In 2019, Pakistan claimed positive global attention when it opened the Sikh gurdwara at Kartarpur to pilgrims from India. But the reality is that the Sikh community in Pakistan faces persistent discrimination. Pakistani Sikhs, who mainly live in the country’s restive northwest, are a community that lives in fear.
The 500-year-old religion was founded in Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of Sikh guru, Guru Nanak Dev, and is now part of Pakistan.
At the time of the Partition of India in 1947, more than 2 million Sikhs lived in Pakistan and significant populations of Sikhs inhabited the largest cities in the Punjab such as Lahore, Rawalpindi and Faisalabad. Most Sikhs left Pakistan for India after both countries gained independence from Britain.
While Pakistan’s National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) claims that there are only 6,146 Sikhs registered in Pakistan, according to a census conducted by NGO Sikh Resource and Study Centre (SRSC), about 50,000 Sikhs still live in Pakistan.
Sikhs were not included in the 2017 population census and there is no hard data on their numbers. Most are settled in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, followed by Sindh and Punjab. Other sources, including the US Department of State, claim the Sikh population in Pakistan to be at 20,000.
Despite demands by the community over not being counted as a separate identity, subsequent court orders to do so, and the government’s assurances, the Bureau of Statistics has not released the number of the Sikhs in Pakistan.
So, there’s no real figure of its population in Pakistan. But rights campaigners say its size has drastically come down within the past two decades — from around 50,000 in 2002 to 8,000 now, they say. As their population decreased, the Sikh community’s rights were diminished. Because of their distinct identity the community faces enormous challenges. Today, the majority of Sikhs there live in KP and Punjab province of Pakistan.
In Pakistan, the Sikhs are instantly recognisable by the distinctive untrimmed beards and high turbans that distinguish them from their Muslim counterparts. Apart from the violence, there are instances wherein Sikh men have been persecuted for wearing the turban and kada.
In 2011, two students were pressurised by the management of Nasira Public School, Karachi to remove their turban and kadas for uncited reasons. In another case that also came to the notice of the council, a Sikh man was fired by a company because he observed the Sikh life-style; wearing the kada on a wrist, a turban to cover his uncut long hair, and keeping a dagger, the kirpan on him at all times.
This has resulted in the falling literacy rates among the Sikh youth. According to a number of young Sikh men, very few have hopes of getting admission in universities. Even if they somehow manage to complete their education, with only a five per cent job quota for all minority groups living in Pakistan, there is little hope of a secure job.
Regular discrimination has led to an economic crippling of the community and to an extent a fear among Sikhs to even wear their identity as they once used to, whether it’s the dastar, kada or kirpan. Young Sikhs are struggling under tough circumstances, simply because of their religious identity. Added to this the illegal occupation or forced shutting down of gurdwaras as further proof of systematic discrimination of the Sikh community in Pakistan.
Their peace was further broken with a spate of killings targeting Sikh traders. In Peshawar, the capital of the north-western Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, dozens of Sikh men have been ruthlessly killed by Pakistan’s religious extremist groups, leaving community members unsure of their future in the country. Militants have routinely targeted and killed hundreds of other religious minorities across the country.
In 2016, in a high-profile case, Sikh legislator Soran Singh, from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, was shot dead near Peshawar. Though the Taliban claimed responsibility for the assassination, police arrested a political rival, a minority Hindu politician called Buldev Kumar.
As the police are afraid to take on the extremists, they try to cover up the killings as disputes within minorities or business rivalries.
Haroon Khalid, an anthropologist who has written a number of books on Pakistan’s minorities, including “Walking with Nanak” about the founder of Sikhism, said he had no doubt militant groups were behind the killings.
The Taliban also imposes the jizya, a tax levied on non-Muslims, in several parts of the tribal areas. In 2009, the Taliban destroyed the houses of 11 Sikh families in Orkazi Agency for refusing to pay jizya. In 2010, Jaspal Singh, a young man from Khyber Agency, was beheaded after his family couldn’t pay up. In January 2020, Rowinder Singh, a 25-year-old Sikh man who had come to Peshawar from Shangla district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to shop for his wedding, was shot dead by unknown gunmen in Peshawar.
