Fringe extremists on both sides of the India-Pakistan border are feeding off each other to kill, maim and brutalise their people in the name of religion.

It must be one of the most ridiculous and ironic situations around—but nobody's laughing. Two of South Asia's bigger neighbours are engaged in a covert war that goes beyond the insidious activities of their secret agencies and support (unofficial, of course) for each other's insurrectionists. The mindset that is damaging peace in the region is increasingly reflected in the positions taken up by the fringe 'religious' groups in both India and Pakistan, who feed off each other, brutalise society, and intimidate, kill and attack in the name of religion. Once part of a single nation, the propaganda that has been consistently drummed into people's minds has resulted in a belief that 'the other' is not really a human being.

Things as innocuous as a new bus service or a cricket game between the two countries are used as excuse for chest-thumping war cries. The religious zealots on both sides vow not to allow bilateral relations to improve, whether through a cricket match in Bombay, a bus service between Delhi and Lahore, or business ties that seek out the best of comparative advantages between India and Pakistan. But the irony lies not just in their symmetrical threats—take away their names and no one would know which side of the border these threats are emanating from—but in the weak-kneed response of their respective governments.

If the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is unwilling to put a brake on Bal Thackeray, the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) of Nawaz Sharif pussyfoots around Pakistan's own radical groups. Both governments verbally (but weakly) condemn the violence and threats of violence, but implicitly provide support through inaction at controlling the source.

In the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, 'the other' has come to encompass the Muslim sects also, with radicals from each side considering the other to be non-Islamic, or worse, as Muslim 'impostors', and therefore deserving of death. Although the main battle is now between the extremist factions of Shias and Sunnis, members of other religions and minorities like the Christians, the Hindus and the Ahmedis feel extremely vulnerable.

Yet another irony becomes apparent in the continuing protests of Pakistani Christians against the attacks on Christians in India. Take the resolution moved in Pakistan's National Assembly last month by minority member Peter John Sahotra, who is affiliated with the ruling party. He did not move any such resolution after an explosion in a Roman Catholic church in Karachi two days before Christmas, in which three worshippers were killed. Or when a Presbyterian church was demolished in the Punjabi town of Sheikhupura in early December 1997, and its priest, Father Nur Alam murdered a month and a half later, for pursuing the case.

Or when the authorities demolished a shanty town in the Punjabi town of Sahiwal last year, destroying 70 houses along with a church. Perhaps the fact that the slum dwellers were Christian was incidental, and their homes may have been destroyed even if they had been Muslim. But no government authority would have dared demolish a mosque, howsoever illegally constructed. In fact, mosques in Pakistan are extending their boundaries all the time, encroaching upon public parks, roads and pavements.

Venomous messengers

Another resolution passed in the National Assembly on the same day as Sahotra's, condemned the cold-blooded murder of 16 worshippers at a Shi'ite mosque in the southern Punjabi town of Muzaffargarh. However, this resolution evoked much debate. Could the fact that it was Shias, and not the majority Sunni community, who were the target of the Muzaffar-garh killings have contributed to this verbal squabbling?

Supporting the resolution, the Awami National Party parliamentary leader, Afsandayar Wali, argued that passing it would send a strong message to the world that Pakistan was against such terrorism—a particularly important point, given the trouble Pakistan is having convincing the world that it is not engaged in "exporting jihad". The resolution was unanimously adopted in the end, but concrete steps need to be taken if this violence is to be curbed.

Fears about the 'Talibanisation' not only of Afghanistan, but of the entire region are increasing; the fascists in the Sangh Parivar across the border, known as "India's Taliban", are part of this phenomenon.

The zealots continue to thunder fire even when they are on the run after warrants are out for their arrests, from 'hideouts' in both Pakistan and India. What kind of signal is issued when Atal Behari Vajpayee tours the areas affected by communal violence in the company of the president of Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the organisation that perpetrated it in the first place: "Tsk tsk tsk, this violence is terrible, but I'm still friends with the bullies who are responsible."

The Shiv Sena can openly threaten the Lahore-Delhi bus service and the cricket match between India and Pakistan, and its leadership freely gives statements to the press (and issues more threats), without fear of any action against them by the authorities.

