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October 21-27, 2011

BY Zia Ur Rehman

http://www.thefridaytimes.com/beta2/tft/article.php?issue=20111021&page=4

Banned militant groups and new madrassas linked to them are changing the traditionally tolerant and progressive landscape of Sindh

On October 13, unidentified men fired at an Afghanistan-bound convoy of NATO fuel supply trucks in the Shikarpur district of Southern Sindh and burned six of them. Before that, on October 1, a group of 30 armed men attacked NATO trucks at the National Highway near Khairpur district, wounding four people and destroying 10 vehicles. NATO supply trucks had been attacked in Peshawar, Khyber Agency, Islamabad and Balochistan for years, but recently such attacks are also being carried out in Sindh.

Burned oil trucks smoulder in Shikarpur

Some believe that the motive of such attacks might be insurance claims and not terrorism, but a leader of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed that the men who attacked the NATO supply vehicles in Sindh were in fact militants and belonged to the TTP-linked mobile ‘Siyara Group’.

Sindh’s civil society and nationalist parties fear that militancy and religious intolerance are gaining grounds in the province. New madrassas (seminaries) and increased activities of banned jihadi organisations are affecting the traditional Sufi and progressive landscape of the province.

“The mushroom growth of madrassas, most of them funded and backed by banned militant outfits, is posing a threat to Sindh’s non-violent traditions,” says Salam Dharejo, a political analyst who writes in monthly Newsline. “Due to deep-rooted influence of Sufism and progressive nationalism, militancy has never flourished in Sindh,” he said, “but the proliferation of militants is posing a threat to what has been a liberal society for many years.”

Banned militant organisations are strengthening their bases in Sindh especially in districts like Umerkot and Mithi, where non-Muslims are in majority. And that is changing the secular socio-cultural landscape of the province, said Muhammad Amir Rana, director of Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies (PIPS), an Islamabad-based think tank.

While violence in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and FATA continues to get media coverage, underdeveloped regions of Sindh are quietly becoming the recruiting grounds for militancy, analysts believe. Although there is no concrete evidence of involvement of any Sindhi in a suicide bombing, many people belonging to Interior Sindh, especially Shikarpur, had taken part in the jihad in Afghanistan and Kashmir and many of them were killed during the war, Dharejo said.

A boy waits for breakfast in a Sindh madrassa

“Yes, the threat of religious militancy is evident and the Sindhi society has resisted it because of its political culture,” said Bakhshal Talahoo, a political activist associated with Labour Party Pakistan, “but at the same time, the Afghan war and the Islamisation of the society by dictator Ziaul Haq has also affected the secular colour of Sindh and its politics.” He believes that if Sindhi politics will lose their democratic structure, the society will be more receptive to religious extremism.

Charity organisations linked to banned jihadi outfits have been active in relief work after the recent floods in Sindh, exploiting the natural disaster to strengthen their organisation, Rana said. Some of these banned charity organisations had simply changed their names.

The civil society and nationalist parties also have serious concerns over the increasing construction of new seminaries. Only in district Khairpur, hometown of Sindh Chief Minister Qasim Ali Shah, 93 seminaries out of the total 117 are not registered with the government, said a local journalist. In Umerkot district, there are more than 400 madrassas.

The growing activities of banned organisations have and the madrassas linked to them have played a key role in hurting the religious harmony prevalent in the region, Sindh’s civil society activists say. The forced conversion of Hindus to Islam had never been a widely acceptable practice in Sindh, but in the recent years, hundreds of Hindu girls have been forcibly converted or encouraged to marry Muslims, Dharejo said, adding that such practices, which have threatened the secular fabric of the society, have never been publicly condemned by a local or civil society organisation. Religious groups and institutions have actively extended moral and financial support to such practices.

A Hindu member of Sindh Assembly, Ram Singh Sodho, resigned from his seat and took refuge in India after he received threats from militant groups. Media reports suggest that incidents of kidnapping of Hindus for ransom have risen alarmingly during the last few years, forcing many families to abandon their homes and shift to India and other countries.

Sufism had made a great impact on Sindhi society and Sufi shrines dot its landscape. Most recently, the shrine of Hazrat Noor Shah Bukhari situated in Mirpurkhas was attacked and set ablaze by unidentified attackers on late 14 July night, damaging some parts of the building .

“Taliban militants consider Sufism as a big threat to their radical brand of Islam. A majority of Sindhi people are adherents of Sufism, and have always condemned the Taliban’s un-Islamic acts,” said Dilshad Bhutto, head of Pakistan Secular Forum. “Islam spread in the Sindh region through the preaching of great Sufis, not through Arab fighters.”

But some analysts disagree. “There is no presence of Taliban elements in Sindh. It is the forces that want to malign the Sindhi people who are involved in the attacks on NATO supply vehicles,” said a leader of the Jeay Sindh Mahaz. “We have nothing to do with NATO, but we support their actions to eliminate militancy and terrorism.”

The writer is a journalist and a researcher who works on militancy and human rights. He can be contacted at zia_red@hotmail.com

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