Around the same time, a mob of radical elements mob surrounded the Nankana Sahib gurdwara and threatened to destroy it, with several Sikh devotees stranded inside. In a video, protesters were seen raising slogans and saying that they were against the presence of the gurdwara there. The agitators can be heard saying that they will soon change the name of the gurdwara from Nankana Sahib to Ghulam-e-Mustafa.
On the first anniversary of the Kartarpur Gurdwara’s opening, the government decided to take the management control of the shrine from the Pakistan Sikh Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee. The Evacuee Trust Property Board (ETPB) has reportedly transferred various management functions of the Kartarpur Gurdwara to a Project Management Unit composed of all Muslim bureaucrats of the Evacuee Trust Property Board (ETPB).
In December 2020 the statue of Sikh leader Maharaja Ranjit Singh, located in the Lahore Fort was vandalised. Maharaja Ranjit Singh was the ruler of the Sikh empire spread across many parts of Pakistan, with Punjab being the main territory. But Sikh history had never been taught in Pakistan’s schools, and there have been attempts previously to destroy the statue.
So, while in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the minority group seems to be in the cross-hairs of extremism, in Punjab, it is the larger institutional discrimination that the community is facing. More than 60 per cent of Peshawar’s 30,000 Sikhs had left for other parts of Pakistan or migrated to neighbouring India in the last few years.
Recently, Harmeet Singh, a Sikh news anchor of Pakistan, began to receive intimidating calls. Distressed over the threatening calls and police inaction, he is contemplating leaving.”I will be left with no other option but to leave Pakistan,” he said. In January 2020, Harmeet’s younger brother Parwinder was shot dead in Peshawar.
But reports of forced conversions and dwindling Sikh population in Pakistan have alarmed the Sikh community within and outside the country. Hundreds of Sikh families have sought refuge in Canada and Europe in the recent years.
In yet another case of religious persecution in Pakistan, Radesh Singh Tony, a prominent member of the local Sikh community and the president of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa’s Pakistan Minorities Alliance was forced to leave the country after “receiving threats”. He had contested the 2018 general elections in Pakistan from Peshawar as an independent candidate, but was facing torture by some unidentified people. “I am very sad to say that I have left Pakistan to protect the lives of my family and children,” the Sikh leader was quoted as saying by BBC.
Away from the glare and fanfare of the Kartarpur corridor, is the unheard reality of the Sikh community’s constant battle with the Pakistan government for ownership of hundreds of gurdwaras. Under an agreement signed between Pakistan and India after the Partition, religious lands and temples cannot be sold. And yet, many lands allotted for Sikh temples and crematoriums have been disposed off by the Evacuee Trust Property Board, a body responsible for the maintenance of properties abandoned by people who left for India during Partition. And the discrimination doesn’t end even after death. For Sikhs living in Peshawar the nearest cremation ground is more than a hundred kilometres away, in Attock.
Though the Imran Khan government has time and again claimed that there is no religious persecution in Pakistan, such incidents present a contrasting picture to the stance they portray. Fearing religious persecution and threat to life, Sikhs in Pakistan, choose to immigrate to India or some other country. In December 2019, a UN panel in its 47-page report titled “Pakistan-Religious freedom under attack”, said that religious freedom of minorities in Pakistan is under threat.
The forced conversion of young Sikh women is a real threat for the community. Professor Kalyan Singh, a minority rights activist and a teacher at Lahore’s GC College University says: “This is a fact the Sikh population in Pakistan has been consistently declining. One of the reasons behind this decline is, of course, forced conversion.”
Harinder Pal Singh, a senior executive member of the Badal-controlled Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee, said: “It has brought the duality of Imran Khan to the fore. On the one hand, he’s making tall claims about Sikh initiatives, on the other hand, Sikh women in his country are being subject to this kind of treatment. His claims are under suspicion now.”
Pakistan’s track record on human rights has been less than enviable in general, and it continues to get disturbingly poor – particularly in the case of religious minorities. And in this the Pakistani Sikh community’s persecution is especially overlooked. The day is not far when Sikhs in Pakistan will be an extinct minority group, figuring only in textbooks, that too only if permitted.