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.