Preventing the Spread of Extremism by Understanding Sindhi Rural Society

Mujtaba Isani, University of Muenster

Over the past decade, the rural areas of Sindh in Pakistan have gradually seen a spread and rise in extremism with many instances of sectarian and militant violence. This memo focuses on one of the main factors of this spread, by the arguing that a decline in patron-client ties between the tenants and the landlords, has allowed extremist elements in rural countryside to gain a foothold. Previously, the feudals (in this memo, I use the terms “landlords” and “feudals” interchangeably) served as the brokers between citizen and state; however, their decreasing influence has created a political opportunity for other forces to capitalize and possibly become the new patrons. Extremist forces are now threatening rural Sindh, which has historically abhorred radical tendencies due to its Sufi allegiances (Imtiaz & Walsh 2014). Below, I will examine the unique local context of this area, why it was able to hold off certain brands of Islamism for so long, and the implications of the encroaching extremism.

Evidence of a spread and rise of extremism in rural Sindh

It was almost unthinkable for the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (or the Pakistani Taliban) – many of whose factions have now become part of the so-called Islamic State – to have a presence in rural Sindh until it hit an Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) headquarters in the province’s third largest city Sukkur in July 2013 (Shamsi 2013). In 2014, links to the both the infamous Karachi Airport attacks and the Karachi Naval Dockyard attack were also traced to interior Sindh. Owais Jakhrani, the main culprit in the naval attack was an ethnic Sindhi from the small interior city of Jacobabad. His accomplices hailed from the overwhelmingly rural districts of Larkana and Jamshoro (Khan 2015). Before these incidents, in 2010, 27 NATO oil tankers were torched by Afghan Taliban sympathizers in Shikarpur (The Nation 2010).

Sectarian militant groups have also become increasingly popular in rural Sindh, namely: Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuT) and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). These terrorist groups have attacked Sufi shrines, Shia notables and local Hindu communities. The violence is most noticeable in northern and central Sindh, particularly north of Nawabshah district. The Lashkar-e-Jhangvi has been one of the most notorious groups, responsible for many of the Shia killings in the region. One of its co-founders, Akram Lahori, was born in the more urban district of Mirpurkhas in Sindh, but its base in the province has been the largely rural district of Khairpur, where it conducted many killings – notably of Shia leader Allama Shah Hyderi in 2009 (Dawn 2009). There have been many clashes of Shia and Sunnis in Khairpur resulting in rioting, gunfights and strikes.

It is however not just the Shia that are victims of sectarian killings. Some Sufi-leaning Barelvis (another main Sunni faction in Pakistan) have also been targeted. Attacks on Sufi shrines have been ever-increasing: the recent February 2017 suicide bombing claimed by IS-affiliated Jamaat-ul-Ahrar in the town of Sehwan Sharif cost more than 70 lives and left more than 250 injured (Dearden 2017). Moreover, it took place at the shrine of the famous Lal Shahbaz Qalander, often regarded as the patron saint of Sindh. The radical’s blatant disregard of the popular saint shows how the very foundations of religious allegiances are being threatened in Sindh.

For centuries, Hindus have been a major trading and business community in the region. Previously, criminal groups targeted them for kidnappings for ransom because of their relative wealth. However, especially in the past decade, extremists are forcing Hindu girls into marriages with Muslim men and kidnapping Hindus for conversion. In November 2016, the Sindh Assembly passed a bill against forced conversion through marriage or other means (Dawn 2016). Accusations of blasphemy also affects Hindus and Christians alike in rural Sindh. A Hindu temple was attacked in March 2014 following accusations that a Hindu had burned the Quran. In May the same year, four Jehovah’s Witnesses were accused of blasphemy because they were supposedly selling pictures of God and Jesus (Reform 2014).

Absence of the state and weak policing have fueled the ever-increasing extremist activity. In parts of Shikarpur where I was conducting fieldwork, even the police were afraid of going to areas seen as extremist havens; only the paramilitary rangers would conduct operations in these areas. Some of these extremists worked for and were protected by top politicians, so that even the police could not do anything about them. A fitting example is the Mehr-Jatoi clan rivalry in Shikarpur, in which the Mehr politicians use Sunni extremist groups and the Jatois use Shia extremist groups to carry out violence. These radicals are sometimes become powerful entities in their own right, beyond the control of politicians.

Weakening of patron-client ties and the emergence of extremist forces

The structure of rural Sindhi society has been historically characterized by strong patron-client ties. Although the system is referred to as feudalism, it is not exactly like feudalism in the classical sense but is predominantly a system of sharecropping (Batai) whereby the landlord reaps 50 percent of the profits and the tenants the other 50 percent. Generally, the hierarchal feudal system in Sindh is arranged such that there is a feudal at the top of the pyramid who owns large quantities of land. In the local language he is often referred to as the vadera or zamindar. There are mainly two kinds of vaderas: those who reside near or in the village in which their land is situated; and those who are absentee landlords and reside mostly in a big city, making infrequent visits to their estates. Then, there is often a head manager, or munshi, who looks after a whole estate and the accounts. Depending on the amount of the land a feudal lord owns, he has several kamdars or head tenants, who each manage a large portion of land usually around 50 acres. The kamdars maintain close contact with the munshi but also often have contact with the vadera depending on how often the vadera visits his lands. Under the kamdars, are the tenants or haris, who work on the land and share, in most cases, 50 percent of the profit with the landlord. The haris often have little contact with the feudal, unless the feudal has a practice of holding regular meetings or katchairis. The munshi is almost always a paid servant of the feudal, however the kamdars share profits with haris. It is through this hierarchal system and often with armed personnel that the vadera maintains control over his haris and his jagir or land. The tenants are usually dependent on the feudal for any contact with the government or when facing any economic hardship. Previously, the increased dependence of the tenant on the landlord ensured that the patron-client ties remained strong.

