Islamabad: Sectarian violence in Pakistan is on the rise as Sunni groups are threatening Shias, Ahmadis and non-Muslim minorities under the state patronage.

The Sunni groups enjoy support from the military and political leadership, reported International Forum for Right and Security (IFFRAS).

Although the phenomenon has been known to many, especially the military, there has been a clampdown on the media in reporting such a trend.

In 2020, well-known defence analyst, Dr Ayesha Siddiqa wrote about the revival of sectarian tension between Sunnis and Shias in Karachi and other urban centres in Sindh and Punjab. She pointed out that Pakistan has reportedly witnessed the killing of approximately 4,847 Shias in incidents of sectarian violence between 2001 and 2018, reported IFFRAS.

Two years later, a well-known international policy think tank, the International Crisis Group (ICG) in its latest report on sectarian violence in Pakistan, warned of "the rise of a local Islamic State franchise and the growing influence of a hard-line and violent protest movement known as 'Labaik' that draws support mostly from Pakistan's Barelvi majority."

The "Labaik" is the hardline Barelvi group, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), which has been on the rise for the past few years, especially during the Imran Khan regime, reported IFFRAS.

The ICG report, published in early September this year, pointed out that these new groups, though different in many ways, were responsible for some of the country's worst inter-communal bloodshed in recent years.

The report warned that "Muslim minorities, particularly Shias, are deeply vulnerable. Vigilantism is dangerous as hardliners mobilise around allegations of blasphemy to gain political clout."

The origin of Sunni militancy can be traced to the Sunni-Shia tension in Pakistan immediately after the independence. Many Deobandi clerics called for attacks on Shia processions and wrote against Shias in books and tracts, reported IFFRAS.

During President Zia-ul Haq's tenure, Sunni militancy came to the fore with the army actively supporting a rabidly anti-Shia group called Anjuman Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan.

Moreover, in the hybrid regime formula adopted by the Pakistan Army, Imran Khan helped to gain Islamabad with engineered elections. Khan, who not long ago was known as Mr Taliban, showed no remorse in supporting a new Barelvi group, TLP, to cause mayhem across Pakistan in the name of blasphemy, reported IFFRAS.

TLP, untouched by the present turbulence in the country or sanctions, spearheads Barelvi hardline stance today. The December 2021 mob lynching of a Sri Lankan factory manager, falsely accused of blasphemy, by the TLP supporters was a clear signal that the group had broken Barelvi's history of shared ritual practice with Shias and was keen to project its anti-Shia agenda.

Further, other Sunni extremist groups, primarily Deobandi, like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, decimated by security forces over the years, have opted to fight alongside other extremist groups including the local franchise of Islamic State.

The foot-soldiers of Jhangvi and similar groups today are busily expanding their influence in the tribal areas in Pakistan adjacent to the Afghan border. As the ICG report highlighted, unless this upsurge in sectarian violence is put down with a firm hand, it could prove to be another milestone for a trouble-ridden Pakistan, reported IFFRAS.