Proxy wars

India is insulated from the Shia-Sunni conflict. That can’t be taken for granted

Written by Muzamil Jaleel | Published:February 22, 2012 3:11 am

India is insulated from the Shia-Sunni conflict. That can’t be taken for granted

The bombing of the Israeli diplomat’s car in New Delhi last week got linked to the Iran-Israel conflict,but there’s another disquieting dimension to it that’s gone largely unnoticed and could have far-reaching consequences across South Asia. It’s the other conflict in the Middle East,also involving Iran,between Shias

and Sunnis. It is the competition for influence and leadership between Shia Iran and Sunni Salafi Saudi Arabia.

That chasm is old,but after the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq,it’s got a new violent and political twist that even touched India’s neighbourhood on December 6 last year. That’s when three attacks struck Afghan cities simultaneously,killing 63 Shia worshippers on Ashura.

Syed Vali Nasr,author of The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam will Shape the Future,says that by “liberating and empowering Iraq’s Shiite majority,the (George W.) Bush administration helped launch a broad Shiite revival that will upset the sectarian balance in Iraq and the Middle East for years to come’’. One reason is the size of the Shia population and its spread.

Worldwide,Shias are a minority,are estimated between 10-15 per cent of all Muslims. But they account for about 90 per cent of Iranians,70 per cent of those living in Iraq,70 per cent in Bahrain. They are a tiny minority in Saudi Arabia where Sunnis make up 90 per cent of the population. In South Asia,too,they are a minority. In India,Pakistan and Bangladesh,they make up between 10 to 15 per cent of Muslims.

This skew plays out in deeply polarising ways where Saudi Arabia and Iran compete for influence. This is why protests against the dictatorship in Syria have Saudi (read Sunni) support while Iran favours the rule of the minority Alawi Bashar-al-Assad over a Sunni majority. In stark contrast,the pro-democracy protests in Shia-majority Bahrain are openly supported by Iran while Saudi Arabia sent its troops to help the regime of King Hamad to quell the protests.

Closer home,Pakistan,with its bloody history of Shia-Sunni violence,also fits in the larger Saudi versus Iran paradigm. In India,although a Shia-Sunni divide does exist,it has been insulated from sectarian violence because the politics of Indian Muslims is primarily focused on identity,discrimination and prejudice. This means that commonalities between Shias and Sunnis have dominated the debate rather than differences. But last year’s sectarian attacks against Shias in Afghanistan and the Saudi Arabia vs Iran conflict have set alarm bells ringing.

The key suspect behind the December attacks is Lashkar-e-Jhangvi,also accused of attacking Iranian diplomats in Pakistan and plotting unsuccessful assassination attempts against former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf and two former Prime Ministers Nawaz Sharif and Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi was set up in 1996 as a militant and extremist offshoot of the Sunni sectarian outfit,Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP). Both groups were banned by Pakistan in 2002 and Washington,too,listed Jhanghvi as a terrorist organisation. SSP was set up in 1985 by Haq Nawaz Jhangvi,Zia-ur-Rehman Farooqi,Isar-ul-Haq Qasmi,and Azam Tariq as an extreme Sunni group with a clear aim to turn Pakistan into a Sunni state where Shias would be treated as apostates.

Both SSP and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi have been traditionally close to the Taliban. Jhangvi also set up a loose operational alliance with al-Qaeda. What is worrying the security establishment here is Jhangvi’s strong ideological and operational connection with the Jaish-e-Mohammad,Harkat and other militant groups from the Deobandi school of thought in Pakistan. These groups have a long,bloody history of operating inside Jammu and Kashmir.

There have been occasions when Jhangvi tried to enter Kashmir. Like in April 2000,when Maulana Masood Azhar — freed for the IC 814 hostages — split with Harkat and formed the Jaish-e-Mohammad. In fact,Pakistani academic Tahir Kamran does refer to this in his paper “Islamisation of Pakistan — 1979-2009” for the Washington DC-based Middle Eastern Institute: “When Masood Azhar founded Jaish-e-Mohammad in the aftermath of his release in Kandahar,following the hijacking of an Indian aircraft in December 1999,Azam Tariq pledged to send 500,000 jihadis to Jammu and Kashmir to the fight Indian security forces.’’ SSP leader Azam Tariq,elected to Pakistan’s national assembly thrice,was assassinated in October 2003.

On ground,there is,however,no evidence of Jhangvi’s entry into Kashmir.

So how did Kashmir stay away from the shadow of this vicious sectarian violence in Pakistan? There are several reasons. The Shia clergy has been part of the separatist camp and even prominent Shia leader Abbas Hussain Ansari led the Hurriyat Conference,its executive council has a representative from the influential Shia clergy family of Aghas in Budgam.

Although the level of Shia participation in Kashmir militancy has been modest,an exclusive Shia outfit called Hizbul Momineen was formed in the early 1990s. The Jamat-e-Islami and the militant outfit Hizbul Mujahideen are against sectarian divisions despite being Sunni outfits. And as Hizb was the dominant militant outfit during the 1990s,the group did not allow the ripple effect from Pakistan to reach the Valley.

Today,the situation is different. After a severe crackdown by security agencies,Hizb is marginalised. The Lashkar-e-Toiba is also ideologically anti-Shia but this group has never been involved in attacks aimed at Shias. Lashkar-e-Toiba,however,does not have a history of ideological or operational affinity with the SSP or Jhangvi. Then,Jaish’s Kashmir presence has declined substantially ever since the 2001 assembly blasts. Over the past 10 years,Masood Azhar’s group has been involved in attacks inside Pakistan,including the assassination attempt against then President Musharraf and the March 2009 attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team. Interestingly,these attacks were joint Jaish and Jhangvi operations. Thus if Jhangvi seeks partners in India with an aim to break the sectarian calm,it doesn’t have to look far — it will find Jaish as its ally.

As the Saudi Arabia-Iran schism grows across the Middle East,its shadow may well extend to India because both countries have strong,domestic connections within. Given that someone chose the heart of New Delhi to attack an Israeli target — in sync with an attempt in Georgia — there is reason to be extra cautious. The bombing has muddied the security waters here,there is a likelihood that groups with a sectarian agenda may start fishing for trouble. Like Jandulla (Balochistan-based anti-Iran Sunni group) or Mujahideen-e-Khalaq (anti-Tehran),any sectarian extremist group can well be manipulated by a foreign intelligence agency to settle scores far away from its own theatre of conflict. That calls for utmost vigil here both by the political and security establishments.

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