Two unrelated events that unfolded in Pakistan last week symbolise the state of affairs in the country – the coexistence of two strong and opposing strains.

In the first event, on December 2, Masroor Nawaz Jhangvi, a Sunni extremist standing as an independent candidate, won the by-elections for the Punjab Assembly constituency in Pakistan. His election rallies had been marked by hate slogans, particularly those targeting the Shia sect of Islam in a Sunni-dominated country. “Kafir [infidel] Shia was an oft-chanted phrase.

Masroor Jhangvi is the son of the late Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, founder of the Sunni extremist organisation Sipah-e-Sahaba, or defenders of the companions of the Prophet (PBUH). The status of the companions is one of the main bones of contention between Sunnis and Shias.

Upon his death in 632, there were disagreements over who the successor of the Prophet (PBUH) should be. Some of his companions became Caliphs after his death. The Shias feel these companions sidelined Hazrat Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law, who should have been the next leader of the Muslim community. Sunnis, however, hold that the companions became Caliphs through a democratic process and were selected by prominent members of the Muslim community.

The Sunni extremists of Jhang, a region in Punjab’s Pakistan where Haq Nawaz Jhangvi is from, believe that it is their duty to preserve the honour of these companions in the face of Shia onslaught – hence the name Sipah-e-Sahaba. In areas around Jhang, “Naukar Sahaba da” (servant of the companions) often makes its way to graffiti. Close to this, you will find a Shia alm, a pole with an open palm at the top, which is a symbol of their community.

Punjab politics

Jhang is a contested city, but being in a majority, Sunnis have a clear advantage. After the Iranian Revolution in 1979, fears that Iran was trying to bring about a Shia revolution in Pakistan prompted Saudi Arabia to protect Sunni extremist organisations. For the past 30 years, Jhang has become a focal point of this proxy sectarian war.

On February 23, 1990, Shia militants killed Haq Nawaz Jhangvi and his supporters later formed the Sunni militant organisation Laskhar-e-Jhangvi, named after him. Throughout the ’90s and then again in recent years, the Laskhar-e-Jhangvi has been responsible for the deaths of many prominent Shias in different parts of the country. Perhaps its role in Baluchistan in recent years where they have repeatedly attacked members of the Hazara community – an ethnic group which is largely Shia – has been the most baffling. Some commentators have alleged that the Pakistani establishment has used Laskhar-e-Jhangvi to counter and discredit separatist organisations in the province who have been fighting for the creation of an independent state of Baluchistan.

This connection between Laskhar-e-Jhangvi and the State is murky. It has been alleged that the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz led government in Punjab and at the Centre have some connections with the organisation. For instance, in 2011, reports emerged that Rana Sanaullah, the law minister of Punjab and a close aide of the Shahbaz Sharif, the chief minister of the province, had close ties with Laskhar-e-Jhangvi chief Malik Ishaq, who was killed last year. Sanaullah also said that the Punjab government had been paying Ishaq a monthly stipend. In the recent elections, it was alleged that Sanaullah supported Masroor Nawaz Jhangvi, who eventually won the by-poll, over his own party candidate.

Perhaps it could be argued that Sipah-e-Sahaba is not the same as Laskhar-e-Jhangvi – while the former is only ideologically extremist, the latter is militant. This argument, however, holds no weight as the leaders of these two organisations have kept a close relationship over the years. With Lashkar-e-Jhangvi doing all the dirty work, there is perhaps no need for Sipah-e-Sahaba to engage in militant activities. However, the fact remains that Haq Nawaz Jhangvi’s Sipah-e-Sahaba is the ideological father of Laskhar-e-Jhangvi and his son is now a Member of Parliament.

The location of the city of Jhang is also particularly important. Jhang is in central Punjab, the country’s most developed region. Ever since the creation of Pakistan in 1947, Punjab has dominated the political establishment of the country. Irrespective of which party is at the Centre, Punjab’s agenda has always been at the forefront. There are variations within Punjab as well, with central Punjab serving as the heart of the province’s hegemonic authority. The recent developments in Jhang in many ways represent what has been happening in Punjab for a long time.

Almost as a compensation for cozying up to the establishment, Punjab has had to shed its indigenous identity and adopt a religio-nationalistic one that inherently has the potential to be exploited by religious extremism. As a result, despite being the most educated and developed region, central Punjab is also, in my opinion, Pakistan’s most religiously conservative region. It has been the hotbed of attacks against religious minorities in the recent past. The hegemonic status of Punjab and the rise of religious extremism in the region are correlated, with the victory of Masroor Nawaz Jhangvi symbolic of the trend that has been observed here ever since Pakistan was born.

Bringing together

The other interesting event that happened last week was the celebration of Sindh Culture Day on December 4, in Pakistan’s Sindh region. I find the timing of the event fascinating because for decades now, Sindh has led the battle against Punjabi hegemony. During the dark days of General Zia-ul-Haq, the Pakistan’s president from 1978-’88, it was at the forefront of the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy.

The Pakistan People’s Party, which has its roots in Sindh, cashed in on this sentiment against Punjab’s dominance in the region and has been sweeping the provincial elections here for years now. And once again, by taking pride in the Sindhi culture, the government and people of the Sindh province are trying to counter the political influence of Punjabi establishment. With a young and dynamic leader in charge of the party, Bilawal Bhutto, Pakistan People’s Party once again wants to take up the mantle of anti-establishment leadership that it held when Benazir Bhutto was in charge.

The second interesting aspect of the festival is the symbolism of Sindhi culture. At least in the popular imagination, Sindhi culture is seen as the last vestige of religious and cultural syncretism that was once spread all over Pakistan, including Jhang. For example, Jhule Lal, a deity of the Sindhi community, is revered by Muslims and Hindus alike. Lal Shahbaz Qalandar a Muslim mystic who tapped into Shaivistic asceticism and translated it into a Muslim ethos, was from lived in Sehwan in the Sindh province and continues to be revered there today.

The Sindhi culture festival is meant to serve as a counter-narrative to the dominant story of the country – the religious radicalisation of its politics. Without really talking about secularism, considered a “western agenda” by many in Pakistan, it is meant to present an alternate religio-political identity to the country that does not require it to abandon its culture, but to embrace it. The event is an appropriation of Sindhi symbols to represent a religious plurality. It is a clever political move that is meant to show that PPP, under Bilawal Bhutto, is a party that is rooted to its culture and is also a secular political organisation that will steer away the country from religious extremism. It is meant for both the conservative and the liberal.

These two unrelated events, when juxtaposed, sum up quite well the dominant political narratives in the country. One represents the political establishment, which is still quite comfortable dallying with the religious extremists. On the other hand are the anti-hegemony crusaders who, using traditional symbols, want to counter this narrative. The first one is clearly dominant at the time, but the latter is a clever ploy with the potential to unravel the monopoly of religious extremists over religion and culture.

Haroon Khalid is the author of the books Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trail