SSP continued in that country even after the Russians withdrew in 1989. In early 1990s, the organisation’s cadres fought alongside the Taliban against the Shia-dominated Northern Alliance of Afghanistan for control of the country, as the ISI encouraged them to do.
It had simultaneously been seeking to radicalise Pakistan society by attacking the Barelvi organisations.
In the process, the SSP became the mother lode of not just sectarian terrorism but regional terrorism in the context of Kashmir. While on the one hand, it spawned the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LJ) as another anti-Shia group, after a split, in terms of India, it gave birth to organisations like the Jaish-e-Mohammad.
It had simultaneously been seeking to radicalise Pakistan society by attacking the Barelvi organisations. The contest had a fiduciary link as the control of most of the mosques in rural Pakistan lay with the latter. These were major money spinners as the devotees donated money and other resources. The SSP and the LJ wanted the lion’s share of these resources and wanted control also for Islamic ideological propagation.
These groups had important links with the political elite. The SSP have contested elections in Pakistan and won seats. Recent reports indicate that a Punjab province minister of Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), Rana Sanaullah, is connected with the group. The PML-N even took SSP’s help to contest in polls.