Punjab: Extremist Haven
On January 20, 2022, three persons were killed and over 33 were injured in a bomb explosion near Pan Mandi in the New Anarkali Bazar area of Lahore, the provincial capital of Punjab. The Baloch Nationalist Army (BNA)’s spokesperson Mureed Baloch claimed that the target of the blast were the Habib Bank employees. The BNA was formed earlier this month when two separatist groups — Balochistan Republican Army and United Baloch Army — merged.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), this is the lone terrorism-linked incident of killing reported in Punjab in the current year, so far (data till January 21, 2022).
In 2021, Punjab recorded a total of 20 terrorism-linked fatalities, including nine civilians, five Security Force (SF) personnel and six terrorists, as against 16 fatalities, including three civilians and 13 terrorists in 2020. The three-fold increase in the civilian category suggests an overall deterioration in the security situation through 2021. The numbers suggest some strengthening of the terrorist position on the ground.
Other parameters of violence confirm this assessment. There were 31 terrorism-linked incidents in 2021 as against 24 in 2020. This is the highest number of such incidents since 2017, when there were 99 incidents. In particular, incidents of killing increased from eight in 2020 to 10 in 2021. The number of major incidents of killing (each involving three or more fatalities) increased from two to five, and the resultant fatalities from nine to 15.
Meanwhile, there are no signs of genuine efforts to tighten the grip against terrorist groups such as the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), the front organisation of Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), and the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) – the ‘foreign oriented’ terrorist groupings that have strong bases in the Province. The leadership elements of these outfits continue to enjoy state hospitality and protection, despite many being convicted in multiple terrorism-related cases – convictions primarily forced by international and particularly Financial Action Task Force (FATF) pressure. JuD chief Hafiz Muhammad Saeed was officially arrested in July 2019, and should have been serving his sentence in jail, but continues to live at his Johar Town house in Lahore, from where he freely runs his terrorist networks.
On June 23, 2021, three people were killed and 21 injured in a bomb explosion near Saeed’s residence. Police personnel who were guarding Saeed's house at the time of the attack also sustained injuries. The windows and walls of Saeed's house were damaged by the impact of the explosion.
JeM chief Masood Azhar, who is facing several cases of terrorist funding, lives in a "safe place" in his native town – Bahawalpur, proof enough to further establish that the arrests and sentences are superficial and only intended to bring Pakistan out of the Financial Action Task Force’s ‘grey list’. Most recently, on October 21, 2021, FATF announced that Pakistan would remain on its ‘grey list’. Pakistan has been on the ‘grey list’ for deficiencies in its counter-terror financing and anti-money laundering regimes since June 2018.
Moreover, the religious radical/fundamentalist Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) continued with its series of violent mass protests in the province through 2021, disrupting day-to-day peace. At least 61 persons (52 civilians and nine policemen) were killed in TLP-linked violence in 2021. In the most violent incident, on October 27, 2021, at least four Policemen were killed and at least 253 were injured, as thousands of followers of the then proscribed TLP clashed with law-enforcement personnel near Sadhoke in the Gujranwala District. Police said the clashes were triggered after they tried to block the TLP activists' march towards Islamabad. The TLP, on the other hand, claimed that several of their activists had also been killed or wounded. The TLP’s continuous pressure forced Islamabad to reverse its April 15, 2021, order to ban the group. On November 5, 2021, Prime Minister Imran Khan approved the proposal to revoke TLP proscription. On November 7, 2021, the Federal Interior Ministry issued the notification regarding revocation of the ban. Further, on November 10, the Punjab Government removed TLP chief Hafiz Saad Hussain Rizvi's name from the Fourth Schedule — a list of proscribed individuals who are suspected of terrorism or sectarianism violence under the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), 1997. Finally, the Government completely surrendered to TLP violence and intimidation, releasing the group’s chief Rizvi from the Kot Lakhpat jail in Lahore on November 18.
Hafiz Saad Hussain Rizvi, the son of TLP’s late founder Khadim Rizvi, had been under the Punjab Government’s detention since April 12, 2021, under the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), 1997, under provisions for the “maintenance of public order." He was detained for issuing a video message on April 11, 2021, mobilising TLP workers to prepare for a protest march against the Government and inciting his followers to violence.
Within a fortnight of Rizvi’s release, on December 3, 2021, a violent mob, led by TLP supporters tortured a Sri Lankan national, Priyantha Kumara, to death over blasphemy allegations, before burning his body at Wazirabad Road in Sialkot city.
Radicalisation in Pakistan is not a new phenomenon and Punjab has long led from the front. According to the Lahore-based Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), a minority rights organisation, between 1987 and December 2020, at least 1,855 people had been charged with offences related to blasphemy, with Punjab accounting for 76 per cent of all such cases in the country. As of December 2020, Punjab’s prisons were holding 337 prisoners for blasphemy, both those convicted and those awaiting trial. The largest number of inmates were in the Lahore District Jail (60). Most of the blasphemy cases are false and used by majoritarian Muslims to target minorities, often over personal and property disputes.
Religious minorities in Punjab have been under constant threat of harassment, abduction for rape and forced conversion. According to partial data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management (ICM), Punjab recorded 35 incidents of attacks on religious minorities, resulting in 15 deaths in 2021. During 2020, 37 such incidents were recorded, resulting in six deaths.
Meanwhile, there are media reports of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) forming an alliance with TLP under a secret deal, for the General Elections 2023. Indeed, on November 20, 2021, PTI Senator Ejaz Chaudhry met TLP chief Maulana Saad Rizvi, with a TLP spokesperson saying that "doors never close in politics."
While terrorism remains a challenge in Punjab – one that the state is reluctant to address, since it serves purported ‘strategic goals’ – the surge in religious extremism is a matter of serious domestic concern. With the Government and state machinery supporting such elements in their efforts to find a way into mainstream politics, Punjab is likely to remain volatile in the days to come.