In Pakistan, the Laskhar-e- Jhangvi for the first time publicly owned up to murder, taking credit for the Muzaffargarh killings. This is ominous in itself. Obviously, the organisation is confident enough now to go public with such a dastardly claim. Not without reason, for this group receives significant political patronage from those in power. The men responsible for these murders include Laskhar-e- Jhangvi activists who escaped from jail in December 1997—a jailbreak about which wardens had been duly warned, but whose requests for stepped up security were ignored. Barely three weeks later, the escaped convicts were among those who mowed down 25 Shi'ite men and boys at a prayer meeting at a Lahore graveyard.

These killings are part of a series of retaliatory murders which have increased since an explosion at the Lahore Sessions Court in January 1997 killed 27 people, including the extremist Sunni outfit Sipah-e-Sahaba (SSP) leader Maulana Ziaur Rehman—the Laskhar-e-Jhangvi is a splinter group of the SSP. But the cycle of violence goes much further back, to the murky reign of Gen Zia-ul Haq and his overt encouragement of politicised religion. And before that, to the constitutional declaration of one sect as 'non-Muslim', and even before that, to the adoption of Islam as the 'state religion' of Pakistan. Since then, obscurantists have been appropriating religion for political gains, and the problem is that there are too many takers.

Adding fuel to fire is the state's continuing failure to provide alternatives, particularly in terms of education and employment. Gen Zia and successive governments encouraged the sectarian divide by allowing the proliferation of religious schools. There are 35,000 religious seminaries registered in Punjab alone. Unofficially, the number is estimated at 100,000. And most are sectarian in nature: they preach the Islam of one or another 'sect'.

Creed of terror

There is no check on the curriculum and teachings in these schools, on their sources of funding, or the impact they have on impressionable young ones, most of whom attend because of the guarantee of two square meals a day. By the time they leave these institutions, the students are full of blind conviction. This conviction will often include the belief that those belonging to other sects are kafir whom it is jaez (valid) to kill—wall chalkings and graffiti on buses proclaim this openly, as do sermons from mosques.

In India, schools run by the BJP are engaged in brainwashing young minds. Incidents involving sectarian terrorism evoke a routine wimpish administrative response. Deputy commissioners and police chiefs are shuffled about, hate literature is confiscated only belatedly, and then there is much sloganeering and claims of the sectarian monster having been conquered.

It is much the same in Pakistan where there is no visible campaign to rid society of hate speech and hate materials. Newspapers routinely print what are essentially incitements to murder on their front pages, and no action is taken against those who make these pronouncements. Political parties play dumb on the sectarian issue, and successive governments have routinely compromised with the sectarian groups. Take the example of the PML, which, shortly after coming to power, declared it would check the inter-sect violence. To this end, it established the Anti-Terrorist Courts and the Muttehida Ulema Board. The ATC convicted no more than a handful of communal terrorists, and now has decided to concentrate on other areas. The Muttehida Ulema Board, set up by the chief minister of Punjab Shahbaz Sharif, the brother of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, fizzled out after he failed to turn up at five consecutive meetings after the inauguration.

As a result, once more people are praying in mosques and imambargahs under the shadow of armed police deputed to each place of worship. This is how Muslims in a declared Muslim country are besieged and terrorised by their fellow believers. The message given by Prime Minister Sharif itself is one of violence: he has openly exhorted crowds to pressurise and "force" those who oppose the controversial 15th Amendment to the Constitution to change their views. Taking the cue, his ministers have used unparliamentary language about activist NGOs, as in the case of Punjab Minister for Social Welfare, Pir Binyamin Rizvi, who accused a couple of women's NGOs of "conspiring against national interests". The proof? None required. The fact that they are among those who oppose the 15th Amendment and have met visitors from India apparently makes for a strong enough case.

If things are to change, the Pakistani government must honestly appraise the repercussions of the messages its own functionaries give out. It must critically examine the sectarian situation and do what needs to be done, without playing to the political gallery. And the same is to be done, across the border, by the Government of India.

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