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18 February 2017 Editorial

 

18 FEBRUARY 2017

Massacre in Sehwan

The horrific suicide attack at a Sufi shrine in Sehwan in Pakistan’s Sindh province that killed at least 80 people, underscores fears about the Islamic State gaining strength in the country. A suicide bomber blew himself up at the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, among the most venerated of Sufi saints. People of all faiths in the subcontinent have flocked here over the centuries, making it a prominent symbol of syncretism, and thereby a particularly potent target for the IS. The terrorist group, which had announced its Pakistan branch more than two years ago, has claimed a string of attacks in recent months, mostly on minority Muslim sects. Initially, Pakistani authorities had denied that the IS has any organisational presence in the country. However, attacks such as this, which the IS promptly took responsibility for, suggest otherwise. In Iraq and Syria the IS has methodically targeted Shias, Alawis, Kurds and Yazidis. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, Shias, Hazaras and Sufis are being attacked. Pakistan, particularly, has a rich Sufi tradition, a mystical and generally moderate form of Islam that is loathed by fundamentalists. In 2010, Lahore’s Data Darbar shrine had been brutally attacked. In June last year, the popular Sufi singer, Amjad Sabri, was shot dead in Karachi. Three months ago, a Sufi shrine in Balochistan was bombed by the IS, killing 45 people. The attack at the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar came when it was full of devotees, to cause maximum harm.

The IS is clearly following a strategy that was successful in mobilising fighters and gaining publicity in Iraq and Syria. The highly planned, well-publicised attacks on Shias in these countries helped the IS whip up Sunni sectarian sentiment and win recruits. There is still no evidence that the Pakistani branch of the group is directed by the IS core in Mosul or Raqqah. But IS fighters in eastern Afghanistan, where the group has established a province of the ‘Caliphate’, and those in Pakistan seem to have aligned themselves with local terror groups for organisational support. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a ferociously anti-Shia group, and Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a breakaway faction of the Pakistani Taliban, are two such groups that reportedly have a tactical alliance with the IS. Most of the major recent suicide attacks in Pakistan were carried out by these three groups. This indicates a dangerous trend. After the massacre in an army school in Peshawar in 2014 that left more than 140 dead, the security forces had finally turned against the Pakistani Taliban and dismantled parts of their terror network. But such operations did little to minimise the threat Pakistan faces from terrorism as such. If the Pakistan Taliban are on the back foot, others are coming forward with a more vicious, sectarian worldview and firepower. Tragedies such as Thursday’s are a reminder that Pakistan needs a more comprehensive action plan against terrorism.

 

Champions’ league

Celebrated rivalries in cricket revolve, in the popular mind, around the Ashes or contests involving India and Pakistan. Both duels have the weight of history and are replete with anecdotes. But as Steve Smith’s men play and train under the Mumbai sun in their build-up to the four-match Test series at Pune, Bengaluru, Ranchi and Dharamsala, it is time to acknowledge the particular intensity that marks games involving India and Australia. It is a rivalry inferior to none, the folklore further amplified by riveting contests, especially in India. Be it at Kolkata’s Eden Gardens in 2001 when V.V.S. Laxman’s 281 helped India stage one of cricket’s most remarkable fight-backs, or at Chennai’s Chepauk back in 1986, when India and Australia played out only the second tie in cricketing history since 1877, the contests have ticked all the boxes: mighty individual performances, oscillating fortunes and a fifth-day cracker. When rival skippers Virat Kohli and Smith walk out for the toss at Pune’s Maharashtra Cricket Association Stadium on February 23, they will take this legacy forward. Helmed by young men — Kohli is 28, Smith 27 — both the Indian and Australian teams are emerging from the struggles of transition; this series is their big chance at asserting greatness.

India at home is a daunting opposition, the ‘Final Frontier’ for Australia as Steve Waugh called it. The home team is in fine form, with emphatic victories against visiting teams over the last year, South Africa, New Zealand, England and Bangladesh. In its last 19 Tests, both home and away, India has remained undefeated, winning 15 of them. It is a validation of the squad’s evolution underpinned by the consistency of its two leading players, Kohli and off-spinner R. Ashwin, and augmented with others rising to the opportunity when it’s come — as Karun Nair did with his unbeaten 303 in the Chennai Test against England last December. A resolute captain and a calm coach, in Anil Kumble, have astutely guided the team. The odds favour India, and so does history. When Australia last toured India in 2012-13, it lost all four Tests. This season too, on balance, India appears to hold the aces. Australia may come in with a 3-0 triumph in home Tests against Pakistan, but before that while hosting South Africa it emerged second-best, and lost three Tests in Sri Lanka. The last of these has evoked concern about the team’s adaptability to subcontinental conditions. Much will hinge on Smith, his aggressive opener David Warner and left-arm fast bowler Mitchell Starc, while Nathan Lyon is expected to shepherd an under-cooked spin unit. In 1986, Allan Border arrived with a bunch that was written off; yet they left with one tie and a drawn series. As history shows, surprise is the second skin of tussles involving India and Australia.

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