Presently, Pakistan is facing a multitude of internal and external challenges emanating from a volatile neighborhood at the eastern and western front with India and Afghanistan and the threat from violent extremist groups inside the country.

Arguably, violent extremism in the form of terrorism and sectarianism has seeped into Pakistan’s social fabric damaging its nature and tolerant ethos. The alarming rise in religiously motivated targeted assassinations, attacks on Imambargahs, mosques and the Sufi shrines require re-examination of country’s internal security policy to fill the gaps and loopholes.

The growing religious intolerance has given more ground for the breeding of sectarian violence, and the minorities of Pakistan have been greatly affected by the hatred that certain religious factions and extremist groups have spread within our state. 

In any case, it is essential to look into how nationalism was constructed in Pakistan’s formative years to make a broader sense of the ailments which befalls the motherland. Since Pakistan’s inception in 1947, Islam has been used as a policy  instrument and overarching guiding principal  in state-formation and nationalism. The Muslim League, Pakistan’s pioneer political party which spearheaded the national liberation movement against the British Raj, considered Islam as a potential possible factor for achieving a unifying identity. Being a Sunni majority country, the quest for religious nationalism, inadvertently turned into Sunni majoritarianism to the detriment of Islamic and other religious minorities.

Even the founding chairperson of the Pakistan People’s Party, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, generally known to be a liberal-secular, developed links with some religious groups. However, he reformed Pakistan’s social and economic sector, but it was meant to for ‘nationalizing the Islamic Identity.’ He began a process of Islamization, declared Friday as a holiday, banned alcohol and gambling to appease the religious lobbies. As soon as the religious parties realized that they do possess political clout in the re-structuring of the overall national policies, they wanted to strengthen their own narrative and exerted  immense pressure on Bhutto to declare the Ahmadiyya sect as non-Muslim. This watershed development set the tone for increase in religious zealotry and vigilantism in the country.

During Zia’s regime the first sectarian organization, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), emerged on the political horizon of Pakistan. After gaining a position, the SSP demanded the apostatization of the Shia sect through constitutional amendment similar to the declaration for the Ahmadiyya community. The militant wing of SSP, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) started targeting the Shia community through targeted assassinations, bombings of Shia procession during Muharram; scholars and professionals of the Shia community were ruthlessly murdered in Punjab and Sindh. As a result, the wave of intolerance continued towards the religious minorities particularly because of the state’s inability to cut down the influence of the vigilante religious groups and their militant wings by either commission or omission. To date, 3,082 sectarian attacks have taken place according to South Asia Terrorism Portal and 5,489 people have been killed.

Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, the anti-Shia militant outfit which is an offshoot of SSP, has been operating in Pakistan since the 1990s and it has spearheaded the militant campaign against the Shia community in Pakistan, especially the ethnic Hazara Shia community and is behind other mass casualty attacks in the country. Had the Pakistani security establishment and the successive civilian governments taken strict measures when these extremist organizations were on the rise, the internal situation of Pakistan might have been relatively better. To overcome the aforementioned threats, in 2015, the National Action Plan, Pakistan’s 20 point counter-terrorism policy, was instituted by the PML-N government. However, NAP’s prime focus was to terminate sectarianism and extremism by choking the finances of the sectarian and other militant organizations. Hate speech and hate literature has also been criminalized under NAP. The policy also prohibits the working of the banned outfits under new names or titles. But, the only point that has been so far achieved is the establishment of military trial courts and no concrete steps have  been taken to achieve other objectives.

Despite all this, the victory of Masroor Nawaz Jahngvi, son of SSP founder Mualan Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, in the by-elections in Jhang for a provincial seat shows the inconsistency of the state-apparatus. A candidate belonging to a non-operational or banned organization is now a legislator of the largest province in Pakistan. Thus, the district from which this menace of sectarianism originated is now all set for its rebirth and reawakening. This case not only highlights the loopholes that are present in the state-made policies but also questions the initiatives that have been taken to counter and terminate the terror activities. It questions both the civil and military leadership, as to what extent the establishment is willing to go? Giving a free-hand to these organizations would only escalate and deteriorate the state apparatus.

More inclusive policies are needed to bridge the gaps between the groups present in majority and minority. Steps need to be taken on individual, societal and state level. Finally, until the Pakistani state does not emphasize freedom of religion as inherent to Pakistan’s identity, the situation for Pakistan’s religious minorities will remain dreary and bleak.