By Muhammad Amir Rana

Punjab faces a highly complex militancy challenge compared to other regions of Pakistan. Whenever terrorists strike in any part of the country, the focus of security debate immediately falls off to implementation of National Action Plan (NAP) and the roots of militancy in Punjab.

In part, Punjab has always remained reluctant to take action against those violent and non-violent sectarian and radical groups, which it deems are not creating much trouble in the province. The Punjab’s power elite has been presenting its own justifications for that. It largely deems the debate on militants’ presence in Punjab as politically motivated.

The recent terror wave that struck the country in January, however, forced the provincial government to invite the paramilitary Rangers to lead the counter-terrorism operations in Punjab.

While it remains to be seen how much these counterterrorism operations will be effective, there is a need for reevaluating the problem of militancy in the Punjab. Certainly, being the big brother, Punjab has to set a precedent for smaller provinces in countering terrorism. It hosts 55 percent of the country’s total population, shares 55 percent of national resources, shapes the political trends, and is considered the custodian of ideological and strategic interests of the country.

At the same time, as Punjab is the biggest hub of religious and sectarian organizations and groups in the country, it shapes the contours of religious politics and movements, and also serves as an epicenter of sectarian and militant trends.

Even though the numbers of attacks in Punjab has been far less, when compared with other provinces, a strong religious character goes with the province, with militants of all hues and/or their ideologies finding roots in Punjab. The province is home to anti-Shia groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi; anti-India groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, among others.

Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan told a top-level meeting held in January 2015 that the number of proscribed organizations actively engaged in terrorism and extremism in Punjab had reached 95. These organizations are working for multiple agendas — from transforming the society, enforcement of Shariah laws, establishment of Khilafah, to achieving sectarian goals and to achieve Pakistan’s strategic and ideological objectives — through militancy.

In April 2016, Punjab’s CTD released a ‘Red Book’, a list of terrorists including their brief profiles. As many as 17 of the total 22 most-wanted terrorists listed in that book reportedly belonged to Punjab. These were the men who masterminded several suicide attacks not only in Punjab but also in other parts of the country.

The concentration of religious parties and their intuitions in Punjab provides a conducive environment to violent and non-violent religious actors. Logically, a question arises why religious groups focus Punjab? The answer is simple: Punjab always remains the center of political and strategic powers and no political movement can succeed without a support base in Punjab.

Historically, all major political and religious movements started from the province, including the Nizam-e-Mustafa movement in mid 1970’s, which had shaped the future religious movements in the country. At the same time, a relatively better economic growth in Punjab also works as a pull factor to attract religious groups.

A look at the geographical spread of religious seminaries, or madrassas, suggests that more than of 65 percent of the total madrassas in Pakistan are located in Punjab, and, interestingly around 50 per cent in urban and commercial areas of the province.

The madrassa proliferation in Punjab has a link with the economic growth in the province and the presence of a wide network and culture of religious charity there. The maximum number of students and teachers in madrassas in Punjab hail from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Azad Jammu and Kashmir.

The madrassas not only transmit certain extremist tendencies among students and the general public but also serve as an important source of recruitment for local militant groups, especially the sectarian groups.

Apart from madrassas, the charity and youth wings of the so-called jihadi and sectarian groups and organizations directly or indirectly provide the human resource to terrorists. These organizations are operating freely across the province, despite facing repeated bans from the government.

The tools of ideological propagation and indoctrination are also easily and widely available in the province. Most of the publication houses of militants and religious extremist groups are located in Punjab. The expansion of the media, owned or controlled by militant groups, is making the challenge of extremism more complex. Although the government has more than once attempted to ban many of these publications, these resurface under different names.

In this context, Punjab serves not only as an ideological hub of the militancy but also as an important source of logistics and recruitments for the militants. Major drivers of urban terrorism in the country are located in Punjab, without any discrimination among southern, central, or northern parts of the province.

These are a few of many reasons, which call for a proper, comprehensive response beyond mere security operations against terrorist cells in the province.

Author Bio: Muhammad Amir Rana is a security analyst. His latest book, The Militant: Development of a Jihadi Character, sheds light on the challenge of militancy offering new insight to the policy makers to correct the course for elimination of Jihadi infrastructure from the country.