Sikhs caught in Pak’s wild west

The beheading of Jaspal Singh by militants has shocked most Pakistanis. He was kidnapped by unidentified militants from the Chora Tanga area of Tirah Valley of Khyber Agency about two weeks ago along with two others, Surjeet Singh and Gurvinder Singh.

The militants had demanded a ransom of Rs 30 million to be paid by February 20. This is reportedly the first time a Sikh has been killed by militants.

Another Sikh, Mahal Singh, has allegedly been killed in the Orkazai Agency by the militants. Officials have not confirmed the report.

Rahimullah Yusufzai, a veteran journalist based in Peshawar, said that it has been reported that the relatives of the kidnapped Sikhs went to meet Mangal Bagh, a militant leader, asking him to mediate with whoever was responsible for the kidnappings.

“Militants kidnap for ransom often and justify this in the name of jihad. Many people are kidnapped daily from Peshawar, Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore by the militants for extortion money,” said Yusufzai.

About 90 per cent of Pakistan’s 200,000 Sikhs live in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and tribal areas. There are about 600 Sikh families living in Peshawar alone. The Sikh community is a well-respected business community in the NWFP and thousands of Sikh yatris come very year to Nankana Sahib to pay homage to the birthplace of Guru Nanak.

President Asif Ali Zardari denounced the murder and directed that effective measures be taken to stop the recurrence of such incidents. A statement issued by the Press Information Department, Government of Pakistan, further said, "The President also condemned the kidnapping of a Hindu, Mr Robin Singh, on Friday from a market on the university road, Peshawar, in broad daylight."

Talking to the Hindustan Times (HT), Pakistani Federal Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti said, “We have ordered a high-level inquiry and whoever is involved in this will be severely punished. We pledge that we will continue to protect... minorities in Pakistan... The Sikhs [living here] belong to Pakistan and Pakistan belongs to them. We respect everyone’s religious freedom.”

Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Human Rights, Syed Mumtaz Alam Gillani, said that the militants do no differentiate between Muslims or non-Muslims, civilians or security personnel and they are out to get everyone’s life. “It is our duty to protect the lives of every Pakistani citizen, especially the minorities. Kidnapping for ransom is an illegal act. We will protect all citizens with maximum force,” he said, adding that 1 million Pakistan rupees have been given to Jaspal Singh’s family as compensation.

Federal Minister for Religious Affairs, Chairman of the World Muslim-Sikh Federation, Manmohan Singh, said that it was indeed a "setback for the Sikh community". He said that fellow Muslims are also being killed in Pakistan by the very same elements.

Former Chairman of Pakistan Sikh Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (PSGPC), Bishan Singh, appealed that the other two Sikhs should be freed as soon as possible. He said that Jaspal Singh is the first Sikh martyr in Pakistan.

Marvi Sirmed, a human rights activist, who has worked with Pakistan's minority communities, said that Sikhs being a small minority in Pakistan after Hindus (1.85 per cent) and Christians (1.6 per cent) largely go unnoticed. “Sikhs who had been displaced after the military operation in Swat were staying at the Gurdawara Panja Sahib, a few miles south of Peshawar. Simran, a 35-year-old Sikh woman spoke about how they were forced to leave their homes and how wearing bindis was no more possible in Swat as the Taliban would mark them as non-Muslims.”

But what amazed Marvi Sirmed was the Sikhs’ resolve to help the people of Swat — Muslims, who were being displaced because of the same military operation.

(my first story for the Hindustan Times, published on February 24, 2010)


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