Pakistan’s Punjab region on knife-edge as extremists take hold, says governor
Politicians accused of backing banned groups as minorities suffer violence and intimidation
Saeed Shah Faisalabad
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 29 April 2010 19.31 BST
Pakistan’s heartland Punjab province is an extremist “bomb” ready to explode, the region’s highest official has warned, with the recent targeting of minority groups seen by some as evidence of jihadists’ grip on the area.
The provincial governor accused the regional government, led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s party, of tolerating or even supporting extremists, who are said to operate openly in Punjab free from the military operations waged against Taliban guerrillas in the area bordering Afghanistan.
“The Sharifs are creating a potential bomb here in Punjab,” said Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, who was appointed by the national government. “These [militant] groups are armed and dangerous. There is no way you can accommodate these people. There has to be zero tolerance.”
In recent weeks, a spate of armed robberies and kidnappings of the Ahmedi sect in the city of Faisalabad was traced to members of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the group previously known as Lashkar-e-Taiba that was blamed for the devastating 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai. Three Ahmedis were also shot dead, thought to be the work of the same group.
Sharif’s opponents accuse his party, the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-N – whose support comes partly from the religious right – of accommodating extremists such as Sipah-e-Sahaba, a banned sectarian group blamed for the deaths of hundreds of Shias.
In Jhang town, a byelection last month saw Sharif’s party openly court Sipah-e-Sahaba supporters. Punjab’s law minister, Rana Sanaullah, was pictured on the campaign trail with the alleged head of the group, Ahmed Ludhianvi.
Experts believe that the Pakistani Taliban is deeply influenced by Sipah-e-Sahaba, with the Taliban’s leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, a former member.
Sheikh Waqas Akram, an opposition member of parliament from Jhang, which is the headquarters of Sipah-e-Sahaba, likened the situation in Punjab to the Swat valley, where official inaction allowed the Taliban to take over in 2008. “There can be 10 Swats in Punjab, if you don’t check them [extremists],“ said Akram.
But Sanaullah denied the claims, saying that while banned groups operated in the province there was no “Talibanisation” in Punjab. “Not a single street where you can say there is a no-go area,” he said.
Sanaullah said that groups based in the north-west were behind the terrorist attacks in Punjab, not local organisations, adding that “95% of the people of Sipah-e-Sahaba are not terrorists”. He said: “We must persuade these persons to put aside their guns, to participate in elections. They have the right to vote, so why can’t I ask them [Sipah-e-Sahaba] for votes?“
Over the last year the affluent Ahmedi community in Faisalabad has been rocked by a campaign of violence and intimidation, which intensified in recent weeks. Ahmedi are classified as non-Muslims under Pakistani law, for believing that Muhammad was not the final prophet.
Police arrested four suspects last month. Three days later, on 1 April, three members of an Ahmedi family were shot dead as they returned from work. Their car was sprayed with bullets, in what police believe was a “very professional” hit and possible revenge for the arrests.
“The four people in jail are in Jamaat-ud-Dawa,” said senior Faisalabad police officer Abid Hussain. “They told us that they got a decree from a maulvi (priest) in their group that says that robbing, kidnapping and killing Ahmedis is allowed and would be rewarded in heaven.”
The city’s Ahmedi community have restricted their movements and some have hired bodyguards.
“We are now scared to leave the house, when the door bell rings, we are frightened about who might be there. Outside, we feel always like someone is following us,” said Mohammad Iqbal Ahmed, whose son and nephew were kidnapped in March and returned after the payment of a £20,000 ransom.