Spate of attacks shake Pakistan's dwindling Sikh community

By AFP
Published: April 17, 2015
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PHOTO: AFP

PHOTO: AFP

Pilgrims descended from all over the world on a small town that is home to one of Sikhism’s holiest sites this week, dipping into holy spring water and solemnly offering prayers.

In this photograph taken on April 14, 2015, Sikh devotees attend final prayers at the Gurdwara Panja Sahib during the annual Vaisakhi festival in the Pakistani town of Hasan Abdal. Pilgrims have descended from all over the world on a small town in Pakistan that is home to one of Sikhism’s holiest sites, dipping into holy spring water and solemnly offering prayers. PHOTO: AFP

They have come from India, Britain and the Middle East to the Panja Sahib Gurdwara in Hasan Abdal, 55 kilometres from Islamabad, where Guru Nanak, the founder of the religion, is said to have imprinted his hand.

But for Pakistani Sikhs, who mainly live in the north, this year’s celebrations are also a time of healing after six murders during August and September that have left their community in fear.

Pakistani and Indian Sikh devotees gather at the Gurdwara Panja Sahib during the annual Vaisakhi festival in Hasan Abdal. PHOTO: AFP

The 500-year-old religion was founded in what is now part of Pakistan, a Muslim-majority country of nearly 200 million people.

Most Sikhs left Pakistan for India after both countries gained independence from Britain in 1947.

Around 20,000 Sikhs remain in Pakistan today, which has been rocked by militant insurgency for more than a decade, forcing many to leave their homes in the tribal areas on the Afghan border for Peshawar.

PHOTO: AFP

There, they have set up businesses and often work as traders, their men instantly recognisable by the distinctive untrimmed beards and high turbans that distinguish them from their Muslim counterparts.

They have earned a reputation for uprightness and have many loyal customers who praise their honesty. But their peace was broken in the second half of last year with a spate of killings targeting Sikh traders and many are now considering leaving.

PHOTO: AFP

From his spice and groceries shop in Peshawar, Harcharan Singh, 22, witnessed one of the killings last September — that of his friend Harjeet.

“It happened in front of me. The man came, shot him and left quickly (on a motorbike) before anyone knew what was going on,” he said.

“Nobody knows who it was. Nobody knows who did it. Forget that — we have had around six attacks on us. Still nobody knows who did what.”

PHOTO: AFP

Harjeet’s family fled a military operation in restive Tirah Valley in Khyber tribal agency around eight years ago, later setting up shop in Peshawar.

His father, Harbhan Singh, a mountain of a man with a majestic red turban, recalled peaceful times in his beloved home where he says Sikhs were well respected and unmolested.

“We have been here long before the creation of Pakistan, before the British period. Since then, we had no worries,” he said from the small living room at his home in Peshawar, flanked by Harjeet’s two red-headed daughters.

PHOTO: AFP

Singh, who speaks only the Pashto language of the region and not the Punjabi that Sikh holy texts are written in, said his family was struggling to make sense of what happened.

They had no enemies, he said, and were now relying on their savings to get by because they had closed the shop out of fear.

“You can’t predict about the customer whether he is a friend or enemy. You could be an enemy for all I know,” he said.

Back at one of the city’s two remaining Sikh temples still in use, high fencing, CCTV cameras and two policemen have been deputed to protect the place of worship for the first time in its history.

The killings have left police clueless and officially there are no leads in any of the cases.

Rabia Mehmood, a researcher on minorities at the Jinnah Institute in Islamabad, said military operations against the Taliban that displaced millions of Pakistanis in the past decade have clustered Sikhs in major cities, increasing their visibility and making them more vulnerable.

“It’s actually a reflection of what has been happening to other minorities — Sikhs have become part of that group in the way that they are targeted,” she said.

“Their concern is that the security situation is bad, they are visible and (certain groups) do not want to see minority groups flourishing at all.”

Those fears were evident at the Panja Sahib gurdwara in Hasan Abdal, where more than 1,000 police were deployed to protect 5,000 worshippers who had come to offer prayers over the course of this week’s three-day Vaisakhi festival marking the Sikh new year.

For some such as Bhagwant Singh, a 77-year-old shopkeeper from the Indian city of Amritsar who had made the pilgrimage along with his wife for the first time in their lives, the journey has been peaceful.

“I wanted to see this place in my lifetime and now I feel at peace,” he said, adding that he was very happy with the hospitality shown by local authorities.

But many of his Pakistani counterparts do not feel the same way.
“We want the government to either improve security for us or else shift us elsewhere, this is our appeal,” said Harcharan Singh, the Peshawar trader.

He said he had even considered leaving the country.

“But if we do, who will look after the business? How will me make ends meet and feed our children? We work, but we are very afraid. We feel fear in our hearts,” he said.

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Reader Comments (6)

  • zain
    Apr 17, 2015 - 10:43AM

    Sensationalism. Nothing like the horrors of Samjhota Express Recommend

  • ny
    Apr 17, 2015 - 11:09AM

    What a horrible article. Out of 20,000 sikhs, 6 were unfortunately killed and you’re saying they “live in fear.”? 3 Muslims were murdered in cold blood in the US just a month ago…are Muslims living in fear in the US.? Not really. I live here, I can tell. There was a planned massacre at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin killing and injuring several…Are Sikhs in the US living in fear? Not really. Why? Because just like the murders in Pak, the murders in the US were isolated events carried out by absolute psychopaths. Sensationalism at its finest by you guys.

    Please take my comment as constructive criticism ET and dont block it like last time.Recommend

  • skeptic
    Apr 17, 2015 - 11:19AM

    They should move to Punjab in Pakistan.This is the land of their ancestors and will receive complete respect here.
    Further there are many forces at work in Pakistan right now to create anarchy. Where as they could have been targeted by an organization like TTP but it won’t be a surprise if this was the doing of RAW as well. Recommend

  • batasha
    Apr 17, 2015 - 1:57PM

    well i think this arrival must be considered as a good omen for bridging gap between two separated communities. We should take pride in it that we are custodians of holy places to SIkhs who have made their presence felt not only at home but also at international level.

    anticipation, welcome attitude and felicitations are obvious in these pictures N I am proud that our government has made this possible.Recommend

  • ifesvr
    Apr 17, 2015 - 2:29PM

    @ny:
    6 murders is quite indeed a big issue as there are just 20000 Sikhs in Pakistan. to put in perspective that is like 54000 Muslims out of 180 million in Pak. imagine that many people dying in just 2 months, would that be sensationalism.Recommend

  • Hmm
    Apr 17, 2015 - 11:20PM

    Come to India.Mr.Modi is on helm, he will not upset you all.Recommend

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