x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Dilemma for Sikhs who escaped tribal areas

As refugees head back to the tribal areas, many are concerned that their villages in north-western Pakistan are unsafe because of Taliban extremists.

A Pakistani Sikh and his son wade in the holy water of Panja Sahib shrine in Hasanabdal.
A Pakistani Sikh and his son wade in the holy water of Panja Sahib shrine in Hasanabdal.

HASANABDAL, PAKISTAN // The Sikh community of north-western Pakistan faces an uncertain future after fleeing fighting between security forces and the Taliban. Sikhs from across the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the tribal areas have taken refuge over the past three months within the high walls of Hasanabdal's Gurdwara Panja Sahib, one of the most sacred temples in Sikhism. Reeva Kor, a mother of three children and one of 3,000 Sikhs who has made the shrine a temporary home, comes from Buner, the district into which militants encroached from neighbouring Swat valley after flouting a peace agreement they had struck with the government. Unidentified gunmen killed Mrs Kor's husband, Ram Singh, four months ago as he left for home from a small hospital, which is owned by his brother in Buner's capital, Daggar, and where he ran the medical store. "He had no enmity with anyone. But we could not find out who committed the murder because we were forced to leave by the fighting," said Mrs Kor. Like many of the Sikhs who have taken refuge at Hasanabdal, she said that although there are still reports of militants lurking in Buner - despite the military's announcement of an end to the operation - she will return home. "If the situation returns to normal we will go back. Local people have not been involved in the militancy, so we should have no fears to return," she said. Many of the Sikh men, like their Muslim counterparts, have returned to Buner to ascertain if the area is safe enough for their families to go home. Most of Buner has indeed been deemed safe enough, and the government has begun a gradual programme of returning refugees to their areas. However, like in Swat and the neighbouring areas of Malakand, such as Dir, which also have been the scene of fighting, there are still pockets of militants who the army has not managed to dislodge. Jaswant Singh, who has taken refuge at the shrine with nine family members, comes from Diwana Baba, one of three villages near the Buner town of Pir Baba, where militants have managed to hold out against security forces. "I telephoned a friend who is still there at home and he said that fighting continued and that an army shell had killed two civilians. Until the situation improves it will be too difficult to go home. Even when we do go back it will be fearful," said Mr Singh. Pakistan is home to many of Sikhism's most important sites, including Nankhana Sahib, the birthplace of the religion's founder, Guru Nanak. An estimated 10,000 Sikhs live in the NWFP and tribal areas, descendants of those who chose not to move to India during the horrific communal butchery that accompanied the independence and Partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947. The gurdwara at Hasanabdal is named "panja" as the Sikh tradition holds that Guru Nanak left his "panja", or handprint, impressed into a rock above the sacred spring that feeds a pool around which the grey stone temple, with its yellow and white dome, was constructed. Compared to the heat and privations that other refugees have endured in makeshift camps, the shrine is an oasis that provides shelter and food; its fish-stocked pool allows the Sikhs a place to cool off. Government and private donations have meant that the shrine has a clinic and a bustling kitchen. Volunteers also run a school in one of the compound's accommodation blocks. But most Sikhs are worried about what the future holds for them. In Orakzai tribal agency two months ago, militants loyal to Hakimullah Mehsud, a close aide to the Pakistani Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud, demanded that the area's 40 Sikh families pay jizya, an ancient tax on non-Muslims living in an Islamic state. They kidnapped a Sikh and demanded a ransom of Rs12 million (Dh538,000). The Sikh community secured his release by paying half the sum and then fled. Militants destroyed 11 Sikh homes. The demand for jizya, the first such demand on the Indian Subcontinent in three centuries, has stirred fears among the Sikh communities that have lived among conservative tribal Muslims peacefully for hundreds of years. Harpal Kumar, an irrigation and water official from Mingora, the capital of Swat, echoed the sentiments of many at the shrine when he said: "If ordinary Muslims live in fear of the Taliban, then what sort of future do we have here? "Speaking frankly, NWFP is not the place for a minority community. At times they demand the imposition of Sharia. How can we live like this? We have our own identity and religion and we cannot mix it with theirs." But even with such misgivings about the future, Mr Kumar plans to return to his home in Mingora. "What other choice do I have? It is the only option. Our livelihoods and business is there. But we will be refugees even when we reach home." iwilkinson@thenational.ae