The first qawwali, Sufi song, that I ever heard is “Dama Dum Mast Qalandar,” a celebration of the Sufi mystic Hazrat Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, revered by both Hindus and Muslims. It is uplifting music about spirituality and love, familiar to most in South Asia.
On February 16, the song came to be associated with violence and bloodshed. As thousands of pilgrims gathered for the dhamaal, or meditative dancing ritual, at Qalandar’s shrine in Sehwan, in Pakistan’s Sindh province, a bomb exploded, killing 88 people, including a number of children, and scores were injured. The Islamic State (also known as ISIS) claimed responsibility for the attack.
The next day, Pakistan’s military announced that: “Over 100 terrorists have been killed since last night and sizable apprehensions also made. Details will be shared.”
When such attacks happen, people look to the government for answers – and to blame. Pakistan’s security forces and civilian authorities have long had a complicated relationship with militants who commit mass killings to promote their narrow vision of the Muslim faith. This meant that militants responsible for abuses have been protected from prosecution, and permitted to operate, as long as this served Pakistan’s strategic interests.
Yet, it is ordinary Pakistanis who have repeatedly come under attack as these groups flourished. The government announcement tacitly accepts an obligation to provide security to the population, and to take action against those responsible. Less clear is any recognition that the government response must respect basic human rights. Killing 100 people and arresting many others within 24 hours raises grave concerns about whether the killings and arrests were lawful. The promised “details” have yet to be shared.
Existing laws and past practice by the security forces heighten these concerns. Since 2015, Pakistan has used secret military courts to prosecute, and even execute, terrorism suspects as part of the government’s National Action Plan against terrorism. Human Rights Watch as well as Pakistani human rights groups and activists have called for investigations into faked “encounter killings.”
The Pakistani government should get serious about addressing militant atrocities by bolstering, not undermining, the police and criminal justice system, and sending a clear public message that respecting human rights and the rule of law is an essential part of that effort. Those responsible for these terrible attacks need to be identified and appropriately prosecuted. At the same time, security personnel who flaunt the law also need to be held to account.
Perhaps it’s time for Pakistan to rediscover the message of Hazarat Qalandar.