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S Asia Sikhs Living On The Afghan Pak Frontier

Chaan Pardesi

Oct 4, 2008
London & Kuala Lumpur
Sikh settlements on the Afghan- Pak frontier have existed since the times of Guru Nanak and founding of the Sikh religion.The claim Sikhs only came with General Hari Singh Nalwa's Forces is unfounded.Although admittedly, more Sikhs started comming as well from the eastern plains of the Punjab in the Sikh Raj.

Since 1947,partiton very little was known about Sikhs settled in these parts; as most of them were protected by their Pathan neighbours and continued to live as if partition had never taken place.Although, the realisation had dawned that life in the new Pakistan had changed and they were cut off from their main stream Sikh brothers across the border on other side with India.But, because their relations with local tribesmen remained cordial and friendly, they continued to exist, building new relationships with Sikh jathas comming from India to visit Sikh Gurduaras and their links with the large Sikh population across in Afghnistan flourished.They flourished and lived in peace and relative security and prosperity with their non Sikh neighbours.

But fast foward into 2010, things changed with the sudden barbaric beheading of Sr Jaspal Singh, who hailed from Peshawar.This uncivilsed act brought the limelight on to the Sikh community resident in Pakistan , in increasingly difficult times.

Sikhs had been interwined with history of the land, although called aliens regarded Peshawar as their home.These Sikhs had been joined by other Sikhs who had migrated from the tribal regions of Orakzai, Kurram, Khyber and Swat.Their migration had began in 1980s at the peak of the Afghan jihad.The region had become the launch pad for thousands of US backed anti Soviet fighters.Their presence had not changed the traditional life styles , where Sikhs lived in harmony with their muslim neighbours.But all these changed,when the taliban arrived and made migration out of the area necessary for the Sikhs.

The taliban's rise, made life impossible for minorities in the region, mainly Sikhs.There are ten fuctioning Gurduaras in the hilly region, under Government control since partition, were turned into schools and colleges and hired to non Sikhs.

After Pakistan launched an operation in the Swat region fear and strife gripped the local people.When Taliban fighters arrived brandishing automatic weapons arrived to confron the pakistani forces, it became impossible for the Sikihs to continue to remain in the region.

The Sikhs were given three choices: Non muslims embrace islam;pay protection money or vacate the area.The collection of protection monies, jizya was the priority for the taliban as it helped them procure funds for arms aaand ammunation.After Sikhs refused to pay the jizya, their homes were ordered to be demolished.

The approximately four hundered Sikh families were forced to move from Feroze Khel to Merozai in Lower Orakzai when they failed to raise the required PAK Rupees 15,000,000.

The Sikh houses were occupied and the taliban took over their businesses as well.Ironically, it proves paying the jizya did not gurantee them the security, as the February 19TH gory incident proves.Tariq Afridi, a taliban commander abducted three Sikhs, including Jaspal Singh from Khyber Agency and was beheaded.The other two were eventually rescued by the Pakistan Army and returned to Peshawar.

From Peshawar, a Pakistani journalist Beroze Khan writes on the 21st of February,2010 "an inpregnable fog of sorrow seems to have enveloped Mohala Jogan Shah, in the heart of Peshawar 's old city.It is here that Jaspal Singh lived, the twenty eight year old Sikh beheaded by the Tehreek E Taliban in the Tirah valley.It is here, his body was brought for the last rites , before it was taken for cremation on the banks of the Indua River near Attock.To share in the sorrow of this dreadful event outside Jaspal's house are Sikhs and Muslims, all mourning the dead man, perplexed at the bloody turn of events in this land of the Pashtuns.

In a small room of the house sits Jaspal's father, Piara Singh, his head bowed, hands clasping his knees.He meets everyone who walks in with an impassive glance, palpably shocked into stillness.In between the silence breaks"I have no clue who killed my son...or even why.I am ruined, "he keeps repeating.A copusin of Jaspal adds"We cant say a word about this brutality.It is better to keep mum".He would not reveal his name, as the fear of further reprisals hangs heavy.

