In a way, what has happened in Lahore over the course of this year – the terrorist attacks today, the previous attack on the Manawan police academy, the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team — is a microcosm of what is happening to the Pakistani army in terms of client militias turning on their own support base. In the case of the Marriott bombing, the first attack on Manawan and the GHQ attack, the terrorists who’ve been implicated have been associated with the banned sectarian militant organization Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. (The terrorist mastermind Aqeel alias Dr. Usmani associated with Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and captured after the GHQ attack is suspected by the authorities to have been the organizer behind the attack on the Sri Lankan team and the Marriott bombing.)
The problem that the PML-N faces, and the reason why it’s so difficult for it to categorically condemn Punjabi sectarian militias is that the ideological support given to these militant groups has traditionally been from PML’s own power base — the Punjabi Sunni middle class and lower middle class. In 1999, Nawaz Sharif narrowly escaped an assassination attempt masterminded by Riaz Basra, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi’s founder, so it’s not exactly like the news that Lashkar is a danger to Sunni Punjabis is new. But the link between the Sunni urban class of Lahore and sectarianism could explain why, even after being almost killed by the LJ, and facing enormous security challenges from sectarians during his second tenure as PM, Nawaz Sharif could still say something like this, even in 2004:
ISLAMABAD, October 8 : PML (N) leader, Muhammad Nawaz Sharif has strongly condemned the bomb attack in Multan, and has expressed deep sympathy with the families of innocent victims. He said that repeated incidents of terrorism were evidence of not only incompetence but also negligence of the institutions responsible for maintaining law and order. In a statement issued on Friday, he also deplored the attitude of official spokesman and ministers who misdirect investigations with their speculative comments on such incidents. He said it was irresponsible to attribute every terrorist indent to sectarian conflicts, because such observations diverted public thinking from the fact that anti-Pakistan elements in and out of the country had been trying for long to destroy national solidarity.
There seems to still be support for sectarianism in the rank and file of the PML-N. For example, In the recent killings of Christians in Gojra, Toba Tek Singh in which Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Sipah-e-Sahaba militants were implicated, one of the individuals mentioned in the FIR was the PML-N district president for Toba Tek Singh, Abdul Qadir Awan.
Londonstani at the blog Abu Muqawama makes the point that a common theme in Islamist militant outfits is that “the downfall of militancy of this kind is built into its success”. Hopefully this will be the case with sectarian outfits in Punjab. According to Tahir Kamran, an academic at the Government University College, Lahore, as the 90s progressed and Sunni sectarian militias caused more and more trouble in Punjab, public support and donations to their organizations from middle class and lower middle class Sunnis diminished. The problem was, much as in Karachi with the MQM, shopkeepers and the business class had to keep paying these organizations as a means of “buying security” for their businesses. So even though the overt support may have decreased over time, it would take a much longer time to end the local financial backing for these groups. The only silver lining in events like the tragic attacks on Lahore today, is that in the likely event that Punjabi sectarian militias are implicated in them, they can only assist in speeding up this reversal.