Wednesday, May 06, 2009

PAKISTAN: The tragedy of the Sikh minority ...

The Taliban militias in Pakistan appear to have turned their sights on the country's small and vulnerable Sikh minority. If reports appearing in some Pakistani newspapers are correct, Taliban leaders have transformed Islamic sacred jurisprudence into an instrument of oppression.

Sikhs in Pakistan are of both Punjabi and Pathan ethnicity. Pathan Sikhs, like Pathan Muslims, speak Pushtu. The Taliban themselves are largely of Pathan heritage. The Sikhs currently being attacked by the Taliban are themselves Pathan. Many are living as refugees in the large Gurudwara Punja Sahib complex in Hassanabdal, among the holiest shrines of Sikhism.

Pakistan's respected Dawn newspaper reported on 30 April 2009 that houses were being bulldozed by Taliban vigilantes.

The Taliban on Wednesday night demolished 11 houses of the Sikh community in the Orakzai Agency for refusing to pay ‘Jazia’.

The action was ordered by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan chief for Orakzai Agency, Hakeemullah Mehsud, after the deadline given to the Sikh community for payment of Jazia passed on Wednesday ...

The Taliban had asked the Sikh community living in the tribal area for centuries earlier this month to pay annual Jazia because “Sharia had been enforced in the area and every non-Muslim had to pay protection money”.

The Sikh community comprising 30 to 35 families shifted from the Feroze Khel area to the nearby Merozai in Lower Orakzai Agency because they could not arrange Rs150 million demanded by the Taliban.

The Taliban had forcibly occupied shops of two Sikh businessmen, Sewa Singh and Kalak Singh, and houses of several Sikhs to force them to pay Jazia. Later, the Sikh community refused to pay Jazia and decided to leave Orakzai and settle in some other area.

The Dawn further reported on 1 May 2009 that Sikhs in some villages have been pressured to pay the jizya tax and have had their properties confiscated or even bulldozed.

The Sikh community living in lower Orakzai Agency for centuries started leaving their village on Thursday following threats and forced occupation of their shops and houses by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan.

On Wednesday night, the TTP destroyed 11 houses of the Sikh community, which forced 60 to 65 Sikhs to auction their shops and leave the Feroze Khel area permanently.

The plight of the Sikhs has seen the usual comments from Indian officials and the usual denials from Pakistani officials. A Pakistani foreign office spokesman was quoted by Dawn as remarking:

Sikhs living in Orakzai agency are Pakistani citizens and hence of no concern to India.
Yeah, right. Try telling that to this chap. The plight of his co-religionists surely must be of concern to the first Prime Minister of India to come from a religious minority. Although India's own religious minorities aren't always treated the best. India's failure to properly conduct an investigation into the 1984 anti-Sikh riots has led to its Home Minister being the subject of some Bush-in-Baghdad treatment.

Still, some Sikh refugees are denying reports of Taliban abuses to Sikh property. The News International quoted one Pakistani Sikh leader remarking:
Believe me that the state of Pakistan treats us like a gul (flower). We are better off than the majority Pakistanis.
(It sounds less ridiculously flowery in Urdu!)

In such a situation, it's hard to know how else a vulnerable religious minority would react. Still, Pakistan's former Information Minister Sherry Rahman didn't have any such hesitation. The Hindustan Times reported:
Describing extortion demands from the minority Sikh community by the Taliban as a “criminal act”, former Pakistani minister Sherry Rehman on Sunday said such incidents must be condemned and “halted at all costs”.

“We hear that Sikh families are being harassed and forced out of their homes, as if non-Muslims don’t have a right to live peacefully and with clear citizenship rights in Pakistan,” she said while responding to reports of Taliban issuing threats to Sikh families in the Aurakzai tribal region.

“This is dangerous nonsense and must be condemned and halted at all costs. Sikh, Christian, Hindu communities and other citizens belonging to any religious denomination have full rights to live in Pakistan as per our constitution,” Rehman, a close aide of slain former Premier Benazir Bhutto, said ...

“The families that have decided to move out of the area need to be extended maximum assistance by the government. At the same time, parliament must take note of the violation of constitutional rights of the Pakistani citizens and make serious efforts to extend necessary protection to minorities,” she said.

Rehman said the government’s efforts to "counter non-state actors should proceed with the understanding that not only are they challenging the writ of the state, (but) they are attempting to take over our territory and establish their own unconstitutional and illegal order by way of force".

She said, “What happened with Sikh families is just one example of the way the neo-Taliban are attempting to establish their own authority in the region.”
Perhaps the ultimate measure of a nation's civility is in how it treats its minorities. Pakistan must act to stop attacks on its Sikh and other minorities.