Sikhism in Pakistan

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Sikhism, though today a very small minority religion in Pakistan, has many cultural, historical and political ties to the country, and to the historical region of Punjab.

Pakistan is a nation of 160 million with 95% being Muslim. While Christians (2.5%) and Hindus (1.5%) make up the largest minority faiths; Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Buddhists and Ahmaddis (legislated as non-Islamic in Pakistan) and some adherents to animist religions make up the remaining 1%.

There are between 20,000 and 30,000 Sikhs in Pakistan, however their numbers are dwindling, as fear of persecution by the Taliban is causing a surge in emigration to other countries.

Before the Partition of India and Pakistan

Prior to the 1947 Partition of India, which carved the new State of East Pakistan out of British India, Sikhs had long played an important role in village life across the undivided Punjab, playing an important role as businessmen and traders. Lahore, now capital of Pakistan was once the Capital of the Sikh Raj of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Many towns and villages of Pakistan, such as the town of Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of Sikhism's founder, Guru Nanak Dev. Each of Nankana Sahib’s nine gurdwaras are associated with different events in Guru Nanak Dev's life. The town remains an important site of pilgrimage for Sikhs worldwide.

After the creation of Pakistan

There are no reliable figures for Sikh population of the country, but it is estimated that there are about 20,000 Sikhs scattered across the cities, towns and villages of Pakistan. The largest Sikh population in Pakistan is found in Peshawar, in the Northwest Frontier Province, which was spared the scale of violence during partition that raged in Punjab.

Sikhs are also found in sizable communities in Waziristan and Swat of the Northwest Frontier Province. There are also pockets of Sikhs in Lahore, Nankana Sahib, and Hasan Abdal in Punjab, and Gwadar, Kalat, and Quetta districts of Baluchistan.

The (West) Punjab and Sindh provinces of Pakistan were mostly emptied of their Sikh and Hindu population in the communal massacres of partition, with nearly all fleeing for India. Today, very large segments of the populations of East Punjab and Haryana states and Delhi in India can trace their ancestry back to towns and villages now in Pakistan, including current Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

There has been a minor influx in the population of Sikhs in Pakistan due to the turbulent civil war and conflicts that have ravaged neighboring Afghanistan. Afghanistan, like Pakistan, has had a very small Sikh and Hindu population. There has been a massive exodus of refugees from Afghanistan into Pakistan during the past 30 years of turmoil up to the reign of the Taliban and the subsequent US invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001. Due to Pakistan's porous borders with Afghanistan, large numbers of Afghanistan's minority communities, based mainly around the cities of Kabul, Kandahar, and Jalalabad have fled, and some Sikhs have joined their kinsmen in Peshawar and Lahore. Others have emigrated to India and abroad.

The Sikh community in Pakistan in modern times

Until today, Sikhs have mainly kept a low profile within the monolithic population of Pakistan. Pakistan, as a constitutionally Islamic state, has had inconsistent and often intolerant relations with its minorities. Until 2002, Pakistan held a system of separate electorates for all its national legislative assemblies, with only a handful of parliamentary seats reserved for minority members. Minorities were legally only permitted to vote for designated minority candidates in general elections. The regime of President General Pervez Musharraf has professed an agenda of equality for minorities and promotion and protection of minority rights, however, the implementation of corrective measures has been slow.

The historical and holy sites of Sikhs are maintained by a Pakistani governmental body, the Pakistan Sikh Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, which is responsible for their upkeep and preservation. Nonetheless, many Sikh shrines have fallen into disrepair since 1947,[4] as the remaining Sikh population and its corresponding manpower, economic power and political influence is minuscule compared to that of the pre-1947 community.

The emergence of the Sikh community within Pakistan

After the creation of Pakistan, the Sikh community's rights were diminished.[5] Recently the Sikh community within Pakistan has been making every effort possible to progress in Pakistan. For example Harcharan Singh became the first Sikh Officer of Pakistan’s army. Prior to Harcharan Singh's selection in the Pakistani army no individual person who was a member of the Hindu or the Sikh community were ever enrolled in the army, but there are reports that state that members of the Pakistani Christian community have served in the army and some had even reached into the higher ranks with one even becoming a Brigadier in the army. Moreover, members of the tiny Parsi community have some representation in the Armed Forces.

In 2010, 1 Sikh (Amerjit Singh) joined the Pakistan Rangers and 1 Sikh the Pakistan Coast Guard.

And recently in Lahore greetings, such as sat sari kaal, jo bolay so nihal and ballay ballay from car and bus drivers, motorcyclists and children were being yelled out to Gulab Singh the first-ever Sikh to be appointed as a traffic police warden in Pakistan.

