Sikhs in Pakistan fear for lives as persecution rages on

Recent slaying of peace activist adds fuel to fire after thousands have already fled restive province
Sikhs in Pakistan fear for lives as persecution rages on

Sikh pilgrims gather at the mausoleum of Maharaja Ranjit Singh during commemorations for his 179th death anniversary in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore on June 29. (Photo by Arif Ali/AFP)

Radesh Singh Tony, a Pakistani Sikh and human rights activist, grew up learning to deal with religious persecution as his strange-sounding name made him a target in this Muslim-majority nation.

"Imagine a Sikh, named after a Christian, living in Islamic country. My paternal uncles got the nickname from one of their foreigner friends. I have had to explain this on countless occasions to curious acquaintances. All of my Muslim friends considered it their duty to invite me to embrace Islam," Tony, 50, told ucanews.com.

In his younger days, he represented his country in first-class cricket competitions. However he was later axed from his school team and not selected for the Pakistan Railways cricket team, which he sees as two unfair and religiously motivated decisions.

"They used to call me 'the Hindu'," he said.

The challenges continued as he started a business selling computers and security cameras in Peshawar, a conservative city often hit by Taliban bombers in northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. 

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"Our competitors had the advantage of being Muslims. They used to approach our clients and convince them not to do business with people of other faiths. My employees grew long beards to prove they were true Muslims," he said.

In a bid to show society and his friends he was a patriot entitled to the same rights as Muslims, he has engaged in many philanthropic endeavors.

The list includes providing relief aid to survivors of the magnitude-7.6 quake that rocked the disputed territory of Kashmir on Oct. 8, 2005; helping to set up free medical camps; hosting iftar (evening) meals during Islam's holy month of Ramadan; and other initiatives.

Sikhs in Pakistan are concentrated in this northern province. Their true number is not known as they were excluded from the country's most recent population census, but estimates hover around 20,000.

Many have taken to social media to raise awareness of the discrimination they face while also using this as a platform to demonstrate their love of country.

The Islamic country is home to over a hundred Sikh shrines. Thousands of Sikh pilgrims gather each year to honor the birth of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism who was born in 1469 in a small village near Lahore.

Yet the region is not considered safe for Sikhs who speak up and rail against injustice.

On May 24, veteran peace activist Charanjeet Singh, 44, was shot dead by men on motorbikes while working at his grocery store in Peshawar. The proponent of inter-faith dialogue, a friend of Tony's, died on the way to hospital.

After arresting the chief suspect in his murder, Peshawar police said the man belonged to a criminal group involved in extortion.

The local community in Peshawar recently lauded newly installed Prime Minister Imran Khan for breaking ground on a 4km-long Kartarpur corridor to facilitate border crossings for Sikh pilgrims from India.

The corridor will connect Dera Baba Nanak in Gurdaspur, India with Gurdwara Kartarpur Darbar Sahib at the River Ravi in Narowal district of Pakistan, allowing visa-free access to pilgrims bound for a famous shrine on the other side of the border.

Meanwhile, the Federal Ministry for Religious Affairs said it plans to issue a postal ticket or coin to commemorate the 550th anniversary of Guru Nanak's birth next year. Plans are also afoot to build and name a university after him. 

Despite these efforts, harassment and religious discrimination continues to be a major challenge for non-Muslim Pakistanis. Thousands of Sikh families have reportedly emigrated to "safer" countries after facing death threats.

In another high-profile murder case, Sardar Soran Singh, an adviser to the chief minister on minority affairs, was shot dead by unknown gunmen in his native Buner district in 2016.

Media reports claim that 7,000 Sikh families in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have fled to neighboring India over the past decade, leaving about 15,000 Sikhs residing in the troubled province.

In this picture taken on July 3, Radesh Singh Tony (center) distributes pamphlets during his door-to-door election campaign in Peshawar. (Photo by Abdul Majeed/AFP)

 

This October, Tony moved to Punjab after surviving three gun attacks in Peshawar.

The intimidation tactics started during the July 25 general elections, when he nominated himself as an independent candidate for a provincial assembly seat. It began with a threatening phone call at 7:30 am on July 14.

"You don't need to know my name. Abandon the elections. This won't be good for you or your family," said the voice on the other end of the line. Three days later, a man in his early 20s turned up at Tony's house to deliver the same ultimatum.

"After placing a pistol on our table, he inquired about my reasons for not running for the seat reserved for minorities," Tony said.

"After failing to persuade me, he warned me that gunmen had been stationed outside my residence and said it would be unwise of me to leave my house."

Tony reported the threat at his local police station the following day.

"They offered me additional security but I couldn't afford to pay for four policemen for a week. Also I didn't have any vehicle to carry them around during my political campaign," he said.

During that election week, gunmen fired on Tony and his two sons at several locations.

"At first we thought it was just some people firing their weapons in the air, which a Pashtun custom. The next day we were targeted near a graveyard, and we took refuge at the house of a local," he said.

"Then on July 21, I heard bullets explode around me as I was about to drive off on my motorcycle. One of them struck my Dastar," he added, referring to the turban Sikhs wear, which is considered a sacred head garment.

Despite the threats, Tony cast his ballot early in the morning on the day of the election.

After repeated requests from his mother, who was suffering from cancer, he stayed indoors for two months.

Unable to pay the rent for his electronics shop, Tony had to bargain with the landlord by giving him several laptops to tide things over. 

Finding a house to rent in Lahore was another challenge for this Sikh family.

"We had to spend a week with one of our relatives, who has since converted to Christianity. Several landlords agreed to rent us their property but they all cancelled the deal when they found out we where Sikhs," he said.

"They greet our community with friendly smiles but they won't let us live in their rooms," he added.

"The government helped Indian Sikhs by opening the corridor but ignored the calls from Pakistani Sikhs, who have demanded similar visa-free access to the Golden Temple complex [Sikhs' principal place of worship], which is a 20-minute drive from the famous border crossing at Wagah."

Father Saleh Diego, director for the Justice and Peace Commission in Karachi Archdiocese, has welcomed the news of the new corridor.

"After a long time, both the government and the armed forces are on the same page," he said. "They have shown a greater acceptance of diversity and are trying to get a handle on religious militants, who pose a threat even for Muslims," he said.

This article was first published 17.12.2018.

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