The how and why of Shia killings in Pakistan

On Jan 10, over 100 people were killed and 200 injured in a spate of bombings in Quetta that were clearly targeted against the Shia Hazara community. Just 10 days earlier, a convoy of buses carrying Shia pilgrims was targeted at Mastung. On Jan 18, a Shia legislator belonging to the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), along with his armed security guards, was assassinated. Two members of the Sunni sectarian outfit, Ahl-e-Sunnat wal Jamaat, were also killed in Karachi the same day.

Hardly a day passes when there is no sectarian violence in Pakistan; the targeted killings of people belonging to rival sects in places like Quetta, Karachi, Parchinar and Gilgit-Baltistan have become the norm.

Sectarian violence in Pakistan is a logical offshoot of the exclusivist "Two Nation Theory", which required an object of hate. Having asserted that Muslims were a separate nation, it was essential to define who was a Muslim. A judicial commission consisting of Justice Munir and Justice Kayani of the Pakistan Supreme Court, constituted in 1954 to ascertain if Ahmediyas were Muslims, could not give a ruling as no two ulema could agree on the precise definition of a Muslim.

Islam had ceased to be a monolith immediately after the death of Prophet Mohammed. The schism originated on the issue of inheriting the Prophet's temporal and spiritual legacy. Shias believe that Hazrat Ali, the prophet's nephew and son-in-law, was the rightful heir and that the prophet, during his lifetime, had given adequate indications of this. As such, the Shias do not recognise the first three caliphs (religious rulers regarded as the successors of the Prophet) and consider them usurpers. As far as Shias are concerned, Ali ibn Abi Talib was the first imam, whereas the Sunnis consider him the fourth Rashidun (righteous) caliph, and Muawiyah the first caliph of the Umayyad dynasty.

By the end of the Battle of Siffin, where Ali's armies confronted Muawiyah's, new strands emanated within Islam, besides the existing two. In due course, the believers were divided into various sects and sub-sects.

The persecution of minority sects under various regimes has been a fact of history and led to the practice of 'taqiyya', wherein the people concealed their beliefs and came out only when the circumstances were conducive. The cleavages between the main sects were aggravated after the Iranian revolution as it contributed to a renewed confidence amongst Shias.

In Pakistan, after the separation of the eastern wing, when the numbers of non-Muslims became insignificant, the fanatic adherents of the exclusivist "Two Nation Theory" looked for new objects of hate and turned their ire towards their co-religionists, who differed from their own version of Islam. Consequently, the violence was used to settle scores not only between Shias and Sunnis but also between different strands of same sect.

Meanwhile, in 1974, the Pakistani state acquired the Right of Takfeer (to declare someone who calls himself Muslim as an unbeliever) and declared Ahmediyas as non-Muslims. Since then, there have been repeated demands for declaring adherents of various other sects and sub-sects as apostates.

Former president, General Zia-ul Haq, through his narrow interpretation of Islam and closer identification with Sunni beliefs, further exacerbated the sectarian differences. He made any disrespect to the companions of the prophet (Sahabahs) a cognisable offence (some Shias indulge in Tabarra, criticism of first three caliphs, who were Sahabahs). He ordered that 'zakat' (obligatory payment under Islamic law) would be deducted directly from bank accounts. The Shias refused to abide by it and protested en masse, forcing the general to exempt them from the deduction. This led to the consolidation of Shia identity as a person had to declare that he was Shia to ensure that zakat was not deducted.

Sunni sectarian outfits gained a lot of ground during General Zia's rule. Saudi and Iranian funding to respective sectarian outfits have allowed them to thrive through the subsequent decades.

It is essential to understand the dynamics of sectarian violence in Pakistan. Although estimated to be around a fifth of Pakistan's population, the Shias have had disproportionate share of power. Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Nazimuddin, Mohammad Ali Bogra, Iskander Mirza, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Gen. Yahya Khan and Benazir Bhutto were all Shias, and even today the president and the chairpersons of both houses of parliament are Shias. Generally, Shias are better educated and even richer. Many of them are successful lawyers and doctors.

Initially, the Sunni outfits thrived by pitting the poor Sunni tenants against the rich Shia landlords in Jhang district of Punjab. As it is not easy to identify Shias, generally the Sunni militants target prominent Shias, whose sectarian identity is known due to their eminence. Other targets are clerics, Imambarah and processions specific to Shia community like the Ashura and Chelhum processions. Also, the Shia pilgrims travelling to holy places in Iraq and Iran by buses have become their targets.

Of late, they have used suicide bombings quite effectively to target Shia congregations. Shia retaliation has by and large been restricted to targetting Sunni clerics preaching hatred against Shias and members of Sunni militant organisations.

There are, however, some exceptions to the general pattern. In areas where Shias are in a majority, like Parchinar in Kurram Agency and Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, they fight pitched battles with the Sunni outfits. Secondly, in Karachi, due to its large population, Shias are able to come out in strength and protest. It is also in Karachi that the largest numbers of Sunni militants have been killed in reprisal.

Finally, there are the 500,000 Hazaras in Quetta, who are Shias and migrated from Afghanistan more than a century ago. They are ethnically Mongoloid, which makes their identification as Shias quite easy and, consequently, Sunni sectarian militants on vehicles pick off Hazaras as easy targets. Of over 400 Shias killed in sectarian violence in Pakistan in 2012, the largest were Hazaras.

To further complicate matters, the Taliban have climbed on to the sectarian bandwagon to spread their influence outside the Pakhtoon belt. Most large-scale attacks on Shias, especially in Sindh and Punjab, bear clear Taliban signatures.

Worse, there are accusations that "the omnipotent security establishment" has been supporting Sunni militants in Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan, where many dreaded sectarian militants have been let loose. It appears as if "the establishment" perceives sectarian violence to be an effective antidote against nationalist movements in these restive regions.

Sunni militants have not confined their attacks to mainstream twelver (Ithna Ashari) Shias but have also targeted smaller sub-sects of Shia Islam like Ismailis (followers of the Aga Khan) and Dawoodi Bohras. It is ironical that in a state where the head of the state, Asif Ali Zardari, is Shia, not a day passes when some Shia is not targetted for professing his faith.

(29-01-2013- Alok Bansal is a Pakistan expert and Senior Fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at 

Alok Bansal

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