Punjab: Rampant radicalisation

Apart from attacks on Ahmadis and blasphemy related incidents, all religious minorities in Punjab remain under constant threat.

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Historical Badshahi Mosque in Lahore, Punjab, Pakistan [Photo: Wikimedia]

On February 1, 2024, a violent mob desecrated an Ahmadi grave at Sahwala village in the Sheikhupura District of Punjab. Filmmaker and activist Ali Raza on X (formerly Twitter) brought attention to the incident, stating,

There are reports of Maulvis in Sheikhupura excavating an Ahmadi grave and vandalizing the tombstone. These are the same impoverished individuals we assist through charity, who convey to the world that Allah is testing them. Now, we understand why!

A day later, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) noted that the impunity with which these incidents recur, that too with increasing brutality, was deplorable. HRCP demanded that the state intervene to hold perpetrators of anti-Ahmadi violence accountable, and that the fundamental rights of the Ahmadi community be protected, including their right to bury their loved ones in peace and with dignity.

Earlier on January 24, 2024, the Police, under pressure from religious extremists, destroyed the tombstones on 80 graves of the Ahmadi community in the Daska tehsil (revenue unit) of Sialkot District in Punjab. According to the Jamaat-e-Ahmadiyya Pakistan, the Police desecrated at least 80 graves in two separate graveyards of the Ahmadi community in Daska.

On January 11, 2024, the Police, along with Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) cadres, demolished an Ahmadi mosque in the Moti Bazaar area of Wazirabad town (Wazirabad District) in Punjab. The Police took the action on the complaint of a TLP leader, who filed a blasphemy complaint on the grounds that the Ahmadis had constructed a structure that looked like a mosque. TLP is a far-right Islamic extremist political party committed to the protection and enforcement of Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws, and to punish blasphemers.

On December 22, 2023, the minarets of an Ahmadiyya ‘place of worship’ were demolished by the Police in the Samanduri area of Faisalabad District in Punjab. 

On October 14, 2023, Amir Mahmood, an official of the Punjab chapter of Jamaat-e-Ahmadiyya Pakistan, disclosed that “at least 40 incidents of desecration of our worship places have taken place this year between January and October in various parts of Pakistan. Of them, 11 occurred in Sindh and the remaining in Punjab province”.

The Ahmadiyya sect, founded by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad in 1889 in Qadian town near Amritsar in Punjab (India), is regarded as heretical by the majority Sunni sect, and was declared ‘non-Muslim’ in 1974, according to the Constitution of Pakistan. In 1974, Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto enacted an amendment to the constitution, declaring Ahmadiyyas non-Muslims, and barring them from going to mosques. The military dictator Zia-ul-Haq’s 1984-ordinance introduced further and explicitly discriminatory references to the Ahmadiyyas in Sections 298-B and 298-C of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), which criminalized the identification of Ahmadiyyas as Muslims, prohibited the use of any titles or descriptive that linked their religious leaders to Islam or to the Prophet, or engaged in prayers or calls to prayer (Azan) in the Islamic form. In 2002, a supplementary list of voters was created in which Ahmadiyyas were categorised as non-Muslims, and were brought under a separate electoral list. Ahmadiyyas have faced sustained persecution throughout Pakistan.

Meanwhile, the registration and prosecution of blasphemy cases remain unabated, particularly in Punjab, as radicalisation grows rampant. Significantly, most blasphemy cases are ‘resolved’, not in court, but with a bullet or a lynching. In addition to three incidents of blasphemy reported in 2022, resulting in three deaths; 2023 recorded two blasphemy related incidents resulting in two deaths. The incidents in 2023 included:

November 2: A youth allegedly involved in a blasphemy case was shot dead in Makdoompur Pahuran town of Khanewal District in Punjab. Police said Umair Ali was arrested after he uttered some offensive words and showed disrespect to certain religious figures. When he was released on bail, he left the town. Ali returned home a few days before the incident and was sitting outside his house in Makdoompur Pahuran, when a local tailor, Muhammad Tahir, shot him dead.

February 11: A TLP mob of over 100 lynched a blasphemy accused after attacking the Warburton Police Station where he had been detained in the Nankana Sahib District of Punjab. The mob later set body of the suspect on fire. Residents of the area claimed that the man – who had returned after spending two years in jail – used to practice witchcraft by pasting his ex-wife’s picture on holy papers. Overwhelmed by the large crowd, the Station House Officer (SHO) of Warburton Police Station, Feroze Bhatti, and other Police personnel fled the scene to save their own lives.

According to human rights observer, the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ)’s report of March 2023, as many as 171 people had been accused under the blasphemy laws in 2022 alone, of which 65 per cent of cases surfaced in Punjab and 19 per cent in Sindh. The highest incidence was observed in the Districts of Chiniot, Faisalabad, Gujranwala, Dera Ghazi Khan, Nankana Sahib, Lahore and Sheikhupura.

