Pakistan’s track record on human rights continues to get disturbingly poor – particularly in the case of religious minorities. Targeted killings, violent attacks, arson in non-Muslim neighbourhoods, forced conversions, blasphemy accusations followed by lynching to death or imprisonment indefinitely – that’s the average day for religious minorities – especially Hindus, Christians and Ahmadiyyas in Pakistan.
Notwithstanding the overall hostile environment against minorities, any analysis with a narrow focus on general terms of persecution can lead to a sense of homogeneity among the religious minorities, which does not exist in reality.
Despite the seemingly similar experience (of persecution and discrimination), there exists a vast degree of individuality and specific contexts to each of these communities with distinct personal histories.
Looking at the Pakistani Sikh community for example, not only does the general persecution narrative overlook their specific experiences – but it also compromises their agency as well as their very complex placement within the geo-strategic meshwork and the intersectionality of socio-economic class structure, ethnic politics, antagonism among different minority communities and their own intra-community frictions.
Sikhs are among the smallest minority groups in Pakistan, listed in the Census 2017 report as ‘Others’ with a percentage of 0.07 percent – putting together all the ‘others’.
Despite the protest by the community over not being counted as a separate identity, the subsequent court orders to do so, and the government’s assurances, the Bureau of Statistics have not released the number of the Sikhs – or any other minority for that matter – in Pakistan for over two years after the Census. Very recently, it has released the result in percentage terms, however, without specifying the Sikh share of that percentage as was ordered by the court and promised by the government.
Contrary to the popular belief about Sikhs being generally Punjabi, in Pakistan most Sikhs are either Pashtuns or Sindhis. The Punjabi Sikhs would probably be a small fraction compared to these ethnicities. So, the common perception that Sikhs are better off in Pakistan because they are ‘home’ in Punjab, is fictional at best. Unlike the downtrodden Punjabi Christians and Sindhi Hindus from scheduled castes, Sikhs generally excel in education, business and trade. They however, have to face not only general hostility in society, but also racial profiling and hatred directed specifically at them against the backdrop of the Partition story.
Sikhs are seen in the worst light – as ‘killers’ of Muslim migrants from India. This narrative is also carried in educational curriculam at almost all levels.
One still sees wider sections of Punjabi society in general embracing the Sikhs cordially, as compared to other non-Muslim minorities. This can easily be attributed to the Pakistani State’s long held soft corner for the community, and frequent contact with Sikhs from across the border, owing to uninterrupted religious tourism.
Ever since the signing of Pakistan-India Protocol on Visits to Religious Shrines in 1974 and subsequent additions of shrines and temples to the approved list, Pakistan has not demonstrated much enthusiasm in continuing religious tourism for Hindus, and vice versa for Muslims, by the Indian government.
For Sikhs however, the story is different. With the opening of the Kartarpur Corridor, Pakistan’s military establishment played a strategic masterstroke. But much before that, the ‘cricket diplomacy’ of the Islamic military dictator General Zia ul Haq that corresponded with India’s Khalistan years, had set the tone for an attitudinal change towards Sikhs in Pakistani society.
Despite rapidly increasing religious extremism and majoritarianism in Pakistan, a friendly disposition towards Sikhs still persists in Punjab province to some extent. In Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and tribal areas though, things were not too bad for Sikhs anyway.
Yatris (travellers) from India would go to Darbar Punjab Sahib, though in far less numbers than Nankana Sahib, but Peshawari and tribal Sikhs didn’t need these travels in order to gel within Pashtun society. They were Pashtuns first; being Muslim or Sikh came later.
Similarly, the Nanakpanthis of Sindh were as Sindhi as were the Hindus and Muslims. Things took an ugly turn during Gen Musharraf’s dictatorship when religious extremism was systematically instituted in interior Sindh through the mushrooming of Deobandi and Ehl-e-Hadith madrassas. The rise of Taliban, Al-Qaida and other assorted terrorist groups in tribal areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was disastrous for the Sikh community in those areas, after centuries of peaceful co-existence.
When life became impossible for Sikhs in their native lands in Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, many of them migrated to Punjab province – mainly to Lahore and Nankana Sahib. When religious extremism becomes a thriving industry, that place ceases to be a safe country for minorities. Even Sikhs began to face targeted persecution much like the other less fortunate minorities.
All this while, the Pakistani State never stopped putting forth a friendly disposition towards the Sikh community – sometimes, by using turbaned Sikh males in official pictures as poster boys for the country’s soft image, at other times using them to unnerve India.
On the first anniversary of the Kartarpur Gurdwara, the government decided to take the management control of the shrine from Pakistan Sikh Gurwara Parbandhak Committee (the equivalent of India’s Shiromini Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee). The government organ under which PSGPC works, that is, 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 ETPB.
Although the foreign office issued a strongly-worded rejection of this claim, PMU will be clearly encroaching upon the PSGPC functions as described in the ETPB website.
The Sikhs might be ‘trophies’ – to be put on TV screens or in framed photos on the walls of high offices, but they are clearly not ‘trusted’ when it comes to anything related to India.