Footprints: Fear stalks the frontier sikhs

Discussion in 'Pakistan' started by Srinivas_K, Sep 21, 2014.

  1. Srinivas_K

    Srinivas_K Senior Member Senior Member

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    Footprints: Fear stalks the frontier sikhs

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    The rickshaw chatters through deserted streets, shattering the grey silence curdled over the old city. At six in the morning, only the vendors from villages are here at the Kohati Gate, their pushcarts stacked with spinach. The shutters are still drawn on the pet shops, the birds unaware of the morning’s arrival, their dawn choruses unsung.

    A Sikh family stands at the mouth of Jogan Shah Mohalla in Peshawar, waiting for someone or something, their bags a pile on the side. The young man, his face haloed by a black beard, gives me directions to the temple. His old mother stands by, worrying the beads, lips moving in silent prayers.

    Our women read the scriptures when we leave home; they read it when we come back safe.

    The pale morning light makes the mother and son appear tentative like refugees, both hopeful and despairing. Are they fleeing?

    I enter the warrens of the old city where one could get lost if not careful. The streets get narrow and dark, light sucked out by multi-storeyed houses on both sides. Here stands an ancient brick facade among nondescript new buildings, an architectural masterstroke awaiting applause on being discovered in a street where residents have grown indifferent to it.

    From somewhere deep within the maze of streets comes music, its muffled strains dispelling the morning gloom. It grows louder as I near the Bhai Joga Singh Gurdwara at the heart of Jogan Shah Mohalla, the Sikh neighbourhood in Peshawar.

    Joga Singh. Jogan Shah. Singh. Shah. When did the name get twisted and turned around?

    I sit outside the gurdwara, waiting for the morning prayers to end, watching sunlight wash over the ornate facade of the temple, painted vanilla. Hirsute men cleanse their feet in the shallow pond at the door before entering the temple, kirpans visible between the slits of their shirts. Men and women touch the footwear at the door for the dust left by the feet of other Sikhs.

    Men eye me curiously as they go into the temple. I am here early to catch the community elders to speak to them about the killing of Sikhs in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Five members of the Sikh community have been killed in the province in as many months, two of them in the first week of September. A pall of quiet desperation hangs over the Sikh inhabitants of the mohalla. Paranoid and suspicious, no one wants to speak out about the killings, afraid they might be targeted if they do.

    The people won’t speak, they are terrified. When you go there, don’t tell them you are there to do a story. Don’t take notes. You can always write from memory later.

    The Sikhs in Peshawar are mostly from the Orakzai, Khyber and Kurram agencies in Fata — the so-called “Frontier Singhs”. They are fair, speak fluent Pashto and many have the Afridi suffix to their name. When Partition occurred, the Sikhs in Peshawar fled to the tribal areas and other parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where the local Pakhtun population provided them protection. Since then, they have integrated into the local culture and society.

    “We have not migrated from anywhere, nor did we choose to leave this land when Partition took place,” says a member of the community. “It hurts us when our right to this country is questioned, our loyalties doubted. Every time there is a cricket match between India and Pakistan that Pakistan wins, the people in the street we have lived and worked with for generations say, ‘We beat your team,’ as though we are Indians. They have never accepted us as citizens of Pakistan.”

    Pakistan is where Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion, was born and died.

    On a Saturday, when the community finally agrees to speak to me, the gurdwara still has elders and youngsters at 11am in the morning. This is unusual, I am told, because Sikhs, mostly TRADERS with shops in the city, are not going to work; their children are staying away from educational institutions in the wake of the killings.

    “We are a tiny minority compared to others,” says a community elder. “If the state can’t offer us protection, what hope is there for others? They can ensure protection for the dharnas in the capital but our lives and properties are not safe.”

    At the gurdwara, there is a lone policeman, busier reading the morning papers than being alert. Community members say they have been crying hoarse for protection. But their voices are drowned out by the song and dance at the dharnas that claim the attention of the media and the authorities. Earlier, when community representatives met Chief Minister Pervez Khattak, he said the government could give them licences for weapons to protect themselves.

    “How will that solve anything?” asks a young man. “It will only fuel conflict. We will be labelled terrorists. We are karobari [business] people, we have no time for kutcheris [court cases].”

    The Sikhs in Peshawar are also IDPs, displaced from the tribal areas post-Sept 11, 2001. In Orakzai, militants asked them for ‘protection MONEY’, demanding that they convert to Islam or join them as fighters. In Khyber, they were kidnapped and beheaded, their shops targeted. In Kurram, the Shia-Sunni conflict forced them to leave for Peshawar and Hassanabdal.

    “The very elders who protected us told us to leave because they could no longer protect themselves, let alone us,” says an elder from Tirah in Khyber Agency. Now the landlords in Peshawar are telling them to vacate shops and properties because they are a hazard.

    “For the thousands of Sikh families here, it is like Partition all over again,” says one man. “We are being hounded and targeted, pushed into leaving our homes and properties.”

    Footprints: Fear stalks the frontier sikhs - Pakistan - DAWN.COM
     
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