Sikhs – First among Minorities in Pakistan

Gurudwara Panja Sahib

By Ratan Saldi

The latest census figures in Pakistan have revealed some interesting facts. The Census was held in two phases from 15th March 2017 to 24th May 2017 but the final data took a lot of time for computation. The provisional figures released recently put the country’s population at 207.74 million, an increase of 57 percent since 1998 when the last census was conducted.

The census data has been disputed by some opposition leaders and demographers, questioning its authenticity on many counts. According to latest data released, over 96 percent of country’s population is Muslim, predominantly Sunni Muslims and less than four percent are minorities, which include 1.85 percent Hindus, 1.59 percent Christians, 0.22 percent Ahmadiyyas and rest other religious minorities.

Interestingly, Sikhs were not treated as a separate religious minority group in 2017 census despite a court ruling in a case filed by one prominent member of the community challenging the methodology of the census survey. The Hindus and the Sikh population is mainly concentrated in Sindh and Punjab provinces.

Pakistan National Database and Registration Authority, NADRA, puts the figure of the Sikh population in Pakistan in 2012 at 6,146 while US State Department had estimated it to be around 20,000. Demographers in Pakistan, however, believe that in recent years, the Sikh population in the country could have reached 30,000, partly because of migration from Afghanistan due to Taliban turbulence and secondly due to conversions to Sikhism from among the Hindus mainly in the Sindh province. But on the whole, the population of minorities in Pakistan has a declining trend as compared to the rise in the population of Muslims. A sizeable Sikh population resides in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of West Pakistan also.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan Report 2017 has said that deaths linked to terrorism might have decreased in recent years but the ‘soft targets’ of religious minorities continue to bear the brunt of the violence. It, however, says that “There was no abetment in violence against religious minorities with Christians, Ahmadiyyas, Hazaras, Hindus and Sikhs, coming under attack.”

But the most worrisome issue to the Hindus and Sikh community is the forcible conversion of their young women folk to Islam and marrying them off to Muslim boys. “In most cases, the girls, many of whom are minors are abducted, forcibly converted to Islam and then married to Muslim men,” the report said.

On the Human Rights Day on 10th December 2018, activists of Shaheed Bhagat Singh Seva Dal held a protest demonstration at Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi against human rights violations of Sikh community in Pakistan. Demanding protection of human rights of Sikhs and other minorities in Pakistan they also alleged that like the Hindu girls, the Sikh girls were being abducted and forcibly married to Muslims.

But despite all the excesses being committed against the minorities in Pakistan and their leaders raising their voice against it from time to time, Sikhs get a better treatment than other communities in government, business circles and society at large even though their number is very small as compared to Hindus (1.41 million National Identity Card holders) or Christians (1.27 million in Pakistan.

There were hundreds of Hindu temples and Sikh gurdwaras in Pakistan before partition in 1947 but a large number of these were dilapidated and their lands usurped by the locals. But still quite a few famous temples and Sikhs shrines exist but their condition is not so good. Some famous Hindu temples include Shakti Peeth or the cave temple in Balochistan, Katasraj Temple (Shiva temple) in Punjab province, Sri Swaminarayan Temple in Karachi, Panchmukhi Hanuman Temple in Karachi and Jagannath Temple in Sialkot. Some of the most revered places of the Sikhs in Pakistan include Gurudwara Janam Asthan, Nankana Sahib, Gurudwara Panja Sahib, Hasan Abdal, Gurudwara Darbar Sahib, Kartarpur, Guru Nanak Gurudwara, Karachi and Samadhi of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Lahore.

Sikhs from India and abroad are allowed to visit Gurudwara Nankana Sahib on the first Sikh Guru and founder of Sikhism Guru Nanak Dev’s birthday every year but there is no such facility available for the Hindus to visit Hindu temples in Pakistan.

After the present Imran Khan government took over in Pakistan, it agreed to a long-standing demand of the Sikhs to open Kartarpur corridor across the border between India and Pakistan to allow visa-free access to Darbar Sahib Gurudwara in Kartarpur on the Pakistani side. The groundbreaking ceremony on both sides was held in November 2018 to build the corridor and presently modalities are being finalized for visa-free access to the people to visit the Gurudwara. Pakistan had invited an Indian team for the talks in this regard but India had suggested to Pakistan to send its delegation to New Delhi either on February 26 or March 7, as per its convenience to discuss a draft agreement on Kartarpur corridor. The issue of Kartarpur corridor was first raised by the Sikhs in India in the November 1980s.

The reasons why Sikhs get preferential treatment than Hindus and other minorities in Pakistan could be many but some of these could be analyzed without doubt or aspersions of any kind.

Firstly, the Muslims believe that the Sikhs are a theocratic society based on Sikhism like theirs – based on Islam and Muslim culture. They believe that the Hindus have a plethora of deities and profess different ideologies and have an entirely different type of faith.

Secondly, the Muslims in Pakistan strongly believe that some of the Hindu radical organizations are bitterly opposed to Islam and indulge in the persecution of the Muslims in India. The undercurrent for some of the violent incidents in Pakistan against the Hindus could be traced as a revenge attack to incidents against the Muslims in India, be it in the name of cow slaughter or any other excuse. No such incident involving the Sikhs has happened in the recent past, though Sikh army generals had led the Indian army against Pakistan in 1965 and 1971 wars.

The Muslims in Pakistan consider the Sikh rule of Maharaja Ranjit Singh who had his capital in Lahore over the entire Pakistan, Afghanistan and beyond as bad times for the country and Sikh history hardly finds any mention in Pakistani textbooks in schools or colleges. But they appear to have forgotten all the happenings of the bygone days and are reminded of the scars of partition and more so Jammu and Kashmir under ruler Maharaja Hira Singh joining India in 1948.

Another reason could be that Nanakpanthi Sindhis, concentrated in Sindh province of Pakistan follow the teachings of the first Sikh Guru Nanak Dev and most of their homes adorn the photographs of the Guru. Of late, conversion to Sikhism by the Hindus has become a continuing process in Sindh, Punjab and Pakhtunkhwa provinces as Sikhs bear the lesser ire of the Muslim community and Hindus generally feel safe following Sikh faith.

Last but not the least, the most important reason and permanent irritant between India and Pakistan is the instigation to Khalistani movement, overtly and covertly by the authorities in Islamabad, by its army and the intelligence agency, ISI. Pakistan finds soft targets among the Sikhs in India and abroad to keep the Khalistani pot boiling, which is virtually a dead movement in India after its foremost protagonist Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was killed in 1984.

In this backdrop, Government of India will have to weigh carefully all the pros and cons if a similar demand is raised by Sikhs in Pakistan to allow the Sikh community residing in that country and the Sindhi population in the Sindh province, who follow Guru Nanak Dev to visit Harmandir Sahib or other Gurudwaras in India.

So far the vibes from Pakistan are to allow only Sikhs from India to visit Kartarpur Sahib Gurudwara in Pakistan but a large number of Hindus in India regularly visit Gurudwaras and seek blessings of Sikh Gurus. It would be unfair to deprive them of visa-free access to Darbar Sahib Gurudwara in Kartarpur in Pakistan, a place where Guru Nanak Dev breathed his last. The visa-free access to the Hindus to this sacred Gurudwara should also be allowed after following whatever modalities, the two countries may decide. The government of India may take note of this aspect also while arriving at the agreement with Pakistan on this highly sentimental and religious issue