It is heartbreaking to see the worst of your nightmares come to reality. But as they say, "You learned to run from what you feel, and that's why you have nightmares."

It was 2011 when I visited Larkana with one of my more learned friends Dr Hidayat Ali Shah. The flags of Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and that of Jiye Sindh Qaumi Mahaz (JSQM) could be seen hoisted over electric poles at Mir Murtaza Bhutto Chowk. However, the flag which was bigger and stood taller than both was that of the banned sectarian organization Sipah Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) rechristened as Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamat (ASWJ). The sight brought uneasiness to my mind replacing the warmth regarding the city known as the stronghold of one of the most significant political forces and the home of Bhuttos.

Being a resident of Karachi, I have witnessed violence with different facets, conflicting claims and turf wars. I can understand the symbolism attached to party flags, which serve the purpose of proclaiming influence and in some cases showcase the ability to inflict violence.

A few years back I posted a picture from a Karachi square on social media, in which the flag of ASWJ was prominent among a dozen MQM flags that were encircling it. An MQM lawmaker responded with an exclamatory remark: Elections!

I replied that electoral statistics might be a reflection of popular support, but ASWJ flags in an area of MQM support base suggest something sinister especially when the party suffered from sectarian violence and had to bear the loss of three of its lawmakers and dozens of workers, majority of whom were from the same town, including two of the three MPAs.

Later, in discussions with some friends from Sindh University, I pointed towards the increasing footprint of these sectarian outfits, originating from Madrassas of the Deobandi school of thought and asked them about the response of the nationalists groups. There were mixed feelings of acceptance and denial.

Those concerned were holding the state responsible for the promotion of these groups to use the age old tactic of violently responding to political dissent from the nationalists groups working at the campuses and at the community level. They were referring to the current situation in Balochistan and a similar scenario that was witnessed in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

The attacks on minority groups serve many purposes. They measure the responses and create fractures based on those responses. The vulnerable are targeted and anyone deemed as obstruction is not spared. As is the case in Balochistan, the rise in the activities of these organizations and state-backed armed groups contribute to the identification of young political activists, resulting in their abductions and eventual killing and dumping.

Sindh too has gone through that violent phase in 80s, when political activists were on the receiving end in the days of military dictator General Ziaul Haq. Now the violence directed at nationalist political groups is back, with leaders of nationalist parties being poisoned to death or burnt alive in their car for a spectacular show of street power. Many other mid-level leaders and activists have been abducted, tortured, killed and dumped.

Those in denial are relying over the popular argument of Sindh being the bastion of pluralist ideas, cultural diversity and religious tolerance. While the argument is consistent with centuries’ worth of history, but it is fraught with inconsistencies on the face of existing ground realities.

When JUI-F Provincial General Secretary Allama Khalid Mehmood Soomro was assassinated, some of the Sindhi friends admired him for standing by their side. He was also proclaimed as a moderate religious scholar. It might be true when it comes to opposing Kalabagh Dam, Thal Canal or some other issues pertaining to Sindh. But it is a known fact that Mr. Soomro and his party were at the forefront of fanning religious extremism and have always supported Osama Bin Ladin and the Afghan Taliban. Alienating these traits of his personality from JUI-F politics is absolute shortsightedness.

The Deobandi school, with a history of joining hands with nationalist causes, has had its influence there since the colonial era. Consistent with the cultural importance of Sufi clans, the Deobandi school too built its influence on similar lines with many of the Khanqah associated with the Deoband being centers for its political movements and reform activities. With the reformist agenda and political activities centered on the increasing role of religious clerics, they came at odds with traditional pirs and their following. They challenged the religious foundation of this whole phenomenon, and got closer to those resisting the Sufi clans on the political front.

While working at the public level, the Deoband school too adopted some of the leftist slogans of economic deprivation and land possessions. A string of literature was produced backing these slogans with religious texts.

The Deoband school, and their political representation today, has adopted some of these nationalist causes for small pockets of votes in different constituencies as they have to contest elections against mainstream political parties blamed for less consideration to nationalists’ issues.

The religious ideas, and groups descended from JUI-F, have become a threat to the very concept of religious diversity and pluralism that Sindh has been associated with.

A few days back, I had an encounter with a family friend, a JUI-F zealot. He put my faith to question as he had heard from someone that I reviled the Afghan jihad, Taliban and other jihadis responsible for the mess that we are in today. I told him that I was against those who killed Maulana Hasan Jan and tried to kill Maualana Sherani. His response was interesting: “Maulana Hasan Jan’s assassination was indeed deplorable but I am okay with Sherani getting killed as he vehemently opposes jihad and supports Iran.”

The diversity of Sindh has been threatened by the unending saga of forced conversions, attacks and killings of Ahmadis and target killings of Shias. The increasing footprint of radical religious groups with a vast network of seminaries and humanitarian organisations, is further jeopardising Sindh’s pluralism. 

As they say, “You learned to run from what you feel, and that's why you have nightmares. To deny is to invite madness. To accept is to control.”