Apart from attacks on Ahmadis and blasphemy related incidents, all religious minorities in Punjab remain under constant threat. On August 16, 2023, at least 26 churches in the Jaranwala area of Faisalabad District in Punjab were burnt down, and homes belonging to Christian families were looted and destroyed by Muslim rioters.

On October 11, 2023, former provincial minister for minority affairs, Ejaz Alam Augustine, narrowly escaped unhurt when motorcycle-borne armed assailants opened fire on his car in the Kasur District of Punjab. Augustine, a Catholic, has served as a lawmaker in the Punjab Provincial Assembly since 2018 and is a former Minister for Human Rights, Minority Affairs and Interfaith Harmony. On September 11, 2023, Augustine joined a delegation of bishops and parliamentarians to meet Pakistan’s caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar, to express concerns over the safety of religious minorities.

While Islamic radicalisation continues to stalk the province, Islamist terrorism, which had fallen to a 15-year low in 2022, once again surged in 2023. According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), Punjab recorded 49 fatalities [seven civilians, four Security Force (SF) personnel and 38 terrorists) in 16 terrorism-related incidents of killing in 2023, as compared to 11 fatalities (10 civilians and one terrorist) in seven incidents in 2022. Overall fatalities thus registered an over four-fold increase. The highest terrorism-related fatalities in the province were reported in 2013, at 1,656.

While the terrorism-related fatalities in 2023 remains high, as compared to the previous year, terrorism-linked incidents in 2023 remained the same as in 2022, at 83. The number of major incidents of killing (each involving three or more fatalities) also remained the same, at two, but the resultant fatalities increased from six in 2022 to 12 in 2023. The most prominent major attack in 2023 was reported on November 3, when terrorists attacked the Mianwali Training Air Base of the Pakistan Air Force at Mianwali, Punjab. During the attack, three already grounded aircraft and a fuel bowser were damaged. The Tehreek-i-Jihad Pakistan (TJP), a newly-emerged terrorist group affiliated to the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), claimed responsibility for the attack. Nine terrorists were killed, as the SFs neutralised the attack. 

Meanwhile, several reports suggest that the TTP is trying to further strengthen its base in Punjab.

According to a January 29, 2024, report, the TTP has launched a new wing, amed Ustarana (or Ustrani), comprising highly-trained, well-equipped and ferocious cadres, to specifically target Punjab Police personnel and make inroads into the province’s territory. At least three Dera Ghazi Khan (DG Khan) check posts — Lakhani, Jhangi and Triman — situated in the tribal areas along the provincial borders, have become especially vulnerable, because of the emerging threat of the new TTP wing. A senior official told Dawn that the TTP, after launching Ustarana, has increased its influence and fear among the local tribal people. He added that, initially, the group comprised only 10 to 12 terrorists; however, some recent intelligence reports suggest that its strength has now increased to around 50. The official added that the cadres of the Ustarana wing used local hostages as human shields to enter the DG Khan territory in an attack carried out on the Jhangi border post of the Vohawa Police Station in Taunsa Sharif District. It was also reported that these terrorists were provided food supplies by some local tribal people. In the night of January 22, 2024, unidentified terrorists attacked the Jhangi check-post under Vehova Police Station in Taunsa Sharif District of Punjab. The Station House Officer (SHO) of Vehova Police Station said 10-15 terrorists affiliated with the Ustarana group attacked the check-post on the border of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Policemen retaliated with full force, after which the attackers managed to escape. 

According to a June 15, 2023, report, TTP announced the establishment of two new ‘administrative units’ – North Punjab, headed by Syed Hilal Ghazi; and South Punjab, headed by Muhammad Umar Muawiya.

Earlier inputs indicated that TTP had begun to collaborate with local criminal groups. On April 21, 2023, Usman Anwar, Inspector General (IG), Punjab Police, revealed that TTP was collaborating with miscreants and organized crime gangs in the area, to disrupt peace. CTD had confirmed phone calls between TTP and Katchi gang criminals in the area.

While Pakistan had suppressed terrorism with a substantial measure of success over the past decade, widespread radicalization, the state’s polices employing terrorist proxies, and the developments across the border in Afghanistan, have created spaces for the revival of terrorism. As Pakistan comes under increasing economic, social and political stress, centrifugal forces are likely to gain in strength, and another cycle of escalating terrorism is likely. Only in the very unlikely event that the country’s political and military leaderships abandon the instrumentalization of Islamist extremism and their disruptive policies in the wider neighbourhood, is the eventual and decisive containment of this threat possible.

Tushar Ranjan Mohanty

Tushar Ranjan Mohanty is a Counter-terrorism Expert on Pakistan at Institute for Conflict Management (ICM) in New Delhi

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