Located in the Sindh town of Sehwan, Lal Shahbaz Qalandar is among Pakistan’s best-regarded Sufi shrines. It is associated in popular culture with the haunting voice of Reshma, the late artiste whose family migrated at Partition from the deserts of Rajasthan to Sindh and who shot to fame as both a devotee of Shahbaz Qalandar and the singer who gave us Dama dam Mast Qalandar… Ironically many Indians first heard that devotional song not in the voice of Reshma but of Runa Laila, a Bangladeshi icon, establishing how culture, music and faith link the subcontinent in more ways than we can imagine. All this makes the terrorist bombing of the Shahbaz Qalandar shrine on February 16, 2017 that much more poignant. It is an act of infamy for which the Islamic State (IS), or Daesh as it is known, has claimed responsibility. It has been suggested, correctly, that Daesh’s puritan version of an Islam practised in the medieval desolation of Arabia cannot fathom or sanction divergent and regional practices of Islam, specially in South Asia. As such, targeting a Sufi shrine that is, frankly, beyond just Islamic in its appeal is entirely in keeping with the IS worldview.
Yet, while not discounting IS, it needs to be kept in mind that attacks on Sufi shrines, on Shias, on Ahmediyyas and on forms and modes of subcontinental Islam that are considered “deviant” and “blasphemous” by Wahhabi and similar interpretations of the faith are not new in Pakistan. They have been sanctioned and supported by the ideologues of Pakistan, by a state-back religious police, and even by sections of the military. If these traditions persist, and if a Lal Shahbaz Qalandar continues to draw thousands of pilgrims, it is because common people in Pakistan have soldiered on and still not rejected these aspects of their heritage. It is worth recalling that the outrage felt earlier this week was similar to the response to the suicide bombing of the Data Darbar shrine in Lahore in 2010. That shrine too is a landmark in the city and was seen to be above controversy and safe from terror threats. Sufi shrines, Shia mosques, dargahs, and so on have been systematically attacked in the past decade, in Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan.
In fact, one fears for the Hinglaj Mata temple in Las Bela, Balochistan. This is the westernmost of the Shaktipeeths so sacred to Hindus. It is a location that attracts local Muslims too. They associate it with not Shiv and Sati but with a divine calling going back to before the advent of Islam but accepted and incorporated even after the embracing of and conversion to Islam. This is a complex reality that unsophisticated, black-and-white zealots can never comprehend. Who threatens any Pakistani Muslim who does not conform to a narrow Wahhabi or Deobandi idea of Sunni Islam? One need not even discuss here the predicament of Pakistan’s Hindus, Christians or its once-sizeable Jewish community; their story is in another category altogether. Spin doctors in Islamabad argue the challenge comes from the IS. In 2010, when Data Darbar was bombed, there was no IS. The villain then was the Tehreek-e-Taliban or Pakistan Taliban. In recent years, as the IS has strived to gain a foothold in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, it has taken in former Tehreek-e-Taliban cadre. Many militants have changed labels in expectation of better pay and logistics.
Recruitment to the Pakistan Taliban and the fledgling IS, is carried out in the same Pakistani Punjab rural heartland where the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, the anti-Shia Sipah-e-Sahaba, its affiliate the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and the Jaish-e-Mohammed seek to swell their numbers. Of course, each of these groups has different tactical motivations. One may focus on attacking Indian soldiers and civilians in Jammu and Kashmir and elsewhere, another may prioritise a genocide of Pakistani Shias. Nevertheless a Sunni supremacism and a distaste for so-called unauthorised rituals in Islam is common to them. Ultimately, the syncretic appeal of a Data Sahib or a Lal Shahbaz Qalandar is antithetical to this jihadist spectrum. As such, rather than inspired by IS actions in Iraq and Syria, the bombing of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar follows a history of state-backed Sunni extremists and state-condoned Sunni militia systemically annihilating supposed “heretics” within Pakistan’s own Muslim community. The IS has exploited this environment; it has not created it. That toxic atmosphere pre-existed IS and can be traced back to at least the Zia-ul-Haq decade, from which Pakistan has not recovered and perhaps may never recover.
The distinction between these groups is not so much in terms of theological construct, it is political. Lashkar and similar militia are loyal to the Pakistani state and usually listen to the generals. Tehreek-e-Taliban and IS fantasise about taking over Islamabad, overthrowing the Pakistani state and building a pan-national Caliphate. The Afghan Taliban sees the Pakistani state as an ally in its effort to recapture Kabul. Not surprisingly, Islamabad-Rawalpindi have presented IS as beyond the pale and the principal problem, but the Afghan Taliban as part of the solution. As a former Pakistani foreign secretary said at a closed-door conference a few months ago, “Tehreek-e-Taliban and IS are brigands and terrorists. (Afghan) Taliban are Afghan nationalists.” He didn’t bother mentioning Lashkar or its parent, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa. Strategically, all these militia are a threat to India. Tactically, IS and/or Tehreek-e-Taliban is a threat to Pakistan. It may one day become a direct threat to India but at the moment, it is Pakistan that is facing the heat. That is why it is using this chance to try and mainstream the Afghan Taliban as “not-so-bad guys” who can help take on the IS. This is poppycock. Those maverick voices in India urging that the Narendra Modi government to send troops to fight IS should know better. What they are in effect suggesting is that India walk into somebody else’s war, and somebody else’s trap.