October Issue 2014

By | News & Politics | Published 5 years ago

The Sikh community has lately come under attack in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and the adjacent Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), prompting many of them to reluctantly consider relocating out of their native area to somewhere safe.

The assassination of three Sikhs in Peshawar and Mardan last month has increased the sense of insecurity among the minority community, who had always lived peacefully among the Pashtuns.

The first incident took place on August 6, when three Sikhs were shot at by an unknown gunman at their shops in Khushal Bazaar in the busy Hashtnagri locality in Peshawar. Jagmohan Singh, a cosmetics shop owner from Mohallah Jogan Shah in the city, was killed and the other two were injured in the attack.

Another Sikh, Amarjeet Singh, a 45-year-old cosmetics shop owner was stabbed to death in Mardan on September 4. It was the first such incident in the city where 55 Sikh families reside.

Singh’s son Jaswinder is now handling the small business set up by his late father in order to support the family.

“Our lives are not the same anymore,” he shares. “I have to come to this shop every day but I do not feel safe. There is growing fear among all members of our community in Mardan.”

Although there have been no attacks on the Sikhs since the murder of 28-year-old Harjeet Singh in the busy Nauthia market in Peshawar on September 6, the community lives in a state of constant fear.

According to Harmeet Singh, a trader in Peshawar, many families are planning to move out of KP and settle in the Punjab. “I know people who are preparing to shift their families and businesses to Punjab, as our community does not feel safe in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa anymore,” he says.

Some Sikhs have set up small shops that sell clothes and cosmetics in Rawalpindi and Hassanabdal.

A number of well-off Hindus and Sikhs with professional skills are exploring the possibility of migrating to Canada and some to European countries. Dr Suresh Rajpal, a well-known orthopaedic surgeon from Mardan moved to Canada. And on Eid-ul-Fitr, some of his acquaintances, who were unaware that he had migrated to Canada, were surprised to receive his Eid greetings from Canada.

A member of a Sikh family, who recently moved his family to Hassanabdal, where the Gurdwara Panja Sahib is located, told Newsline that moving out of their ancestral city, Peshawar, was a difficult decision.

“Our women and children have already shifted to Hassanabdal with other family members,” he said on condition of anonymity. “We will also leave Peshawar once we have found a way of sorting out our businesses and property.”

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More than 15,000 Sikhs and 47,000 Hindus have been living for decades in different areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa including Peshawar, Buner, Mardan, Nowshera, Swat, Lakki Marwat and Dera Ismail Khan. Their lifestyle is not very different from that of the Pashtuns.

Both the Sikhs and Hindus speak fluent Pashto and follow most traditions of the region. Their women observe strict purdah, just like the conservative Pashtuns. If they did not wear their distinctive and colourful turbans, it would be hard to differentiate the Sikhs living in Tirah and Bara in Khyber Agency and Kurram Agency from the Pashtuns as their Pashto accent is exactly the same as that of the Afridi and Orakzai tribes living there.

Mohallah Jogan Shah in Dabgari, Peshawar is home to more than 200 Sikh families, who are mostly engaged in small businesses, selling cosmetics, clothes, and computer and mobile phone accessories. Some Sikhs are also associated with hikmat and tibb, the traditional method of treating illnesses that they inherited from their forefathers.

Known for being extremely honest in their dealings, the Sikh businessmen have generally enjoyed the trust of the Muslims, even after the creation of Pakistan. However, according to Sardar Charanjeet Singh, a businessman and Sikh community leader, times are changing and now they are finding it hard to run their businesses.

“Many of us have had to change our business timings,” he explains. “We cannot open our shops at the regular hours like the others due to the fear of attacks. We open late and close early.”

It is a historical fact that the majority Muslim community often unanimously agreed to allow the government to award permits to sell essential food items to Sikh and Hindu shopkeepers at times of rationing in places like Battagram, as they could be trusted.

And yet, the Sikhs and Hindus continue to face harassment on religious grounds and other major problems. For example, in many instances their properties and places of worship have forcibly been seized.

Rawail Chand Kakar, a Sikh businessman in Mardan, complained that a carpenter-cum-self-proclaimed religious preacher would pass insidious remarks whenever he walked past the shops owned by Sikhs.

“‘Did you hear a loud voice in the background tell you that your beard and turban will burn in hellfire?’ he would say.” “We do not respond to him,” Kakar explains, “as there are just a few of us and we fear that the non-Sikhs would side with him and take up cudgels against us. Even the police would not come to our rescue.”

Kajol, a university student from the Hindu community, complained that her teachers and fellow students often termed Hindus as anti-Pakistan and anti-Islam.

“I fight with them and tell them that my family has taught me to respect other religions,” she says. “We say ‘namaskar’ when we see the Holy Ka’aba on TV. Still, I fear that someday I will be blamed and tried under the blasphemy law, as Hindus are unacceptable to many.”

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According to Haroon Sarab Dayal, Chairman All Pakistan Hindu Rights Movement and Commission for Peace and Minority Rights, the animosity towards the Sikhs and Hindus could be on account of the presence of hateful passages against minorities in the local textbooks.

“Our textbooks have anti-Hindu, anti-Sikh and anti-Christian passages,” he says. “Hate literature was identified at 154 different places in the text books. Thankfully, the previous Awami National Party (ANP) government was able to remove 34 such passages.”

Dayal argues that interfaith harmony programmes should be introduced at the university level to educate students about living a peaceful coexistence. “The provincial government and its education department should also lay emphasis on educating the younger generation about interfaith harmony. Teachers should be told not to promote hatred towards followers of other religions and anyone violating this rule should be tried under the country’s laws,” he maintains.

Hindu and Sikh activists also complain about the forcible occupation of their private and public properties by the land mafia. Dayal says that the government should pay heed to their complaints and take timely action. “A number of our sacred properties have been seized by the members of the land mafia by force in different cities. The government departments that are responsible for taking care of them are not performing their duties,” he complains.

Dayal cited the example of the Kali Bari Hindu temple in Dera Ismail Khan which, according to him, has been leased to a private hotel. “Our places of worship are as dear to us as mosques are to our Muslim brothers. So they should be treated with due respect,” he says.

Dr Abdul Samad, director of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Archaeology Department, informed Newsline that of all the temples in the province, only the one in Gorkhatri was put under their supervision in 2011. “It is a living temple on the heritage list and is protected by the Antiquities Act. However, we allow the Hindus to use it for worship and for other religious festivals,” he added.

Dr Samad argues that many Hindu and Sikh temples in the province are not in use or have been occupied by persons who are using them for private purposes: “These temples are not being used for religious purposes. I would suggest that they be handed over to our department so we could use modern building techniques to conserve and preserve these sites for use by the Hindu and Sikh worshippers.”

This article was originally published in Newsline’s October 2014 issue as part of the cover story.

Arshad Yusufzai has worked for Voice of America and has published in The News International and Central Asia Online.