Living for minorities in Pak tribal areas becomig tougher

PESHAWAR: The entrance to Mohalla Jogan Shah inside Peshawar’s walled city is through the ancient Aasia Gate(Aasia Darwaza). Passing through narrow alleys, it takes at least half an hour on foot to reach Mohallah Jogan Shah in Peshawar’s Dabgari area. At least 380 Sikh families live in the well-known Mohallah Jogan Shah, out of the estimated 520 families in Peshawar. Eighty percent of these families migrated to Peshawar from three tribal regions — Orakzai, Kurram and Khyber. The gradual movement of these families from the tribal areas started in the mid-1980’s which tremendously increased with the emergence of Pakistani Taliban in the last decade.

“One of the early reasons for these immigrants was the reopening of ‘Gurdwara Bhai Joga Singh’ in 1981. But living for minorities in the volatile region became unbearable when Taliban dismantled the traditional tribal setup”, said 78-year-old Charanjit Singh, who migrated to Peshawar from Tirah Valley in Khyber in 1997.

“More than 10 gurdwaras in Peshawar, under the government’s Auqaf department, are still closed”, he said.

All Sikhs in Peshawar speak the local Pashto dialect fluently and treat their womenfolk as tribal Pashtuns do. “They are as illiterate and strong-headed as Afridis and Orakzais, and they are just as dependable in personal loyalty. Their hospitality is proverbial”, says Farhad Afridi who lives in Tirah valley of Khyber agency.

Unlike their ancestors, the present young generation seems to bring a change in their lifestyle.

The lively old Jagat Singh was keen to make one listen to his version of Sikh’s genesis in the tribal belt. “Persecuted by Aurangzeb in the 17th century, several Sikh families came to the tribal areas and joined the Pashtun tribes in these mountain regions. The tribal principle of sanctuary to the Amsaya, or protected one, was what eased them into a region known for its traditional and rigid view of Islam. The Sikhs had an ability to completely integrate into the local culture”, Jagat Singh said. But the 9/11 and its fallout was no less than a nightmare for local tribesmen, he added.

The phenomenon “Pakistani Taliban” was unknown before 9/11. However, the significance of Jihadi elements in the tribal belt can be traced back to the early 80’s when the area became a launching pad for the CIA and ISI-driven holy war (jihad) against the former Soviet Union. With the Soviet withdrawal, the US agenda of jihad inside Afghanistan ended. But the strategic importance of the area remained intact for Pakistan which had to use, for many years to come, the tribal area for running training camps of jihadis, pursuing its policy of strategic depth against India as well as to have an upper hand in neighbouring Afghanistan. Nevertheless, these games did not disturb the traditional tribal way of life and the Sikh families were living a normal life. With the rise of the Pakistani Taliban in the past few years, the traditional tribal code of ethics which ensured security of the Sikh community gave way to extremist ideology of the Taliban. After establishing their writ, Taliban offered three options to non-Muslims, “Become Muslims, pay jizya or vacate the area.”

To set an example, Taliban last year demolished 11 houses of the Sikh community in the Orakzai Agency for refusing to pay ‘Jizya’. 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 $180,000 demanded by the Taliban.

The Taliban had forcibly occupied shops of Sikh businessmen and houses of several Sikhs compelling them to pay Jizya.

The jizya demand highlights how the Taliban onslaught has toppled decades of consistent social harmony between Pashtun tribesmen and religious minorities. An estimated 10,000 Sikhs living in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province have quietly thrived as traders, shopkeepers and farmers.

The arrival of the long-haired Taliban fighters in tribal areas and Swat, brandishing AK 47 rifles steamrolled the previous sense of tolerance.

For the Taliban, collection of Jizya meant generating funds to get arms and ammunition to spread their reign of terror, says Prakash Singh, a college student whose family refused to pay Jizya in the Orakzai agency and left the area sometimes back.

“Speaking frankly, tribal areas no longer remain places for minority communities”, Prakash Singh said.

After Hakimullah Mehsud imposed Jizya in Orakzai, other militant leaders also followed suit. The next in line was Mangal Bagh, a militant leader of Lashkar-i-Islam (LI) in Khyber Agency who established the practice of paying jizya in Tirah Valley of Khyber Agency. At least 40 families left the Tirah valley while some 15 families gave into Mangal Bagh’s demand. Even paying Jizya could not ensure the security of their lives. Last month, a TTP commander of Khyber tribal region Tariq Afridi abducted three members of Sikh community for ransom. The two Sikhs, Jaspal Singh and Mahal Singh were brutally slaughtered by Afridi when the deadline for paying the ransom expired.

Despite all these realities, majority of these immigrants are longing for their homeland. “If the situation returns to normal in the tribal areas we will go back. We have our properties there and above all our memories are associated with the area”, says Suraj Prakash Singh, a shopkeeper. An estimated 10,000 Sikhs live in the NWFP and tribal areas.