June issue 2002

By | News & Politics | Published 22 years ago

On September 23, 1997, three men, two of whom were fugitives from the law, held a meeting at the Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore. Members of the Sipah-e-Sahaba-e-Pakistan (SSP), an organisation erected on the slogan of “Kafir kafir, Shia kafir “, they were disgruntled with the SSP’s decision to tone down its militant activities and move into mainstream politics. The three fervently believed that the erstwhile policy of assassinating members of the Shia community should be continued. It was thus that the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LJ) was born. The identities of the men: Riaz Basra, Akram Lahori and Malik Ishaq.

By this time, following his escape from a Lahore cantonment court in April 1994 while on trial for the murder of Iranian diplomat Sadiq Ganji, Basra had already acquired a kind of celebrity status in the backwaters of the Punjab. The police claimed to have killed him at least once in the following years, only to discover that it was a case of mistaken identity. Last year, by which time he was the most wanted sectarian terrorist in Pakistan with head money of 50 lakh rupees, he was spotted by undercover police personnel at the annual Raiwind religious congregation, reportedly the second largest annual gathering of Muslims after Haj. The police did not attempt to take Basra into custody at the time because they apprehended that a bloodbath would ensue, killing many innocent people present at the venue.

Riaz Basra’s luck ran out about six months ago, when an informant, probably from the rival faction of the LJ, the Qari Hye group, lured him into a trap set by the police. The news of his arrest was not made public, although it soon became an open secret. On May 14, it was announced that Basra along with three colleagues, had been killed in an “encounter” in Vehari. Newspaper reports suggested that he had been shot several times at close range.

Basra’s funeral in his native village of Khursheed, about 45 kilometres from Sargodha, was attended by 3000 to 4000 people. It was a far cry from his obscure beginnings. Born to a poor family in 1967, Basra was the youngest of six siblings. After dropping out of the local primary school for lack of interest in studies, he was taken to Lahore at a young age by his brother-in-law, who enrolled him in Darul Uloom Islamia in Allama Iqbal Town. Two years later, Basra was admitted to Jamia Usmania where he became a hafiz-e-Quran (one who has memorised the entire Quran by heart) and began giving Quranic lessons to children at their homes.

Basra was one of the SSP’s early recruits. He joined the organisation in 1985, reportedly after being inspired by Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi’s speech at a religious gathering near Kot Lakhpat. He rose quickly through the ranks, first being elected secretary of its Lahore district organisation and then its central information secretary in 1987.

The SSP’s formation is an interesting reflection of rural Jhang’s local power dynamics. While the majority of its population, including the farmers, are Sunni, the large landowners belong, almost without exception, to the Shia sect. In the Senate and the provincial and national assemblies, where the ruling elite traditionally mirrors the feudal pattern of a particular area, the district has therefore usually had Shia representatives, such as Syeda Abida Hussain, Faisal Saleh Hayat andSyed Zulfiqar Bokhari. The oppressed and exploited locals had no voice. Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, who belonged to a poor family in Jhang, played upon the resentments of the lower classes against the feudals, and gave them a sectarian dimension with his vitriolic religious sermons. The anti-Shia sentiment which initially divided Jhang city along sectarian lines began gaining momentum and soon spread to adjoining areas, including Lahore district and, before long, engulfed the entire province of Punjab. Police sources recall a day in August 1997 when there were eight separate incidents of sectarian killings in the town of Shorkot.

Police personnel who pursued the perpetrators of these crimes a little too zealously were assassinated, such as Gujranwala SSP, Ashraf Marth. Basra, who had threatened Marth on the telephone just before the official was gunned down, was named as the accused in the murder, one of hundreds he is said to have masterminded. Basra even made an assassination attempt on Nawaz Sharif after his brother Shahbaz Sharif, as Punjab chief minister, had

After the LJ was created and its involvement cited in several sectarian killings, the SSP, keen to bolster its political credentials with the likes of MNA Azam Tariq, was quick to distance itself from the organisation. SSP leader Maulana Ghafoor Nadeem recently dismissed links between the two, saying, “The SSP is a law-abiding party.” According to a police official however, “Every member of the

The LJ, much like jihadi groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammed and Harkatul Mujahideen, found Taliban-ruled Afghanistan convenient for training its members as well as a safe haven after a major operation had been carried out in Pakistan. They were, in fact, accorded de facto diplomatic status by the Taliban, who had given them the Wizarat-i-Uzma building in Kabul for office purposes. LJ activists, along with Jaish-e-Mohammed and Harkatul Mujahideen members, received training at various camps, including one at Sarobi dam, which was exclusively in the LJ’s use. Basra, as an experienced hand, was actively involved both in the training of activists and their recruitment in Pakistan. He had more or less taken up residence in Afghanistan for several years: police records state that he lived in the Kabul locality of Zainab Cinema alongwith his wife and that he was spotted in Pakistan on only a couple of occasions since 1999. Like other hard-core criminals of his ilk, his existence in Pakistan was itinerant, sleeping at a langar one night, taking shelter in a masjid the next, and always moving from one town to another.

Despite the fugitive lifestyle, Basra’s wife in Kabul was reportedly one of four and his multiple marriages were said to be a major reason for the LJ’s splitting into two factions towards the close of 1999. Several members among the LJ were embittered by the large-scale arrests of their activists by the Punjab police during the previous couple of years, and accused Basra of inept planning of operations and even of colluding with the police. They alleged that the extended circle of acquaintances created by his marriages had compromised the secrecy of their activities and whereabouts. According to a source, Qari Hye, then Basra’s trusted lieutenant and amir of the LJ in Karachi, had arranged Basra’s marriages and he accused Basra of depriving some of his wives of their due rights. It was an informant from the Hye group who had intimated the police of Basra’s presence at the Raiwind congregation last year.

The fracturing of the LJ into the Riaz Basra and Qari Hye factions, and the consequent rivalry between the two for funding, was the precursor for the theatre of sectarian murders shifting from the Punjab to Karachi, the major source of funds for militant groups. The move also seemed a wise one given the successful crackdown against LJ activists by the Punjab police. In 1999, there were 12 sectarian killings in Karachi; in 2000, there were 18; in 2001, the number sky-rocketed to 58. The current year has already claimed almost 30 victims.

With Basra’s demise, a significant chapter in sectarian violence may have come to a close. Reportedly, the timing of his death was no coincidence: it is believed that the LJ has of late been providing shelter to Arab terrorists, their erstwhile comrades-in-arms in Afghanistan, who have fled to Pakistan in the wake of the US bombing across the border. With the operation against militants in full swing in the northern areas, some Arabs are said to have made their way to the teeming slums of Karachi, and the elimination of Basra was meant as a deterrent to terrorists across the spectrum. However, notwithstanding the closure of the training camps in Afghanistan, one wonders whether, given the large turnout at his funeral, and the numerous additional cross-currents that have recently come into play on the political landscape, this deterrent has come too late.