By Anwesha Ghosh
New Delhi, May 19: The brutal killing of two Sikh shopkeepers by unidentified gunmen in Pakistan’s northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province bordering Afghanistan on May 15 has brought attention to the plight of members of the minority Sikh community in the Af- Pak region.
This was the second targeted killing of a member of the Sikh community in Pakistan in the past eight months – in September 2021, ISIS claimed responsibility for the killing of an Unani Sikh doctor in Peshawar.
Since 2016, some prominent members of the Sikh community have been assassinated in the KPK, including Soren Singh, a member of the Pakistani National Assembly Tehreek-e-Insaaf. These targeted killings of Pakistani Sikhs in recent years have raised fears that Pakistani Sikhs will end up meeting the same tragic fate as their Afghan counterparts.
The ebb and flow of people and ideas between the Indian subcontinent and what constitutes modern Afghanistan and Pakistan predates the emergence of the modern nation-state. Founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak lived and died at Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in present-day Kartarpur Pakistan in the 16th century. He made two trips to Afghanistan in 1521 and 1540 and spread the faith.
Under the leadership of Ranjit Singh, the Sikhs extended their influence by seizing Multan, Kashmir and then extending their control westward, capturing Peshawar in 1834. Their rule ended after the British annexed the Punjab to British India.
The increase in trade between Afghanistan and British India required traders and merchants to travel across the region. Sikhs who settled in the North West Frontier Province (now called KPK) and Sindh in Pakistan, traveled along a network of trade routes stretching from Lahore to Peshawar and to Nangarhar, Kabul and Kandahar. These traders and merchants belonged to two communities: the Sindhi Shikarpuris and the Panjabi Khatris, while the former returned to their homes, the latter settled in the KPK and areas beyond the Durand line.
The partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 and the bloody sectarian conflict between Hindus and Muslims that followed forced many Sikhs and Hindus to flee to India, but many in KPK Province decided to stay back after being cultivated good relations with their Pashtun neighbours.
Afghanistan’s Sikh community, once numbering in the tens of thousands, has been ruined and devastated by years of out-migration and death, driven by conflict, systemic discrimination, targeted killings and rising religious extremism in post-Soviet Afghanistan. The bulk of Afghan Sikhs fled Afghanistan during the civil war of the 1990s, but some remained. Many also returned after the fall of the Taliban in 2001 to participate in nation-building activities. However, as the security situation deteriorated, the majority found it difficult to live in Afghanistan.
If the Jalalabad attack in 2018 (which killed almost all of the Afghan Sikh leaders) shook the members of these communities; the massacre of Gurudwara Sikhs by the Taliban in March 2020 convinced the majority of remaining Afghan Sikhs to leave.
Before the Taliban takeover of Kabul in August 2021, 99% of Sikhs and Hindus had left and the rest had the choice between “converting to Islam or fleeing”. The image of the last Afghan Sikhs carrying their scripture Guru Granth Sahib, boarding the Indian Air Force plane at Kabul airport – as part of the Indian government’s evacuation efforts – will continue to haunt the members of these communities.
Hindus and Christians are respectively the largest and second largest religious minority groups in Afghanistan’s neighboring Pakistan. Ahmadis, Sikhs and Parsis are considered among the notable religious minorities. With Pakistani authorities excluding Sikhs from the last census in 2017, it is difficult to find reliable data on the community.
According to reports, the Sikh population in Pakistan has drastically decreased over the past two decades, from around 40,000 in 2002 to 8,000 currently, mostly settled in the KPK, followed by Sindh and Punjab.
Along with education, poverty and discrimination, pressure to convert to Islam are some of the challenges the community faces. In the absence of strong minority-friendly legislation in Pakistan, there is virtually no legal protection against forced conversions. News of the alleged abduction and conversion of a Sikh girl Narkhana sahib caused public outcry in 2020.
While the opening of the Kartarpur Sahib Corridor (which connects the Dera Baba Nana Shrine in Gurdaspur in northwest India to the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Pakistan) has been hailed as a noble initiative by Pakistan, but the Reports of forced conversions and targeted killings of the dwindling Sikh population in Pakistan has alarmed the Sikh community inside and outside Pakistan.
Religious minorities remain the primary target of non-state actors and religious extremists in Pakistan. In 2007, the Pakistani Taliban imposed the Jizya (tax levied on non-Muslims living in a Muslim state) and brutalized 11 Sikh families in Orakzai district at the KPK for not paying the same.
Although the Pakistani authorities have repeatedly promised to protect the rights and interests of minority communities, repeated attacks tell of the dismal failure on their part to ensure the safety and security of minority communities. If this continues, the plight of Sikhs in Pakistan may not be very different from that of Sikhs in Afghanistan.
(Anwesha Ghosh is a New Delhi-based strategy analyst and author)
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