Pakistan: The Embattled Sikhs in Taliban Territory

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Hasham Ahmed / AFP / Getty Images

A Sikh merchant tends to his shop is Peshawar, Pakistan.

In Peshawar's noisy and manic Dabgari bazaar, bearded men weaving in and out of the curbside stores are a ubiquitous sight. (There are few women in the market). Most of them wear round, white Pashtun hats, a fixture in these parts. But there are a substantial number of merchants who, though also bearded and dressed in the traditional shalwar kameez, are adorned with the intricately wound and colorful turbans of those who profess the Sikh religion. Many of them live just a few streets away from the market, where the noise and rubbish-strewn streets fall away and are replaced by a warren of winding narrow alleyways, swept clean, and lined by brick homes, many of which despite being caked in decades of dust and disrepair still maintain a haughty grandeur. This is Jogan Shah, the Sikh neighborhood of Peshawar.

Sikhs and Hindus are tiny and embattled communities in Pakistan. As small, non-Muslim populations, especially in the volatile, religiously conservative northwest, they were easy prey for the Taliban. That's why the population of Jogan Shah has spiked in recent years. Sikhs like Darsha Singh, displaced from his village of Orakzai in the war-ravaged tribal territories further northwest, have sought refuge with their co-religionists in Peshawar, which now hosts some 500 families, the largest Sikh population in Pakistan.

Darsha Singh removes his shoes, washes his feet in a small stream of water running perpendicular to the temple's entrance, rinses his beefy hands and bows his burgundy-turbaned head as he enters Gurdwara Bhai Joga Singh, the centuries-old Sikh temple at the heart of the neighborhood. Tall and stocky, with a chest-length black beard and large almond-shaped eyes, Darsha, 45, has been in Peshawar with his family of eight for 18 months now. He has been living in one of the 120 rooms the temple normally reserves for pilgrims, and relying on the temple's charity for meals. Some 55 of these rooms are occupied by Sikh families displaced from other parts of the northwest, according to Sahab Singh, 32, a Sikh leader in the district assembly in Peshawar.

In Darsha's hometown, which was once Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud's base, the insurgents demanded that the small indigenous Sikh community either convert to Islam, leave the land of their forebears or pay a 12 million rupee ($140,000) jizya — the medieval tax levied on non-Muslims in an Islamic state. The Taliban then provided incentive: forcibly occupying Sikh-owned shops and houses, demolishing almost a dozen homes and kidnapping several men, beheading two. The community banded together and managed to come up with about a quarter of the amount demanded by the Taliban.

Darsha and a handful of Orakzai's 50 other Sikh families, escaped from their homes, fleeing a Sunni region to friendlier Shi'ite area. Although Orakzai is the only one of the seven federally administered tribal areas that doesn't border Afghanistan, that didn't shield it from the influence of the war across the border. The local Taliban quickly capitalized on the agency's simmering, decades-old sectarian conflict between the majority Sunnis and the 10% of the population that are Shi'ites, widening the rift. The Sikhs knew who their friends were. "The Shi'ites let us into their community because Sikhs aren't involved in terrorism," Darsha says. "Our grandfathers lived here. They know us. We have lived together for generations."

But they don't live together anymore. Singh, along with all of Orakzai's Sikh population, hastily fled just days after the military moved in to take on the militants last spring. "We left at 5 a.m.," Darsha says, leaning forward away from the marble wall of the Sikh temple, his crossed legs sinking deeper into the ornate ruby red and deep navy patterned carpet adorning the wide, empty floor of the main hall. "It was a war situation, we were screaming to each other, 'let's go, run, now. we have to go'. We didn't even bring any clothes with us."

Now Darsha, who used to be a businessman, is unemployed and spends most of his day meeting friends near the temple, walking through the bazaar and "waiting for peace." He hasn't received any government assistance. The Gurdwara has provided displaced families with accommodation, three daily meals, and a one-off payment of 3,000 rupees, all funded through private donations, says Sahab Singh.

A few weeks ago, Darsha was buoyed by news that he had been waiting almost two years to hear. In late October Nadir Zeb, the inspector general of the paramilitary Frontier Corps, told a news conference that almost 90% of Orakzai had been cleared of Taliban, and that the 32,000 families that were forced to flee the agency could "return tomorrow." Despite it being the second time in as many months that the security forces had announced that Orakzai had been pacified, Darsha and others Sikhs were reassured by the agency's political representative that this time it really was safe enough to go home. So in early November some 26 vehicles, each car ferrying the menfolk of a particular Sikh family, headed out from Peshawar to Orakzai. It was so safe that the convoy only needed an armed Pakistani military escort of more than a dozen jeeps to secure its path.

But there was little to celebrate upon arriving in Orakzai. "There's nothing left of my house," Darsha says. "It's destroyed and everything has been looted. I couldn't retrieve anything and I don't have enough money to start a new business." It was the same story for the other Sikh families. "We wanted to stay but we had nothing to stay for," says Ameer Singh, 30, a textiles merchant and the father of two. "Nothing is left of those eight rooms," he says, referring to his home. "Nothing."

After a week or so, the men returned disappointed to Peshawar. "The army is everywhere, throughout the town, so we felt safe, but in the mountains they're still fighting," says Darsha. "It's hard to live there, because of all of the shelling, the firing, it's so loud and it's day and night." But despite the community's hardships, very few if any of Orakzai's Sikhs, say they're prepared to permanently leave the tribal territory. "People don't want to go to India or other countries, because our businesses are here, our relatives are here," says Sahab. "The Sikh community, it's a small community but we're all related to each other." Darsha nods in agreement. He says he's hoping that the third time he gets the all-clear will be the charm. "The Taliban have only been there for a few years," he says. "We were there before them. Orakzai has been our home for longer."