There are also Muslims waiting in the crowd outside, some of them neighbours, others are people the family has never met.For them, jaspal's behaeading has somehow come to symbolise the death of certain values they have grown up cherishing.Present in the crowd is also nasir Khan Dawar, a senior journalist who fled North Waziristan[one of the 7 autonomous tribal agencies that together constitute the federally Administered Tribal Area-FATA]because of threats to his life.Dawar says warily,"We have all been living together for centuries;there 's never been any discrimination.Those who came here under the protection of the Pashtuns[the foreign militants on the run from Afghanistan]have now become our masters.There is continous effort now to subsume our culture"

The tribal culture has indeed chnaged beyond recognition.In FATA,death is a vulture now soaring in the sky, waiting to swoop down on the innocent.On the 16th of January, 2010, Jaspal Singh had left Peshawar , along with Gurwinder Singh and Surjeet Singh, for the market town of Bara, where he owned a grocery store[the other two were cloth merchants].

Jaspal Singh had recently shifted residence to Peshawar after the Khyber Agency had come under the sway of militants, preferring to commute to Bara, a mere 20 minutes drive away from his new home.From Bara, the trio travelled to the Tirah valley, also in the Khyber Agency, for business purposes.

When the trio reached the Mathra area in the Tirah valley, the militants struck.The trio were abducted and soon demands started for ransom money.Jaspal's father denies this, but sources in the Sikh community say a whooping Pak-Rs 30,000,000 was demanded.Meanwhile, a spokesman for the taliban's Tariq Afridi faction rang up newspapers to claim resposnibility for the abduction.Sources say the trio were whisked away to somewhere in Orakzai Agency,adjacent to the Khyber.Here they languished for 34 days before militants beheaded Jaspal Singh as his two friends watched.His headless body was then dumped in Kasha, from where local tribesmen the ferried it to Peshawar.

Jaspal's beheading, though, also reportedly sparked off tensions between two militant groups-the Laskar i islam headed by Mangal Bagh Afridi of Khyber Agency and the Tariq Afridi faction belonging to Dara Adamkhel in the frontier region of Kohat.Tariq moved his fighters to Orakzai Agency following military operations in the gun manufacturing town of Dara Adamkhel;his men have now incurred the wrath of Mangal Bagh who perceives in the tragic drama an implicit challenge to his authority.

Of course , this is not because Mangal is bound by any noble cause;the Sikhs were paying Jizya,the medieval tax, non muslims paid in lieu for protection and the right to follow their religion.Jizya came into vogue here in April 2009, when militants under the command of Hakimullah Mehsud[the murderous TTP chief who died of injuries after a US drone attack in January]imposed a levy of Pak Rps 12,000,000 on the Sikhs.Incidentally, the community has been living peacefully from time immemorial in Orakzai Agency.Though the 'imposition' was much criticised, the Orakzai tribesmen did not intervene, fearing reprisal from Hakimullah.The tribal elders had no authority over him as he belonged to the Mehsud tribe of South Waziristan.Since the Sikhs could raise only 3.5 million, the TTP looted the Sikh busineses and houses and then auctioned them.The entire community was ordered out of Orakzai, most of them shifting to Peshawar, which already had about 10,000 Sikhs in the area.Some choosing to go to the Khyber as their new home.

In comparison to the TTP's levy, Mangal 's demand on the 6-800 Sikh families living in the Khyber was a mere Pak Rps 1000 per head per year.Since the Sikhs paid jizya, there are many in the area who are asking;why exactly was Jaspal Singh kidnapped and beheaded?Will Mangal now retaliate against Tariq?Well, if he did, it would not surprise any one here.

Even to date, many Sikh families choose to and continue to live in the Tirah valley, understanding their fate is no different from that of the ordinary Pashtuns here, for they too do not have the firepower to comabt the militants.Perhaps, it is this that has inspired many Sikhs of the Maidaan area in the Tirah valley to join the Ansar -ul-islam which is now fighting Mangal's Lashkar -I-Islam [incidentally the latter has moved away from the TTP ever since the pak army launched operations there]"We have nothing to do with the sectarian differences among the muslim groups, but we have to defend our land ..where we were born, raised and live and will live in the future as well" says one Sikh elder.

