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Why are census workers being attacked in Pakistan?

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A series of attacks are targeting the census workers in the ongoing enumeration drive in Pakistan, which began last month. Identity politics based on ethnicity is the suspect.

What would violent Islamists have against the faceless, pavement-thumping census enumerators in Pakistan? Census workers have been targeted several times since the nationwide enumeration drive began a little over a month ago.

On Tuesday, a landmine hit a passenger van killing 14 passengers in Godar area of Kurram Agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata). Two of them were census workers. The attack occurred as the van travelled through a predominantly Shia region, a site of sectarian violence for long.

This was the latest in a series of targeted attacks on the enumerators. On Monday, a security official died and another was injured as they guarded the census team near Pasni town in Gwadar district. In an attack earlier this month, a suicide bomber attacked securitymen who were attached to a census team on the outskirts of Lahore. Seven people were killed and 18 others injured. Pakistan’s army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa responded by saying the population and housing census – which entered its final phase this week – is a “national obligation” and will be “completed at any cost”.

“The purpose of the attack apparently was to spread fear within the enumerators and other staff,” a statement issued by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics said.

The banned Jamaatul Ahrar, a militant group that is a splinter group of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), claimed responsibility for Tuesday’s attack and said it targeted census workers as well as the Shias travelling in the van. It also told the local media that the attack is part of its goal to uproot democracy from Pakistan.

Apart from the obvious targeting of security personnel accompanying the census team, there may be something more sinister at play. What the census finds about the number of ethnic minorities in Pakistan may not be palatable to many extremist groups.

The ongoing exercise is Pakistan’s first census since 1998, and there are “political ramifications of the findings of the census”, the Dawn newspaper said in its editorial on Wednesday. “In a country where identity politics based on ethnicity has become particularly strong over the years, there are quarters who suspect that the exercise is a political tool whereby their place in the federation, and their claim on resources, will be diminished,” it said.

Analysts also said that enumerators accompanied by police or military personnel constitute easy, soft targets for militant groups as they go about in open areas in residential neighbourhoods. After the deadly attack on army school and heightened security measures, it has become harder for groups to attack high-profile targets.

Some observers say that the attacks on census teams are also part of TTP’s recently launched anti-army operation called Ghazi, whose goal is also to implement “Allah’s system on Allah’s land”, according to a Whatsapp message sent to journalists.

The incidents are “reminiscent of the many militant attacks that polio vaccination teams have been subjected to in the recent past”, Dawn said. Similar messages were sent to the media after the polio attacks.

– Rama Lakshmi is Editor, Opinion & Social Media, at ThePrint. You can follow her on Twitter @RamaNewDelhi

Picture Courtesy: Dawn Newpaper

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