By Alok Bansal
The attack on a bus going from Karachi to Kohat, at Nawabshah, by the shadowy Sindhu Desh Liberation Army (SDLA) on May 25 -- that left seven passengers dead and 30 injured -- clearly indicates that Sindhi nationalism has come of age and the extremists within their ranks are even willing to use violence to make their presence felt.
At a time when the government in Islamabad is headed by a party that has traditionally been led by Sindhis, this resurgence of violent Sindhi nationalism only shows that, in the eyes of the average person, President Asif Ali Zardari and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government are not perceived to be meeting regional aspirations or wielding effective power.
The May 25 attack is not the first act of violence by the Sindhi nationalists. There have been numerous blasts on railway tracks in the past, but none of the earlier attacks had led to any loss of life, although they all had the potential to do so. In early 2005, an organisation called the Sindh Liberation Army (SLA), allied with the Baloch Liberation Army, claimed responsibility for blasts on railway tracks and other sensitive installations in Sindh and neighbouring parts of Balochistan. Low-level blasts continued from 2005 to 2007 and SLA claimed credit for most of them. However, with the return of democracy in 2008 and the PPP’s rise to power, there was a sense of euphoria in Sindh and the nationalist forces were subdued.
The turbulence in Sindh started resurfacing in early 2010, when a bomb exploded on the railway track in the Nara Canal area near Kandhra, Rohri. On the same day, two bombs each were planted on the railway tracks in Karachi and Hyderabad. On June 25, 2010, there were two blasts targeting the railways near Ghotki, damaging both the up and down tracks. There were also two simultaneous blasts on the track near Nawabshah that damaged the sleepers and plates.
Again, on July 13, 2010, four bombs were detected and defused by the Bomb Disposal Squad from the railway tracks near Derolal station. Similarly, four powerful bombs planted on tracks in Hyderabad were triggered on Oct 31, 2010, completely disrupting rail traffic between the city and Kotri. In all these incidents, the SDLA left pamphlets where its chief, Darya Khan, justified the blasts in the name of atrocities being committed on Sindh and pledged to continue the “struggle” till the region attained “freedom”.
These acts of violence intensified in 2011 and, on February 11, there were simultaneous bomb blasts on different railway tracks at Ghotki, Pano Aqil, Mehrabpur and Serhari near Hyderabad, which damaged both up and down lines and paralysed railway communication. Again, on May 14, a remote-controlled bomb triggered at a railway track in Thul caused derailment of an engine and three bogies of the Khuskhal Khan Khattak Express, injuring 10 people.
Six back-to-back blasts in the early hours of November 27, 2011, ripped through railway tracks in Hyderabad, Noushero Feroz and Nawabshah, suspending rail service on both the up and down tracks. The Karachi-bound Tezgam Express narrowly escaped disaster near Nawabshah, as the blast on the track occurred just one-and-a-half minutes before the arrival of the train.
On Feb 26 this year, the SDLA carried out 18 simultaneous blasts on railway tracks across eight districts of Sindh in a display of its reach and organisational capacity. On March 23, on the occasion of Pakistan Day, a powerful blast ripped through the railway track at Larkana, the pocket-borough of the Bhuttos.
On the same day, the Jeay Sindh Qaumi Mahaz (JSQM) led a 1,00,000 strong “march against slavery” in Karachi and called for an end to the subjugation of Sindhis at the hands of “a Punjab-dominated, Punjab-ruled, and Punjab-manipulated state”. Bashir Khan Qureshi, the chairman of JSQM, asserted that the Sindhis were prepared “to protect their motherland and defend every inch of Sindh”. He also called for the independence of Sindh and Sindhi resources from the whims of Punjabi aspirations. Bashir died under suspicious circumstances within a fortnight of this proclamation.
The current violence has its genesis in the perception that the Sindhis are being reduced to a minority within the province and Islamabad, in collusion with Mohajirs, wants to partition Sindh. After the operations in Swat and FATA, a large number of Pakhtoons moved into Sindh, further aggravating the fears of marginalisation among Sindhis.
A more than 81 percent increase in Sindh’s population between 1998 and 2011 shows large-scale migration to the province. President Zaradari’s dream project of building Zulfiqaqrabad, a modern city in the memory of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, in Thatta district of Sindh, spread over a million acres, is also being opposed by Sindhi nationalists. They have termed the project as a “new Israel” and believe that it will bring in a fresh wave of migration to Sindh.
Islamabad’s apathy as the Sindh province suffered successive floods in 2010 and 2011 has further alienated the local population. Large tracts of land were still flooded in March 2012 and are a stark reminder. Perceived involvement of intelligence agencies in Bashir Qureshi’s death and the disappearance of a large number of Sindhi activists have further hardened positions.
The current incident of the killing of non-Sindhi passengers in Nawabshah indicates that while the Baloch movement is better-known, another violent ethno-nationalist movement has appeared in Pakistan to challenge Islamabad’s writ.
(Alok Bansal is a Senior Fellow at CLAWS. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)