May issue 2009
A Taxing Concern
As if the oppression, loot, plunder and confiscation of property of fellow Muslims in the NWFP was not enough, the militants struck again — this time, targeting non-Muslims in the Orakzai Agency of FATA. They ordered them to cough up a religious tax called jazia — an illegal and unconstitutional demand, as no individual, only the Islamic state has the right to impose or withdraw taxes.
Baitullah Mehsud’s men, operating in the Ferozkhel/Qasimkhel area of the agency, kidnapped Kalyan Singh, a leader of the Sikh community, in the first week of April. He was held hostage for 10 days by the militants and reportedly tortured so badly that he and his community members had no other option but to cave in before the will of Hakimullah Mehsud, a deputy of Baitullah Mehsud. Conquering the Orakzai Agency, to which he was an outsider, with the might of his battle-hardened fighters, Hakimullah has declared the region his own ‘Islamic Emirate.’ And now he is demanding that the 63 Sikh families, who enjoy the protection of his Emirate, pay jaziato him. The Sikhs have been residing in the area much before the partition took place and were engaged in businesses with local tribesmen, with whom they had close ties. According to local tribal sources, 15 Sikh families have managed to escape from the area, while the rest have been asked by a jirga of elders — which was convened under the shadow of guns — to refrain from moving out of Orakzai unless the tax is paid. The jirga initially announced that the Sikhs should pay Rs 60 million as jazia to the militant group. But following a request from the Sikh community, this amount was brought down to Rs 12 million. Sources within the Sikh community toldNewsline that Rs 3.5 million has been paid so far, and Kalyan Singh has been allowed to contact other members of his community in the tribal belt and the NWFP to raise the money.
“Kalyan Singh is knocking on every door in Peshawar to raise the money to secure his release and the release of 49 other Sikh families presently in the custody of the militants. Our elders tell us that no such incident ever took place in the past, when we were living among the Pashtun Muslims,” remarks Harpal Singh, whose family shifted to Peshawar a few months back. Singh recalls the good old days spent among the Orakzai tribesmen in peace and tranquillity. He misses the rugged mountains where he was born. The Sikhs are so well integrated in the tribal set-up that they have forgotten Punjabi and speak only Pashto. “They are not wealthy, but they are a hardworking people, who run small-scale businesses for their survival,” says a resident of the area, who does not wish to be identified for security reasons.
A reign of terror has been unleashed in the region, which shares a common boundary with North Waziristan and the Khyber and Kurram Agencies. In some instances, the militants have also occupied the houses and businesses of the Sikhs and driven them out of their homes, forcing them to take refuge in the Shia belt of the agency, which has been plagued by sectarian violence for a long time. On April 29, the Taliban forcibly occupied houses and 10 trade centres belonging to Sikhs in the Orakzai Agency for not paying jazia after the expiry of the deadline. There are reports that the Taliban have burnt three trade centres belonging to the Sikhs.
Unlike the Orakzai Agency, the Sikh community residing in the remote valley of Tirah, in the neighbouring Khyber Agency, as well as those settled in Kurram Agency, have not been subjected to such unjust treatment so far. It appears that the Sunni/Shia divide has been exploited by the militants in the Orakzai Agency, where people belonging to the Sunni sect have either been weakened or have agreed to collude with the militants due to their rivalry with the Shias. The divide has culminated in the subjugation of the local tribesmen as well as the minority community, which is completely at the mercy of militants at the moment. The fear of the people of Orakzai is understandable, as they have paid a heavy price for their anti-Taliban sentiment. When they convened a grand jirga last year to announce support for the government’s initiative to drive them out, the militants pre-empted the move by bombing the assembly before it could announce its strategy. More than 160 tribal elders were killed and over 200 others injured in the car bombing which targeted the jirga. This was the second jirga of the tribesmen which was targeted by militants. A similar assembly of Afridi tribesmen was bombed in Dara Adamkhel, prior to the bombing of the Orakzai jirga, leaving more than 50 attendees dead and around 100 injured.
“We have not seen nor heard of such people before. They are extremely cruel and inhuman. They are neither Pashtuns nor Muslims, I am sure,” reveals an anonymous source from the minority community. He maintains that the developing scenario left the Sikh community with no other option but to abandon their homes till the writ of the government is restored and the tribesmen are allowed to live a normal life — in peace, without being harassed. “If the Sikhs living in Orakzai are subjected to this un-Islamic and unconstitutional practice [of jazia] today, there will be similar injustices perpetrated in other parts of the tribal belt, as well as the NWFP, targeting people from minority communities,” says Abdul Latif Afridi, a tribal elder and former president of the Peshawar High Court. He maintains that only the Islamic state has the right to impose or withdraw taxes, and not individuals. Ironically, not only have political parties and civil society groups ignored the issue, religious scholars and muftis, too, have failed to denounce the imposition of jazia — at gunpoint — upon the Sikh community.