Rising attacks and religious desecrations are forcing Pakistan’s Sikhs from their homes.
On September 6, Harjeet Singh was sitting in his herbal medicine store in the Nothia Bazaar area of Peshawar when two armed men entered the shop and opened fire. Harjeet, 30 and a member of Pakistan’s Sikh minority, succumbed to his injuries while his attackers escaped.
Peshawar is the capital of Pakistan’s north-west province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), which has become the epicenter of militancy and violence in Pakistan over the last decade. Just two days before this attack, another Sikh was stabbed to death in Mardan, another city in KPK. Amarjeet Singh was at his cosmetics shop, when the shutters were pulled down. He was found later that evening by his son- stabbed to death in the warehouse adjacent to the shop.
In early August, two unidentified men fired on three members of the Sikh community in Peshawar. One teenager, Jagmot Singh, was killed and two others were injured.
“Sikhs are under attack because they can be distinguished from other people because of their turban,” says Haroon Sarab Diyal, chairman of the All Pakistan Hindu Rights Movement,. “We are in no position to name the culprits but we know these are attempts to further destabilize Pakistan and frighten the community.”
In a report issued by Minority Rights Group International (MRG) in 2014, Pakistan was declared one of the most dangerous countries in the world for religious minorities. The report mentioned militant groups like Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SPP), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TPP) and Jaishul Islam, which attack, threaten and abduct minorities. According to a U.S. State Department Report on religion in 2008, there are some 30,000 Sikhs residing across Pakistan, many in the north-western provinces of KPK and Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
“Sikhs are not sending their children to schools or to their businesses now,” says Haroon Sarab Diyal. “The evening and night prayers are not held any more. We all know it is because of the attacks. If they give a statement or witness testimony, they will be in trouble.”
Following Pakistan’s general election in 2013, there was a new government in KPK. The new ruling party, Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI), is led by the cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, who came to office opposing an operation against militants, proposing dialogue instead, and claiming that Pakistan’s army cannot win this “American war.” Khan even suggested that the Taliban should be allowed to open an office in KPK. Critics of his party believe that this has given the militants a free hand in the province and made minorities more vulnerable.
“This is the seventh attack in seven months,” says Amarjeet Malhotra of the Awami National Party, the main opposition to PTI. “PTI’s government has no writ in KPK. Now TTP and Taliban are free to do anything. There is no one to stop them. Six Sikhs have been killed.”
Outlawed TTP militants from neighboring areas have infiltrated the Tirah valley (also in the north-west of Pakistan). Some of the roughly 40,000 people who were internally displaced from the valley were Sikhs. In 2013, the Pakistan military launched operation in an attempt to establish control there for the first time. The army now claims that the area is free of militants.
Many of the Sikhs displaced from the Tirah Valley have adopted Pashtun traditions and culture. Most of them dealt with herbal medicine, spices, groceries, or were farmers. Since their displacement they are in a hurry to return home and restart their businesses. But these internally displaced Sikhs have not been able to return to the lush green Tirah valley, which is still not secure.
“After the Sikhs were killed in Peshawar this August, Al Qaeda took responsibility,” said Amarjeet Malhotra, a senator from KPK. “The government did nothing. These parliamentarians are a weight on our country. They do nothing.”
Sikhs are also exposed to kidnapping threats from militant groups. The kidnappers demand unaffordable sums and then kill the victim if not paid. In February this year, two Sikh businessmen were kidnapped in Dera Ismail Khan. They were released after allegedly paying a hefty ransom of Rs. 4 million ($38,953), although one of the victims denied paying.
In January 2013, a 40-year-old Sikh was kidnapped by the militant group Lashkar-e-Islam in Khyber Agency (tribal areas in the north-west of Pakistan). He was later beheaded and his mutilated body was dumped in a sack with a note accusing him of spying for a rival group.
Asked about the attacks on the Sikhs in KPK, Suran Singh, minister of Minorities for the province and a member of the ruling PTI, fumes. “Did you ask Sindh and Punjab (other provinces in Pakistan) what they have done for the minorities? Our province is on the frontlines of the war on terrorism. We have a border thousands of kilometers long near Peshawar through which militants can enter. We have limited the drone attacks in the first 14 months of our government and there have been no suicide bombings.”
Meanwhile, the Sikhs have also clashed with other minorities. In March last year, a rift emerged between the Hindu and Sikh communities in Shikarpur, Sindh. Sikh students were in uproar after the head of Shikarpur’s Jai Samadha Ashram was photographed holding the Sikhs’ holy book without his head covered, drawing symbols on it. Photos of the act, considered disrespectful to the book, circulated on social media. The outraged Sikh community eventually received an apology. In Pano Aqil, meanwhile, a group of Hindus tore Sikh scriptures placed in a Hindu temple in mid June. They were later arrested because under Pakistani law, destroying any religious scripture is considered blasphemy. A compromise was subsequently reached, after the head of the temple apologized. Pakistan Sikh Council Chairman Sardar Ramesh Singh confirmed that the desecrations have taken place in other parts of Sindh, like Shikarpur, Mirpur Mathelo and Dadu.
“Many Hindus in Sindh consider Guru Nanak as their guru and are now converting to Sikhism,” explains Pakistani Punjab’s first Sikh MP, Ramesh Singh Arora. “There is a lobby that wants to stop that and therefore dishonored the Guru Granth Sahib.”
This week, at least five Sikh families have decided to move to India because of the security situation. However, the Indian visa requirements have become tougher. Most pilgrims have to submit a written document saying they will not seek asylum in India and will return to Pakistan before their visas expire. The Pakistani Sikh community, which has lived in Pakistan since partition and has been affiliated with a violent separatist movement in the Indian Punjab in the 1980s, is not welcome in India.
Since last month, the PTI has been on a sit-in in Islamabad, protesting what it claims was vote rigging in last year’s general election. Many of PTI’s leaders, including Imran Khan, have been seen in Islamabad more often than in KPK. Opposition members, including Senator Amarjeet Malhotra, have been critical of the PTI’s absence and alleged neglect during this period. However, Suran Singh rebuffs the criticism.
“We fixed the police which had third-rate equipment, no protection jackets or CCTV cameras. The chief minister of KPK and I met the victim’s family, attended their funerals and gave them compensation. I went to the murder site, picked up the bodies myself, and went for their prayers. The minorities are not the only ones in danger, everyone is.”
Ammara Ahmad is a web editor at the Daily Nation, in Pakistan. She holds a Masters in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong. Her work has appeared in Pakistani newspapers such as The Express Tribune, The Friday Times, The News on Sunday, Viewpoint Online, and The Nation, as well as in Malaysiakini and Indian newspapers such as Tehelka and DNA India. In the past, she has been a National Press Foundation Fellow and Fulbright scholar.