Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has pledged to crackdown on terrorism, following a suicide attack that killed 72 people in Lahore on Easter Sunday.
The tragic incident has raised serious questions about the success of Pakistan’s counter-terrorism strategy, and what political factors might be at play.
Asia Calling correspondent Naeem Sahoutara travelled to Lahore too find out more.
Seven-year-old Shina Ahmed lies in a bed at the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Center in Lahore.
Her uncles had taken her to the park to play, she tells me, when all of sudden there was a loud explosion... She doesn’t remember much more after that.
The blast at Gulshan Iqbal Park killed 72 people, including Danish Masih’s sister.
“We were sitting at the canteen,” he recalls, “I had just gone outside the park to find my other relatives, who were also coming to join us. There I heard a big bang, when I turned back there was big spark of fire and many dead bodies on the ground.”
Masih’s family had come to the park after attending mass on Easter Sunday. His elder sister died on the spot, while another sister is fighting for her life in intensive care.
Jamatul Ahrar, a splinter group of the Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility for the attack.
The group recently pledged allegiance to the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, which is working to deepen its roots in South Asia.
The militant group said it was targeting Christians, but most of the victims were Muslim – like housewife Zulekha Yaqoob.
“We did not know that it was Easter. We were at the swings when the bomb blast occurred. My intestines came out of my stomach, I tied them myself with my veil as I took my young daughter to the hospital,” explains Yaqoob.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took to the airwaves nationwide following the attack – vowing to continue an ongoing military offensive.
“I’m addressing you to reiterate the resolve that we are counting each drop of blood of our martyrs. This is being paid out and we will pay out till the end,” he said, “We’ve seen such terrorism in Ankara, Istanbul and Paris even. The enemy of humanity has crossed the limits of humanity and territories.”
The army launched an offensive against Taliban militants in the mountainous region of North Waziristan, after they massacred 134 schoolchildren in Peshawar in December 2014.
The government has also devised a 20-point National Action Plan, known as the NAP, to tackle terrorism, its financers, and to crack down on religious hate speech.
But many say the plan is yet to be fully implemented.
Zehra Yousuf, the chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, says there are many aspects of the National Action Plan that are yet to be implemented.
“Particularly, those aspects that were the responsibility of the civilian government, we see, you know, very little progress has been made,” she says, “Whenever the organization of the Madrassas or Madaris protests the government backs down. So we see a lack of political will there.”
There are around 8,000 private madrassas, or Islamic boarding schools in Pakistan – and most operate without any government monitoring.
Almost half of the country’s madrassas are found in the eastern province of Punjab, which is also the home state of the prime minister.
PM Nawaz Sharif has been accused of inaction against hardline teachings at religious schools – a move critics say ensures his public support in the state.
Sharmila Farooqui, from the opposition, the Pakistan Peoples Party, says her party has been demanding the NAP be implemented in Punjab for years.
“The government’s spokesperson used to make fun of us saying we were just trying to hide our own wrongdoings. But now, again, the same thing has happened, children and women have been martyred,” she says.
Zehra Yousuf from the rights commission says there are also strong financial and personal links between extremists in Waziristan and Punjab.
But that has not stopped some politicians, such as the former Punjab home minister, Rana Sanaullah, from courting extremists.
“There are certain instances, there was even footage, at one time, of Rana Sanaullah going around with the representatives of the religious extremist groups in his campaign,” says Yousuf.
Under the NAP the army has set-up special military courts to conduct speedy trials in terrorism-related cases, and many have been sentenced to death.
Last year, more than 326 prisoners were hanged on the gallows, according to Amnesty International.
But activists argue that executions won’t solve the problem, that the education system also needs reform.
“Even the textbooks you see contain a lot of discriminatory material, you know, Hindus and Christians are show in a bad light and Muslims are glorified,” she explains, “Woman not covering her head is shown as bad woman. So, there is lot of material that distorts the young minds.”
While paramilitary forces are now cracking down in Punjab, the thornier challenge will be in changing mindsets across the country.
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