Are Kurmi Shias Being Pushed to the Brink?
By Dr Ghayur Ayub
London , UK
On the map of Pakistan, the Kurram Agency resembles the closed beak of a bird pecking its way into Afghanistan. The Himalaya mountains close off the valley from the north, south, and west, leaving an opening at the east for the Tal-Parachinar road to run through the picturesque meadows alongside the tortuous Mar Toi (the dead river), linking Tal with Parachinar - the residing town of the top political and military administrations.
During the British Raj, the valley was used as a buffer zone to counter Afghanistan interference into what was then undivided India. Without disturbing the tribal culture, the British government through the political agent (PA) ruled the region by combining the western judicial system with the local Jirga system. In this way, the PA made good use of his authority (which was brutal at times in the shape of FCR) and kept the tribal society in check.
After the partition of India, the Kurram valley became part of Pakistan as a tribal belt inheriting all the original traditions, including the style of governance. The system worked satisfactorily for decades despite the sectarian divide between Sunni and Shia. Pakhtunwaly played a harmonizing role abating hate, reaching its crescendo during the infrequent skirmishes between the sects.
Two major charters of tribal culture helped calm down sentiments in such clashes; the Tiga and the Lokhai systems. A truce was maintained through the Tiga system which was enforced by jirga, and individual social and business interests were preserved in enemy territory through the Lokhai system during the skirmishes. There were no road blocks, beheadings or random killings as seen in recent years.
The change started when the pro-American and pro-Israeli royal family of Iran was deposed through a religious revolution, threatening Western interests in the region. They saw an observable tilt in the new regime’s policies towards Palestine. The rousing welcome given to Yaser Arafat on his first official visit to Tehran was seen with great concern. The Arab royalties, on the other hand, saw themselves next in line of losing their thrones through identical revolutions in their countries. This became a common factor of interest between them. For them the Iranian Revolution needed curtailment and the best way to do that was to give it a sectarian shape. Thus Khumeni's Islamic Revolution was propagated as a Shia revolution and Saudi Arabia influenced by Wahabism became the launching pad to counter its spread. The events including the Iran-Iraq war, propaganda against Khumeini, and the emergence of a sectarian hate in neighboring countries such as Pakistan was all part of the policy. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was used as a stone to kill two birds; the expansion of the Soviet Union and export of Iranian Revolution. Jihad led by the Wahabi zealots was successful on both accounts - it disintegrated the Soviet Union and ignited a fire between the two major sects of Islam. Its fallout on the tribal belt of Pakistan was beyond comprehension, especially in areas where Shia presence was marked. The fire spread rapidly when General Babar-sponsored Taliban took over Afghanistan, adversely effecting the life of the Shias in Kurram and Aurakzai Agencies.
The Shias in these agencies have been increasingly targeted by the surging Taliban ever since. The sane elements in the Turi-Bangash tribes in Kurram agency and Ali Khel, Stori Khel and Feroz Khel tribes in Aurakzai agency want honorable peace with the Taliban. In return, they expect the Taliban to tolerate other sects. But the Taliban accept peace on their terms according to the strict sectarian edict they follow.
Two other factors encourage the Taliban in their aims:first, the weak policies and poor governance of the government of Pakistan; second, the trickled down sectarian zeal introduced by General Zia in some army ranks, files and its agencies. The Taliban intentions were seen recently in a failed peace deal between the Turi Tribes of Kurram and the Haqqani Network of North Waziristan brokered by Rehman Malik under the close scrutiny of ISI. The aim of the deal was to give safe passage to the Haqqani group through Shaheedano Dand and Ahmadi Shama posts in Lower Kurram into Zazi Maidan of Paktia and Muqbal areas of Khost in Afghanistan. It is important to note that these routes are already under partial control of the Taliban. It is the routes passing through Shia-dominated areas of the Upper Kurram, namely Borki, Kharlachi and Tari Mangal, which the Taliban wish to have access to. By having control over these posts, the Taliban want to make Kurram Agency a logistically useful sanctuary, thus opening new routes leading from North Waziristan to Afghanistan. This would be like a death sentence for the Kurmi Shias as they know that the Taliban would rather see them annihilated than survive as a result of peaceful negotiations.
