Future of Militancy in Pakistan's Punjab

The Punjab factor

Punjab serves not only as an ideological hub of militancy but also as an important source of logistics and recruitments for the militants

By Muhammad Amir Rana, The News, August 18, 2013

If the media reports are true that the government has decided to launch a serious operation against Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and Punjabi Taliban in Punjab, it indicates a major shift in threat perception of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leadership.

Also, there are reports that despite receiving threats from the banned Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the government has decided to carry out death penalty for three militants belonging to outlawed groups. If that happens, nothing more will be required to prove the seriousness of the government to establish the writ of law.

The launch of anti-terrorism campaign from Punjab will not only serve larger political and security purposes related to countering terrorism but will also contribute to efforts meant to counter influences of violent and extremist ideologies and groups.

The political yields for Punjab, taking a lead in counterterrorism campaign, would be evidently promising as the security policy of PML-N-led government in Punjab during the last five years was a tricky one. The Punjab government was seen by many as shying away from even criticising the militants.

The PML-N has to change this impression. Although its conciliatory approach towards the militants had made the province relatively more secure compared to other regions of the country, yet the militant groups based in Punjab continued to play havoc with the lives of people in other parts of the country.

The May 2013 election seems to have changed the whole scenario where the PML-N should not continue its Punjab-oriented approach as it has to share the burden of maintaining security of the country. Now, it needs a national approach to deal with the menace of terrorism. Second, the people rejected the other sectarian and pro-militant forces in the election, which boosted the confidence of the new government to take measures to curtail down the power of militants.

As the biggest province of the country, Punjab has to set a precedent for other provinces in countering terrorism. The Punjab comprises 55 per cent of the total population, shares 55per cent of the country’s resources, shapes the political trends and is considered the custodian of ideological and strategic interests of the country. At the same time, as Punjab is the biggest hub of religious and sectarian organisations and groups in the country, it shapes the contours of religious politics and movements, and also serves as an epicentre of sectarian and militant trends.

According to statistics, 219 out of 243 religious organisations in Pakistan have their headquarters in Punjab and the remaining have their strong network in the province. These organisations are working for multiple agendas — from transforming the society, enforcement of Shariah laws, establishment of Khilafah, to achieve sectarian goals and to achieve Pakistan’s strategic and ideological objectives — through militancy.

Lahore, which is considered the cultural capital of the country, can also be described as the capital of religious organisations, where 180 organisations are operating. Multan is the second major hub in the province where 55 religious organisations have their headquarters.

Why religious groups focus on Punjab? The answer is simple: Punjab always remains the centre of political and strategic powers and no political movement can succeed without a support-base in Punjab. At the same time, a relatively better economic growth in Punjab also works as a pull factor to attract religious groups.

If we look at the geographical spread of religious seminaries, or madrassas, across Pakistan, more than of 65 per cent of the total madrassas in Pakistan are located in Punjab, and, interestingly around 50 per cent in urban and commercial areas of the province. The madrassa proliferation in Punjab has a link with the economic growth in the province and the presence of a wide network and culture of religious charity there. The maximum number of students and teachers in madrassas in Punjab hail from Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Khyber Pkhtunkhawa, and Azad Jammu and Kashmir.

The madrassas not only transmit certain extremist tendencies among students and the general public but also serve as an important source of recruitment for local militant groups, especially the sectarian groups.

Apart from madrassas, the charity and youth wings of the so-called jihadi and sectarian groups and organisations directly or indirectly provide human resource to terrorists. These organisations are operating freely across the province, despite facing repeated bans from the government.

The extremist indoctrination tools are also easily available in the province, and most of the militants’ publication houses are located in Punjab. The expansion of the media, owned or controlled by militant groups, is making the challenge of extremism more complex. Although the government has more than once attempted to ban many of these publications, they resurface under different names.

In this context, Punjab serves not only as an ideological hub of the militancy but also as an important source of logistics and recruitments for the militants. Major drivers of urban terrorism in the country are located in Punjab, without any discrimination among southern, central, or northern parts of the province.

These are a few among many reasons which require a proper response from Punjab as far as countering militancy and radicalisation are concerned.

Until now, the state’s counterterrorism approach has remained focused on tribal areas. Tribal areas should be an integral part of any countering strategy, but it would not be wise to ignore other parts of the country where the terrorists have a strong support-base.

It may not require a full-scale operation but a coordinated effort through inter-agency cooperation along with intelligence-sharing. Better policing is the best long-term antidote to urban crime and chaos. It will help disconnect urban terrorism linkages with insurgency in the tribal areas.

Countering extremism is an area where federal and provincial governments need to evolve a long-term strategy to confront terrorism. It will require a high level of vigilance and accurate threat perception, which has to be taken care of in the upcoming national security policy.

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