However, during my field interviews, it became abundantly clear that landlords as well as tenants lamented the gradual breakdown of the feudal system. Those I interviewed blamed this breakdown on many factors, including but not limited to: smaller landholdings per individual due to inheritance, absentee landlordism, exposure of tenants to foreign countries in the Middle East, the option to pursue alternative careers if the relationship with the feudal soured, and the advent of democracy.

When the feudal-tenant and patron-client relations were strong, Islamist forces found it challenging to gain support of the rural populace. As Benstead (2017) argues in another memo in this series, Islamist parties find it difficult to gain support among people already in strong patron-client relations as depicted by the Algerian case. As soon as feudalism started declining in rural Sindh and the importance of this patron-client relationship diminished, the population started depending on other sources of power.

Relatedly, Abouzzohour (2017) shows the PJD party has seen success in urban centers in Morocco but not in the rural areas. Clark (2017) also points out that patron-client relation in Morocco’s countryside are so strong that do not allow for the PJD success. Historically, this has also been true for rural Sindh where the dynamics of rural politics have differed significantly from the urban centers. For example, Pakistan’s most famous Islamist movement, the Jamaat-e-Islami made significant inroads in Pakistan’s urban centers but failed to make an impact in the rural areas. It was thought that the political grievances of the urban middle classes were not understandable to the rural populations who suffered mainly from economic disadvantages. When Abdul Ala Maududi, the founder and leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami, talked about Islamic revivalism, it was not as effective among the rural populations as when Zulfiqar Bhutto, the leader of the then socialist Pakistan Peoples Party, raised the slogan for “bread, clothing, and housing.” In the 1970 national election, often regarded as the only fair election in Pakistan, the Jamaat-e-Islamist was not able to get a single seat in rural Sindh, which instead voted for Bhutto’s vision of economic nationalism. Similar to Morocco, in rural Sindh, Islamist parties found it quite difficult to establish a foothold where the feudal-tenant patron-client relation was so resilient that the tenant almost certainly voted along the party lines of the feudal.

Like the Muslim Brotherhood, as described by Brooke and Ketchley (2017), the Jamaat also found it quite difficult to gain support of the existing religious establishment, particularly in the countryside and had to look for new religious leaders, especially those with some recognition among the populations. Since this it was comparatively more challenging in the countryside than in urban centers, the Jamaat became more of a party of the urban middle classes. Also, most of the literature and media produced by these political Islam movements was not accessible to the rural populations due to their low education levels.

Whereas previously low education levels made the rural folk avoid political Islam movements, more extremist movements now seem to be using this to their advantage. With the decline of the traditional left-leaning political parties in Pakistan and with no real alternative to counter a corrupt government regime, it seems as if many rural, southern Pakistanis are turning towards Islamist groups as alternatives. Moreover, mainstream parties have been, in some cases, guilty of overlooking this extremist turn if these groups in any way support their parties.

Not surprisingly, some of the militant organizations have been active in relief across interior to gain the sympathy and trust of the locals. In the aftermath of the floods in 2010 and 2011, when there was dire need for welfare work and the government was ill-prepared to handle the crisis, many religiously affiliated organizations came in to fill the gap. For example, the infamous Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the welfare wing of the banned Islamic militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) was particularly active in the districts of Sanghar and Umerkot in Sindh. With welfare also came proselytization, especially for the significant Hindu minorities in the district, who were given copies of the Quran and prayer mats. The welfare work of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa presents an interesting case, as before the floods their presence was restricted to the Punjab and urban areas of Sindh., After the floods, they were able to establish a network within interior Sindh.

Through my fieldwork, I also found that rural Sindh differs from many of the cases described in the other memos discussed in this collection. Here, the Islamist forces provide not only welfare to the citizens – often by housing, feeding, and educating poor children in madrassas – but also protection for its members either when they get in to trouble with the law enforcement agencies or in the case of personal enmities. Therefore, not only do Islamist forces have an economic and social function but also a security function, which attracts many of its followers.


While feudalism can be rightly blamed for many of the adverse socio-economic conditions in the region, the vacuum created by its erosion is being filled by extremist groups. Given the decline of the landlords, dispute resolution and loans are being provided by these radical organizations (Yusuf and Hassan 2015). Moreover, with falling authority, feudals are not able to guarantee peace or help resolve longstanding tribal disputes. As feudalism declines, the state – which missed its opportunity to step in with strong institutions such as the police and judiciary – is actually on the retreat and it seems as if criminals and extremists are taking over.            Rural Sindh – which was long known for its diversity and progressiveness – is increasingly becoming more violent, intolerant, and extreme. The emergence of alternative forces may be blamed on the breakdown of traditional feudal hierarchies in the region and the state failing to fill in the resulting vacuum. However, with these traditional structures in disarray or transition, local populations crave stability, security, and order. If the state cannot fulfill these functions, other non-state actors trying to create a parallel state will only grow more attractive. Continuing to carefully examine the local context will be essential to understand how and why extremist groups succeed – or fail – to gain support in these rural areas.


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