When the provincial Sindh government in Pakistan agreed on Tuesday to the demands of the citizens who had been observing a sit-in against the Shikarpur blast that killed more than 70 people last week, no one considered the impact this would have on Kashmir Solidarity Day today.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, in his first term in 1991 had declared this day as an annual national holiday in solidarity with the people of Kashmir in their resistance against Pakistan’s traditional enemy, India. But it's becoming clear that there is a different enemy now.

Sharmila Faruqi, an advisor to the Sindh government, has  acknowledged that the civil society groups are merely demanding what the government should have been doing all along – like taking action against terrorist groups and hate speech. She also rightly laid emphasis on the need to follow due process and to uphold the rule of law.

The citizens’ demands included removing the flags and banners of banned organisations and erasing hate-speech graffiti from walls. According to media reports, the Sindh police have already begun taking action along these lines.

A complicated process

Despite this, it will not be easy to quickly erase the narrative that has been fostered in Pakistan for decades equating the Kashmir issue with Islam and patriotism. Since 1991, when they were firmly allied with the government, the so-called religious parties have been taking out rallies on Kashmir Day, along with all the mainstream political parties.

However, the situation has changed. Pakistan is at war. And many of the country’s so-called religious groups overtly or covertly support the militants who are engaged in this war against Pakistan and whose bombings and attacks have killed over 50,000 civilians and 10,000 armed forces personnel over the past decade.

Many of the mainstream political parties have electoral alliances with these religious groups that they seem reluctant to dismantle. Among the people, however, there is a growing realisation that the so-called religious groups actually enable the militancy even if they are not themselves directly involved.

Pushed by a small band of determined citizens, the Sindh government on Tuesday declared the Ahle-Sunnat-Wal Jammat to be a banned outfit. The ASWJ grew out of another banned organisation, the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, which began in the 1980s as the Anjuman-e-Sipah-e-Sahaba (but they changed the name after they realised that its acronym was ASS). This organisation, under the guise of protecting the "honour of the Prophet", on him be peace, has long been behind most of the blasphemy cases in Pakistan.

The ASWJ's head Aurangzeb Farooqui has openly stated that the group’s mission is to make it difficult for the Shias to breathe in Pakistan.

Citizens' pressure

After the suicide attack on a Shia mosque in Shikarpur, Sindh, last Friday killed over 70 people, lawyer M. Jibran Nasir called for a sit-in in front of the Chief Minister’s House in Karachi.

A small band of determined young men and women gathered there, holding their ground for over 30 hours, demanding action against the ASWJ.

On Tuesday, the government accepted their demands, including a public declaration that the ASWJ is indeed banned, number 32 on a list of 60 banned terrorist organisations.

But on Wednesday evening, the ASWJ brazenly sent out a press statement announcing their Kashmir Day rally in Karachi, to start at 2pm on Thursday.

The police say they have not granted the ASWJ permission for the rally but may be unable to actually stop it. In Lahore, other banned organisations like Jamaat-ud-Dawa are also gearing up for similar rallies.

The civil society protestors in Karachi have announced that they will again come out on the streets if the government doesn’t stop the ASWJ from holding a rally on the pretext of Kashmir Day.

“The administration is quick to bring out water cannons and riot police against unarmed peaceful demonstrators,” said Nasir. “Why can’t they act against those who are the real threat?”

Messy situation

A mess that has taken so many decades to make won’t be cleared up overnight. In the long term, what will counter terrorism is the continuation of the nascent democratic political process in Pakistan.

Impatient at the slow pace of change, some may start to look to the military for help, forgetting that it is army interference in politics and foreign and domestic policy that led to this mess in the first place.

In the short term, what is needed is decisive action against those who break the law, whether they do it on the pretext of religion or solidarity with Kashmir, or anything else.

As for the Kashmir dispute, it is past time to stop treating Kashmir as merely a territorial dispute between India and Pakistan, and to recognise it as a matter of the lives and aspirations of the Kashmiri people.