Sindh has long shown warning signs of becoming an ideological battleground
As I watched the television footage of bloodshed unfurl, I shuddered at the manifestation of one idea of God being attacked by another idea. The post-Sehwan commentary has ricocheted between blaming the Sindh government or someone else, to whether the killers were our own or from foreign lands. But what all of this missed, was that this attack was inevitable. In fact, it was not even the first but the ninth in a series that started from Bari Imam in 2005 and included Shah Noorani shrine in Khuzdar in 2016 and Data Darbar in 2010. As the followers of the Sheikh from Marwand or Lal Shahbaz Qalandar started their dhamal, incanting to the Sufi’s words, their pitch shut out how rapidly the world around them was changing.
This is not to suggest that the whirling of the dervish will stop. There are enough wretched of the earth—the poor, the downtrodden and the heartbroken—that people will always gather at Sehwan, but as this week demonstrated, the cost of seeking refuge at the shrine of a qalandar has been made astronomically high, especially since these people may be of little interest to the powerful, the PM, the pir, the militant and the mullah.
Violent extremism and radicalism in Sindh can be divided between Deobandi strongholds in upper Sindh, which adjoins South Punjab, and the increasing influence of the Ahle Hadith in lower Sindh
People are understandably angry, frustrated and eager to punish the culprits. Many have given the verdict that this was the work of external elements linked to India and Afghanistan. In a quick two-day poll I conducted on Twitter, out of over 2,000 respondents, 39% said they believed it was India and 12% said Afghanistan. They believe that the enemy’s back must be broken which is why the border with Afghanistan was closed and bordering areas bombarded. These reactions from the state may have satisfied some people, but it will not suffice for the 34% who accused Pakistan-based jihadi groups or the 15% who pointed a finger at the state. The perception is that even if the enemy is from without, the attacks will continue as long as violent extremists occupy spaces within.
Can the leadership not sense the creeping danger to Sindh? Even civil society in Sindh has ignored it. I remember talking about this threat as far back as 2008. In 2009, during a meeting with then president Asif Ali Zardari, I tried to draw his attention towards the inorganic growth of madrassas in Sindh. I was told not to worry perhaps because like many of my Sindhi friends, even he thought that the land of Sufis would pull it through. Others thought I was being alarmist and the rise of madrassas was just a sign of increasing conservatism. Every time I wrote about Sindh and growing radicalism I was even snubbed by friends who thought I didn’t know Sindh enough. I could only sigh, because this land of Sufis was not very different from my own South Punjab which was transformed right under my eyes and is now one of the major sources of ingress of radicalism into Sindh. Terrorism and radicalism are two problems that fall at the cusp of the changing politics of the state and societal transformation. It is certainly not an issue that will be resolved by arresting 144 people.
Violent extremism and radicalism in Sindh can be divided between Deobandi strongholds in upper Sindh, which adjoins South Punjab, and the increasing influence of the Ahle Hadith in lower Sindh. These influences always existed here. There are numerous large shrines in Sindh that are Deobandi. Similarly, the Ahle Hadith ideology began to grow after the 1950s. Not surprisingly, there was sectarian violence in the province during the late 1950s.
Nonetheless, a significant change took place during and after the first Afghan war in the 1980s. This is when many people from South Punjab were initially radicalized and sent to fight. Many returned and spread the influence. Then came the formation of the Taliban government in Afghanistan that pushed these influences further. During the floods in Sindh militant organizations set foot inside the province. The Ahle Hadith influence spread primarily in lower Sindh, especially in bordering areas and parts dominated by the Hindu population. The Jamaat ud Dawa built madrassas rapidly in areas with no Muslim population. It is during the mid-2000s that madrassas proliferated. These were not traditional seminaries connected with the land and people but strange concrete structures that brought in people from outside. Many were financed by the Middle East and Gulf. In addition to the small madrassas in the rural areas, these were resourceful centers. According to Sindh Counter-Terrorism Department data in 2010, there were over 1,200 of them.
The police was watching but couldn’t do much partly because of institutional or political pressures. This is despite the fact that NATO tankers were burnt in Shikarpur and their carcasses can still be found outside the city gates. There was little movement to control either violent extremism or the expansion of extremist networks. The conditions of the police in Sindh are pitiful; there wasn’t much they could do to interfere in the business of the then political partner of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party: the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam. This was part of the Deobandi network in upper Sindh under the patronage of which militant groups such as Sipah-e-Sahaba, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Jaish-e-Mohammad grew.
The structural growth went hand in hand with three other developments: an increase in poverty, the suspicion among Deobandi groups that Shia conversions were taking place in poverty-stricken areas in Jacobabad and the Sindh-Balochistan border, and the growth of a middle class. While the poor are attracted to madrassas that feed their children, both food and ideology, an even more interesting phenomenon is the middle class that had grown in numbers in bigger towns such as Hyderabad, Sukkur, Larkana, Jamshoro and Nawabshah, or smaller towns such as Thatta, Mirpurkhas, Umerkot, Badin, Mithi and Dadu. This expansion has been accompanied by inter-provincial and inter-regional migration. The expansion of communication networks, foreign remittances, the development of professional groups, agriculture profits, the proliferation of small- and medium-sized businesses, and development assistances have expanded the middle-income group. Contrary to what has been the traditional popularity of Sufi culture, new ideologies have been embraced by a large number of the middle-income class as it has attempted to negotiate its new social position. The access to religious texts and the ability to travel to the holy land has brought a sense of empowerment which has gradually eaten into the influence of the shrine and its culture.
I remember meeting several ordinary non-intellectual Sindhis whose views on society and religion came as a surprise—not that religion naturally brought empowerment to ordinary people, but it did create new options in a place that had been brutally run by a local and external elite. I was surprised when I heard even a senior member of the Sindh Progressive Movement support Mian Mithu.
Sindh, like South Punjab, now has a new religious formula growing side by side the traditional belief system structured around the shrine. The wave of modernity creeping into the region paints the shrine culture as part of a religious perversion. As a result, the mullah emerges as the winner. There is hardly anyone who can explain to the angry person, who believes that dance and music is sinful and against the Sharia, that the whirling of the dervish is an expression of love and a desire to merge with the Almighty—the basic principle of wahdat-ul-wajood (oneness of God).
In the coming days we will probably see greater security but fewer VIP visits to the shrine. However, the wretched of the earth will continue to dance at Sehwan because they have nothing to gain but ecstasy and nothing to lose but their lives.
The writer is research associate with SOAS South Asia Institute and can be contacted at drayeshasiddiqa.com. She is the author of Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy