While the champions of Seraikistan and politicians of North Punjab jointly disavow any decline of South Punjab into a stronghold of religious terrorists, our National Assembly has echoed with warnings about the persistence in Jhang of the dominance of Sipah Sahaba Pakistan (SSP). In answer to an alarming report by an MNA, the interior minister, Mr Rehman Malik, told the house that the government had asked the provinces to “keep a watch over it”.
The PMLQ MNA Sheikh Waqqas Akram was in fact saying something else. He was worried about a conspiracy to allow some elements that had been subdued after a struggle of 15 years to stage a comeback in Jhang. Mr Rehman should have taken note of that and not dumped the entire thing on the provinces. Policy about what to do with militants is made at the centre, perhaps away from the scrutiny of the politicians.
Mr Akram was sketching in some detail the features of this comeback by the terrorist organisation. He said Jhang was once again the stamping ground of armed clerics who have armies of young men at their command. Like everyone serving Al Qaeda, there is no dearth of funds for these militants in Jhang, and the government is intimidated by their growing power. But who is allowing the SSP to stage a comeback?
Clearly, lack of action on the part of the government and its law-enforcement institutions is a major factor. The lower courts are scared of convicting SSP men and it is now the foreign press that is reporting news about the imminent release of the most dreaded killer of SSP, Akram Lahori, because “there is no evidence against him”. There is little real reporting from the districts where the terrorists exploit a weak writ of the state to intimidate local journalists.
As for “permission” from the “centre”, the SSP made its comeback in 2006 after years of being hunted as a sectarian killer. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) handout of April 10, 2006, the SSP held its rally in Islamabad presumably with the approval of the administration. The Friday rally preached jihad and sectarianism. The police stood aside and watched, despite the fact that the literature being distributed was against the law. The SSP speakers were heard “thanking” the Islamabad administration for letting them stage the rally.
MNA Akram was pointing to a very specific case. He said that all the 200 Sipah Sahaba activists arrested in Jhang — after a judge took a suo moto notice of an incident of violence — had been released “one by one”; and that he had learned during a visit to Gojra that members of the same group had attacked the Christians in Gojra, burning seven of them alive.
He said more, for the attention of the interior minister: Why was a leader of SSP allowed to address his arrested group activists in jail and to go around the country despite the fact that SSP was a banned organisation? His words were: “Don’t leave us at the mercy of these maulvis”. Mr Rehman kept saying it was a provincial subject, but down in Punjab the feudal politicians had decided not to crib openly about the armed maulvis, from the point of view of their own security.
Why are the South Punjabis sceptical about standing up to the old jihadis-turned-terrorists? The answer is quite near the surface if you talk to them. It is the centre and the agencies at the centre — who have handled these elements as “assets” of the state in the past — that send down signals that no one dare ignore. How can Mr Rehman Malik control these agencies? The last time he tried to bring one under his wings he nearly lost his job.
Talking of South Punjab, recent reports from Rahimyar Khan say a killer group from Dera Ghazi Khan has arrived in the district and is projecting its power on the basis of its links with the clergy of Lal Masjid of Islamabad. Worse, last week the lobby of retired army officers has issued another call in defence of Lal Masjid, asking the government to try General Musharraf for attacking it in 2007. Similarly, retired ISI officers are running human rights NGOs defending the very killers the people dread and are choosing as their masters because the state is shy to take on the killers. Significantly, the new spokesman of the Taliban Tehreek is Azam Tariq, named after the most feared SSP commander killed in 2003.