Shikarpur in Sindh has always been famous for its Sufi culture and sweets, something that the province in general takes pride in.

On Friday, a suicide attack at an Imambarah there during the weekly prayers killed over 60 Shia Muslims, including children.  Several of the injured are being lifted by air ambulance to Karachi hospitals where doctors were on standby.

Barely a month after the massacre at an army public school in Peshawar that shook not just Pakistan but the world, the Shikarpur attack brings into focus an ongoing, destructive trend – inroads into Sindh by extremists following a Takfiri ideology.

Takfir means to declare someone a “kafir” or non-believer. Takfiris term other Muslims as non-Muslim or accuse them of “blasphemy”, and believe they are justified in killing those whom they so label or accuse. Armed, trained men indoctrinated with this destructive ideology carry out such attacks around the world, inspired or trained by Takfiri groups like Daesh (also known as the ISIS) in Iraq, Al Qaeda or Taliban.

Targetting Shias

The banned militant organisation Jundallah (Ahmed Marwat Group) has claimed responsibility for the Shikarpur attack in a statement issued to the media. “Our target was the Shia community. They are our enemies,” said Jundullah spokesman Fahad Marwat, without elaborating.

Jundullah was also behind the attack on a Shia pilgrims’ bus in 2012 and an attack on an ISI office in 2013. The group is known to be affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq.

These are the consequences of allowing homegrown terrorists to operate in the name of religion because they are considered to be “strategic assets” for foreign policy objectives related to India and Afghanistan.

Their inroads into Sindh are clearly part of a deliberate attack on the syncretic, inclusive, tolerant Sufi culture of the region. Over 95% of Pakistan’s Hindu population lives in Sindh.

There is traditionally respect for each other’s religions among Muslims and Hindus. When a Hindu pays a condolence call to a bereaved Muslim neighbour, he is served food and drink even in Ramzan – but he won’t take it. Muslims refrain from slaughtering cows in the area, and Hindus will not cook wild boar in their kitchens out of respect for their Muslim friends.

Divisive strategy

The recent trend of targeting Hindu girls and getting them married to Muslims appears to be part of a deliberate strategy by militant groups trying to make an impact on Sindh. Some girls go willingly, others are kidnapped. Advocate Amarnath Motumal, a Council member of the non-government The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has been raising this issue for years along with his colleagues.

In some cases, the women are older, like Dr. Lata Kumari, and clearly consciously and deliberately make such choices. But in most cases, the girls are underage, legally minors. Sometimes their age is disputed as in the case of Rinkle Kumari.

When such cases come before the courts, judges typically refuse to allow the girls to go back to their families. The argument usually is that since now they are now Muslims they cannot be allowed to live in a non-Muslim household.

Huge madrassahs are being built all over the province with no accountability for what they teach. The targetted killing of Ahmadis in various districts of Sindh, unheard of until a few years ago, has been on the rise. So have attacks on Sufi shrines, revered by people of all religions and sects.

Protest vigils

A night-long sit-in in Karachi has begun, and more demonstrations and protest vigils are expected in different parts of Pakistan over the next few days.

But a mess that has taken decades to make cannot be fixed overnight. Given the effect that the Taliban and their affiliated groups have had in the country, enabled by Pakistan’s “good Taliban, bad Taliban” policy, there are likely to be more such barbaric attacks.

It is imperative for the government, the security establishment, and the citizens of Pakistan to unanimously agree on a counter-narrative and zero tolerance for criminal actions, even if they are committed on the basis of religion. The rule of law must be enforced without fear or favour and the democratic process must be allowed to continue.

Those calling for military intervention in politics forget that it is military interference in politics that created the mess in the first place.