Who are Punjabi Taliban?

The term ‘Punjabi Taliban’ has come to stay, but the Punjabi militants who embraced this name are now scattered and weakened just like their patron organisation, TTP

Who are Punjabi Taliban?

The term ‘Punjabi Taliban’ is mentioned and its usage increases whenever an act of terrorism takes place in Punjab or when action is contemplated against the militants in the province.

There was occasional mention of the word ‘Punjabi Taliban’ again recently when action was taken against the so-called Chotu gang in Punjab’s Rajanpur district. Though it is known as a criminal gang, there was speculation that militants could have joined it or sought refuge in the riverine Kacha Jamal area under its influence in Rojhan tehsil of Rajanpur.

There is, however, still no evidence that Ghulam Rasool, alias Chotu, was part of the militants’ network or had harboured Baloch, Sindhi, or other militants and channelled weapons to them.

In fact, Chotu reportedly told policemen who got in touch with him before his surrender to the military that their efforts to paint him as Taliban were wrong. He is said to have remarked that he was a Muslim rather than a Taliban.

The usage of the term ‘Punjabi Taliban’ has an interesting background. It was apparently used first by the Pakhtun tribesmen when Punjabi-speaking militants began arriving in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) in the wake of the US invasion of neighbouring Afghanistan in late 2001. They were seeking refuge in Bajaur, Mohmand, Khyber, Kurram and Orakzai tribal agencies or the two Waziristans to escape the long arm of the law in their native Punjab, obtain training in the use of arms and tactics, and fight alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan. The local Pakhtun militants also began referring to their fellow fighters from Punjab as the ‘Punjabi Taliban’.

The interaction of the militants of different ethnicity also led to the usage of such colourful Punjabi terms as Sajna while referring to an important Pakistani Taliban commander named Khan Said. His real name Khan Said was pushed into the background as he was often described as Sajna due to his friendly attitude towards the Punjabi militants. He reportedly didn’t mind being referred to as Sajna though his preferred adopted name was Khalid Mehsud.

There are different types of Taliban and this, too, necessitated the need for differentiating between them. The Taliban, meaning seekers of knowledge, emerged in the autumn of 1994 as a group under the leadership of Mulla Mohammad Omar in Kandahar, the old capital of Afghanistan. When the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was founded by Baitullah Mehsud in South Waziristan in December 2007 as an umbrella organisation of the Pakistani Taliban, the original Taliban from Afghanistan had to be referred to Afghan Taliban to differentiate them from their Pakistani counterparts.

Subsequently, the Pakistani Taliban underwent transformation as militants from Punjab and other places joined hands with the dominant Pakhtun Taliban and the term ‘Punjabi Taliban’ was coined to refer to them. It was interesting to note that the Pakhtun militants weren’t known as Pakhtun Taliban in the manner in which their Punjabi fellows came to be described as the ‘Punjabi Taliban’.

There wasn’t a distinct militant faction that could be specifically called ‘Punjabi Taliban’. Rather, the militants from Punjab belonging to the erstwhile ‘jihadi’ groups came to be collectively known as the ‘Punjabi Taliban’ because of their ethnicity. The ‘jihadi’ organisations splintered due to ideological reasons or personality clashes and most aligned with the TTP as it was the most powerful group controlling territory in Fata and capable of providing sanctuaries and protection to the local and foreign militants needing assistance.

Most of these militants knew each other after having trained and fought together in Afghanistan and Pakistan and these bonds became stronger when they joined the TTP or became its allies. A few factions of Punjabi Taliban publicly used the name ‘Punjabi Taliban’ to describe themselves while others did so out of need when the term became their identity.

One still remembers the verbal sparring between the leaders of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) in Punjab when the PPP was in power after winning the 2008 general election. Shahbaz Sharif, who was chief minister of Punjab at the time, had angrily objected to the use of the term ‘Punjabi Taliban’ by Interior Minister Rahman Malik in the PPP-led coalition government and claimed that no such militant group existed.

He may have been technically right as no specific militant faction bearing the name ‘Punjabi Taliban’ operated at the time, but there was no denying the fact that militants from Punjab working under different banners were collectively referred to as ‘Punjabi Taliban’. Whatever name was given to them, the fact remained that the Punjabi militants were always an important part of the militant and terrorist infrastructure and the mainstream TTP needed their help for undertaking attacks in Punjab, federal capital Islamabad and other places.

The ruling elite, mostly hailing from Punjab, was generally in a state of denial until the horrible recent suicide bombing at the Gulshan-i-Iqbal Park in Lahore that took a heavy toll of life. It alarmed the federal and Punjab governments headed by the PML-N and prompted the military command to push for dedicated action against the militants operating in Punjab, particularly in its southern districts.

Earlier, top militant Malik Ishaq and his men had been killed in action, or police encounter to be precise, but this had whetted and reinforced the old demand for focused and sustained operations against the militants in Punjab. The anti-PML-N opposition and the ruling parties in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh, and Balochistan along with the nationalists in these provinces were in the forefront in demanding military action against the militants in Punjab.

The police and the subsequent military action against the Chotu gang and the tough resistance shown by it culminating in the killing of several cops also served as a reminder that the law and order situation in Punjab wasn’t as good as was being portrayed.

The term ‘Punjabi Taliban’ has come to stay, but the Punjabi militants who embraced this name are now scattered and weakened just like their patron organisation, TTP, and its various factions. They have been evicted from most of Fata due to the Pakistani military’s operations and the US drone strikes and most have fled to Afghanistan or gone underground in Pakistani cities and villages. The remnants of the ‘Punjabi Taliban’ continue to pose threat, but their capacity to cause harm has diminished.

Who are Punjabi Taliban?