But there is no denying these are hard days for everyone and harder still for the Sikhs.But the Sikhs here are determined and spirtually far superior than the ordinary person found in this region; they are part of a martial tradition that has once ruled this region without fear despite their lesser numbers; and are not to be intimidated easily;given the trust in their Gurus.Arbab Muhammad Khan, an influential Awami League leader says," Our forefathers would always educate us about being accomodating and friendly with the vulnerable segments of the society,as the Sikhs now find themselves in.The SIkhs are very much part and parcel of our life.We cannot discriminate against them.It is the responsibility of the state to provide justice and protect the lives and property of every citizen, irrespective of their religion" Sadly, the state of Pakistan is largely missing from the tribal belt.

The beheading of Jaspal Singh by taliban caused shockwaves in India and Pakistan.External Affairs Minister of India,SM Krishna strongly condemned and commented that 'such barabaric acts will take us back to the medieval times' and sought facts on the Killings from Pakistan.Describing the incident as an 'outrage against humanity' Punjab Cheif minister Parkash Singh Badal asked the central Government of India to put the issue as a priority item on the proposed Indian pakistan talks.

President of the Shiromani Akali Dal, Avtar Singh Makker and Jathedar of the Akal Takhat , Giani Gurbachan Singh severely condemned the incident.Sharing their concerns about the Sikh community in Pakistan, they urged the centre to use diplomatic channels to resolve the issue and ensure justice for the victim's family.

The Delhi BJP too protested the inhuman act by staging a demonstration near the Pakistan embassy and submitted a memorandom to the Pak High Commissioner to take immediate steps to provide security to the minority Sikh community.

PakistanI president Asif Ali Zardari too denounced the murder and directed that effective measures be taken to stop the recurrence of such incidents.pakistan's Federal Minister for Human Rights, Syed Mumtaz Alam gilani felt that militants did not differentiate between muslims and non muslims , civilians or security personnel and were out to get everyone 's life.I believe such is not a very responsible statement.This is akin to saying "floods do not discriminate between any one and is an act of God," therefore ...the floods in Pakistan are simply an 'unfortunate act of God against pakistanis'!

Back, in Tirah valley, Sikhs still continue to live under the very nose of the guns of the warring factions, just as in Peshawar, their new found home.But for his blue turban and flowing uncut beard , there is nothing to distinguish a Sr Charanjit Singh Ji, 78, from the other residents of this region or any nearest town.Dressed in pathan suit, he speaks fluent pashto.He may well pass off as a stereotypical Pathan.Except his uncut hair and beard and the Kirpan slung over his shoulders says he is a Sikh.He is trhe patriarch of a large Sikh family in nondescript Mohallah Jogan Shah, which made headlines when the taliban beheaded the local Sikh Sr Jaspal Singh Ji.An estimated 800 Sikh families live in the Mohallah Jogan Shah.

Various figures are put to the Sikh numbers in Pakistan.But the reliable figures suggest there are estimated to be about or over 60,000 Sikhs in Pakistan.About 90% of these live in the North West Frontier Province and other tribal areas.It is said there are over a 1000 sikh families living Peshawar city alone.The rest are spread over in Lahore, Nanakana sahib, Balochistan, Sindh and Karachi. The Sikh community is well respected in the region.

In 1947, not all Sikhs left for India and not all became muslims.Many reverted back to their faith after the troubles died down.Thousand of Sikhs also visit Nankana sahib to pay homage to the birth place of Guru Nanak.Life has indeed come a full circle for many of these Sikhs in Peshawar, who ironically escaped the murderous years of 1947 and lived to see beyond it to this maintaining their Sikhi saroop with dignity and pride.the region was always known to be rigid islamist, but the tribals were hsopsitable and Sikhs are part and parcel of their land and culture.What has helped was in fcat the Sikh ability to integrate into the local culture while maintaining the outer symbols of their own faith and their own culture.Their security today matter to every Sikh in the world as much as to every decent and civilised human of the society.We salute them and may Waheguru grant them the boon that He sought Himself to fight against all odds and survive in the Sikh saroop.I call upon all Sikhs world wide to remember them in the daily ardas we say and hope, they will triumphantly rise in the future above all the odds placed at them.

Referenced from;- Sikh Messenger, Nishaan, The Dawn and Punjab Tribune


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