Excerpts from our recent talk with Rana Sanaullah, Punjab province’s law minister.
Why has there been a surge recently in sectarian killings in the Punjab?
There is a reason for it. Last August, a very violent, sectarian incident unfolded in Bhakkar. Amid the skirmishes, one sect kidnapped members of the other and then mercilessly slaughtered them. This heightened tensions. Then, a few days later, a similar incident took place in Rawalpindi. It was a serious matter, but not as serious as was portrayed on social media. People were posting images of men with slit throats. Nothing like that happened in Rawalpindi! The media spread such lies that, I believe, led sectarian groups to reorganize themselves, triggering back and forth target killings. The Punjab government has already caught a few suspects. Now, and I say this with complete confidence, there will be fewer attacks in the Punjab. It is under control.
Has this led to the revival of Shia militias in the Punjab?
There is no evidence of it as yet. The Shia are being murdered. They [protest] with the bodies of their dead family members for hours. Look, there is anger among the youth. My assessment is that if such killings continue they will also be forced to pick up arms, if they haven’t already.
Your recent statement regarding an operation of sorts in the Pakhtun parts of the Punjab provoked outrage. Do you regret making the statement?
Imran Khan [chief of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party] raised this issue in the National Assembly, but I think he misunderstood me. There are many slums in the Punjab which are hard to monitor and can easily become hiding places for criminals. We have identified a total of 174 shantytowns; most of these are in Rawalpindi and Lahore. When I said Pakhtuns, I didn’t mean those from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. They are citizens of Pakistan. I was referring to the illegal Pakhtuns, the ones from Afghanistan with fake IDs and documents. It makes no sense for them to live here. Some Afghans and Africans are involved in drug trafficking. By the way, there are also Indians residing in the slums of Punjab. As for the Afghan refugees, the majority of them have moved to Karachi. We have launched a search operation and are keeping these areas under surveillance. For now, we can’t really arrest anyone, as that would mean going through a lengthy court process. Some will be arrested and then deported; others will be requested to leave. The Punjab government just wants to clear these areas. The punishment is irrelevant.
The Pakistani Taliban say your threat of an operation is a threat against madrassahs.
That’s not true. Let me state this categorically: all madrassahs in the Punjab are cooperating with us. Not a single madrassah of this province is training militants. Not a single one is linked to a banned group. I challenge anyone to name a seminary that is a springboard for terrorism. I am ready to go with them to investigate. Listen, checking these madrassahs is our responsibility.
Where are the Punjabi Taliban based?
They only have facilitators in the Punjab, that’s it. As far as the movement of arms and explosives is concerned, every day over 10,000 cars enter Lahore; you cannot search every single one.
How has the Punjab kept itself safer from terrorism than other provinces?
There was a time when, especially in Lahore, terrorists struck every 15 days. Then there were cases of kidnapping and extortion. Our research tells us that suicide bombers don’t just travel from Waziristan to Punjab all the while wearing an explosives-rigged jacket. They work with facilitators, people they have hired, or inspired, to assist them. Some of these helpers are women, who lure men for kidnapping. Interestingly—and this was very surprising—we discovered cases where the bomber would spend days praying in a mosque or an Imambargah before attacking it. Let me repeat, there are no suicide training camps in the Punjab. The reason that Punjab is safer is that we have effectively broken the links of the terrorism chain.
Are there any threats to your life?
That is part of the job. There are intelligence reports, but there’s no point going into details. Even if I am on a hit list, there is little I can do about it.
From our March 15, 2014, issue.