They were proved right within two months of the deal as on March 25, 2011, three minibuses carrying Shias from Peshawar to Parachinar were attacked by the Taliban at Bagan in lower Kurram killing 15 and injuring 37. They then hijacked the two remaining minibuses with 45 passengers, including women and children. According to a news story, they were taken to North Waziristan. In another incident a few months earlier, a jirga of both Shia and Sunni was convened by the Commandant of the Kurram Militia in which he invited Javed Ibrahim Paracha from Kohat - who is known for his pro-Taliban and anti-Shia sentiments - and is hated by the Shias. They blame him for frequent attacks on Shia passengers at Doaba and Japanese Tunnel near Kohat on the Tal Peshawar Road. The Shia Maliks in jirga doubted the Commandant's intentions shown by his action.
Similarly, in January a convoy of 24 trucks carrying food supplies and medicines to Upper Kurram was looted and torched at the village of Durrani near Sadda in Lower Kurram. The Shias held colonel Sajjad responsible for the attack as the convoy was under the protection of the Kurram militia. They linked the attack with the camps at Pir Qayyum, Sateen and Shasho in Lower Kurram which are operated by the Haqqanis and the Taliban. Their worries don't stop there; they fear that with the help of the army and the unconcerned government officials, these elements would extend their influence to their bases in Tari Mangal, Mata Sangar, Makhrani, Wacha Darra and Spina Shaga in Upper Kurram. Spina Shaga is supposed to be a common platform of Gulbadin Hikmetyar and the Haqqani networks and Mata Sangar is a possible hideout of Siraj Haqqani. In another case a few weeks earlier, armed men from North Waziristan kidnapped 20 Shia residents of Kurram, whose whereabouts are still unknown.
The Kurmi Shias feel very unsafe because of these linkages. They find themselves trapped and insecure both from the Taliban on one side and the unconcerned civilian and army administrations on the other. To make things worse, they find their MNA Sajid Hussain Turi shrugging off responsibility because of his weak personality and lack of political vision. He is known for his feeble nerves and bad reputation and is prone to succumb to even weak pressures. So they are stuck between the careless civilian and military officials having no hold on the Taliban and the aggressive Taliban spreading their wings in their backyard. For them, it is a question of survival in their homeland where death has become as easy and cheap as sipping water from a stream.
They find their beautiful valley burning in a fire lit by the successive poor policies of zealous Zia and moderate Musharaf; a fire which is different from the one seen in the rest of the tribal areas. A fire based on emotions against Taliban and disgust about the indifferent attitude of the government. The sad part of it is that a large number of known politicians and intellectuals consider the Taliban as saviors of Islam. They look at the anti-Taliban Muslims as Zionists and American sympathizers and if they have a Shia background than they are labeled as Iranian agents. In short, the Kurmi Shias are in a precarious position landlocked by fanatic Taliban and their sympathizers making their life a living hell, burning in emotions full of anxiety and hostility. There is a Persian proverb for people like them which states 'Tang Amad Ba Jang Amad'. After getting disappointed from continuous failure of the government, in desperation, they have started looking for alternate venues to safeguards their families and maintain their livelihood. In pursuance of an optimum survival they are turning to Afghan government, NATO, and even Hezbollah. This is a bizarre situation, the likes of which was once seen in early 20th century when a prominent Shia Turi Tribe Chief, Noor Khan (alias Dur Khan) sought British help when he found Shias under siege in identical circumstances. How unfortunate it is that both the Taliban and the government are pushing the peace-loving Kurmi Shias to the brink where they might take the law in their own hands and follow the example of certain tribes in Baluchistan.