October Issue 2008
The Frontier Singhs
With the ascent of the Taliban in Pakistan’s tribal borderlands and some adjoining districts of the NWFP, turbans, particularly of the black variety, invariably elicit fear.
But not the saffron turbans of the Sikhs, who have been living peacefully in the so-called wild west of Pakistan for ages, and conducting business. The two communities do not seem to fear each other — in fact, they have learnt to coexist.
The target killings and beheadings by the militants do not seem to scare the Sikhs. And understandably so. Militants can be, and have been, ruthless with minority sects but, surprisingly, they have provided protection to the Sikh minority living in their midst.
Be it the vigilantes of Mangal Bagh’s moral brigade or the more fearsome and ruthless local Taliban in Orakzai’s tribal region, Sikhs have little reason to fear them. “We are grateful to the Taliban and Mangal Bagh for giving us protection and a sense of security,” remarked Sahib Singh, a community leader and councillor in Peshawar District Council.
When criminals abducted two members of the Sikh community from Bara for ransom in May, the Taliban chased the gang and tracked them down in Doaba in the Orakzai Agency. The ringleader was publicly executed and eight houses of the rest of the gang members were set on fire. The Sikhs were freed unharmed and allowed to return home.
Mangal Bagh of the banned Lashkar-i-Islam went on his FM radio to warn criminals to stay away from the Sikhs, and community members say incidents of kidnapping for ransom have come to a halt.
Sikhs in the tribal areas and the NWFP reportedly form such a small fraction of the total population, that they do not find a mention in the 1998 national census. However, community representatives say their members total about 20,000, most of whom live in the beautiful and picturesque, remote Terah valley on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Numbering about 700 families in all, most Sikhs who have taken up residence in the Bara sub-division of Khyber under Mangal Bagh’s control, own shops in Peshawar’s famous Karkhano Bazaar, a market notorious for smuggled goods. Most of them sell cosmetics, while others practice herbal medicine.
There is a small Sikh community in the largely ungoverned Orakzai tribal region, while a few live in Kurram’s regional headquarters of Parachinar.
They consider themselves “sons of the soil” — Pashtuns to be more specific — and are identified as such. “We are proud to be Pashtuns,” says Sahib Singh. “Pashto is our tongue, our mother tongue — and we are proud of it.”
Sikhs are a closely knit community, and being in a minority, they tend to live close together. In Peshawar, the community is mainly concentrated in Mohalla Jogan Shah, in houses running alongside a narrow but newly paved and seemingly endless street.
With a total population of around 5,000, the Sikh community in Peshawar has two religious schools, Bhai Joga Singh Khalsa Dharmic School and Guru Angat Dev Jee Khalsa Dharmic School, as well as a community boarding house.
Most of the Sikh girls don’t go to school and acquire religious education at home. “There are no obvious reasons for not going to school except that girls get married early,” says 11-year-old Harmeet Kaur. Incidentally, there is no concept of divorce in their religion. “We consider it very bad and that is why we never divorce our wives. Our elders are there to resolve all domestic disputes in a peaceful manner,” says another Sikh.
There are two Sikh temples in Peshawar — Gurdwara Jogan Shah and Gurdwara Beeba Singh (currently under the government’s control) — which community members consider as sacred and hold in high esteem as, according to them, all their 10 Gurus had made a sojourn to them.
The century-old Gurdwara Jogan Shah, located in the midst of Peshawar, is beautifully inlaid with mirror work and is very spacious. The community members gather at the temple twice a day to recite verses from the Guru Granth Sahib. A relic of pre-Partition India, it was handed over to the Sikh community 27 years ago to enable them to perform their religious rites.
The Sikhs complain that the government has been dragging its feet on handing over Gurdwara Beeba Singh.
“We had requested the former president, General (retd.) Pervez Musharraf, to hand over this century-old temple to us. It is sacred and it belongs to us. Besides, our population is growing and we need another place to worship,” argues Amar Jeet Singh. What hurts him more, he says, is the attempts by the government to demolish this temple and convert it into a multi-storied market.
The NWFP Auqaf Department, however, has its own version. “The Gurdwara is located in the midst of the Muslim population. It is in a dilapidated condition and we had no other option but to close it down in order to avert any mishap,” contends Munawwar Khan, deputy administrator of the Auqaf Department.
He acknowledged that the issue of its custody was still under discussion at the top-tier in the government and a decision regarding its fate had yet to be taken.
As with every religious minority, Sikhs too have their share of grouses against the government. “There is very little money allocated for our welfare,” complains one community member. Consequently, they have had to set up their own fund to raise money and spend it on the welfare of their poor.
The government has allocated a job quota for us in the army, the motorway police and the traffic police but we are not inclined towards any government service. We are happy the way we are,” remarked Sahib Singh.
“Our identity as Sikhs never bothers us. This is our land and these are our people. We never feel threatened or intimidated. Honestly speaking, religion has never stood in the way,” a community member remarked.
“Most of the Sikhs who lived in Afghanistan have either migrated to India or to America and Canada. But we have never felt the need to go anywhere else. Taliban or no Taliban, we are here to stay. It’s our land and we are proud of it,” he asserts.