Gulab, a 25-year-old at the time was born near Nankana Sahib, but he now lives in the Defence Housing Authority. He said that joining the force as a sub-inspector was a dream come true for him. Pledging to do his duty wholeheartedly, he said that the loving welcome he had received from the public had added to his joy. He said he had joined his duty station on Wednesday, and by the second day, dozens of children had forced their parents to stop the car so that they could meet him. Singh is deputed on Alif Laam Meem Chowk on Aziz Bhatti Road in Cantt.

Commenting on his training process, Gulab said, “The attitude of my fellow trainees and officers was very good towards me. Nobody ever forced me to do anything against my religious beliefs.” He said he had no problems wearing his kara (bangle), or keeping his kirpan (dagger) on him. He added that, as he was a vegetarian, green meals were arranged for him in the mess during the training period. “I am very grateful to my officers for this gesture,” Gulab said.

Sikhs in West-Punjab

Nankana Sahib

In the wake of the Partition of the country, Punjab was divided into two parts: East Punjab came to India and West Punjab went to the newly created Pakistan. Lakhs of Hindus and Sikhs migrated from Pakistan to India, and Muslims from India to Pakistan. The Sikh population in Pakistan was reduced to a microscopic minority ? that too only in the tribal area of Swat. All gurdwaras, including the historical Sikh shrines, were closed.

As per an agreement arrived at between the governments of India and Pakistan, Sikh pilgrims could visit Gurdwara Janam Asthan at Nankana Sahib, Panja Sahib at Hassan Abdal (Attock district), Gurdwara Dera Sahib at Lahore and Smadh Maharaja Ranjit Singh at Lahore on the occasion of the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, Baisakhi, martyrdom day of Guru Arjan Dev and death anniversary of Maharaja Ranjit Singh every year. (Muslim pilgrims could visit their five shrines in India too).

The SGPC staff, which had been looking after these historical gurdwaras before the Partition, was allowed to be posted at Nankana Sahib, Panja Sahib and Dera Sahib to perform the religious service. After the 1971 Indo-Pak war, the Pakistan Government refused to issue/renew visa to the SGPC staff, including granthis (priests), ragis (devotional singers) and sewadars.

During 1979, when the Janata Party was in power at the Centre, a six-member delegation led by Gurcharan Singh Tohra, SGPC president, visited Pakistan to study the state of affairs of historical gurdwaras in that country. He also met General Zia-ul-Haq, the then President of Pakistan.

Tohra raised the demand that SGPC staff should be posted at the gurdwara as per the practice before 1971. General Zia did not agree, and suggested that Pakistani Sikhs should be imparted necessary training for enforcing maryada (Sikh code of conduct) in the gurdwaras. He said he was prepared to send Pakistani Sikhs to India for the purpose.

Subsequently, General Zia persuaded about 50 Pakistani Sikhs to shift from Swat to Nankana Sahib. Some of them have been assisting the Waqf Board to run the gurdwara affairs in that country. These families are residing in the complex of Gurdwara Patti Sahib.

The new Sikh generation, and their children ? 120 in number (70 boys and 50 girls) in the age group of 5-15 ? have been getting education about gurmat maryada. These children rise early in the morning, take bath and then recite shabad kirtan. After their studies in the school, they learn the Gurmukhi script, and learn Gurbani in the evening from their elders.

These children have been observing almost all historical days such as birth and death anniversaries of the Sikh Gurus, sangrand (beginning of Vikrami month), amavas (a day before new moon) and purnima (full moon). They also participate in religious functions organised by the visiting Sikh pilgrims from India and abroad.

Balwant Singh, a young man who teaches these children, says that these youngsters are very eager to visit the Golden Temple and other historical Sikh shrines in India. Since their parents are small-time shopkeepers or businessmen, they cannot afford the expenses for the pilgrimage. The SGPC and other Sikh organisations should extend all cooperation, including financial assistance.

It is these children who are likely to look after the maryada of Sikh shrines in Pakistan in the coming years.

Guru Nanak Model School, Nankana Sahib

This is a school, where Gurmukhi is being taught. The school headmaster is Mr. Azgar Bhatti. The school has five Sikh and seven Muslim male teachers and seven Muslim lady teachers. At Nankana Sahib, there are eight Government schools and fourteen private schools among which Guru Nanak Model School occupies top position.

About 142 Sikh students study here and the number of Muslim students is 410, of which 120 are poor and enjoy full fee concession. This school was set up in April 1999.

While Sikh students recited Sukhmani Sahib, Japji Sahib and Rehras Sahib, Muslim students recited verses from holy Qu’ran.

Sikhs in Sindh

Karachi Sikh Community

When the gurdwara (Sikh temple) reverberates with sounds of "Sut siri akaal," and "Vahiguru ji ka khalsa," it is hard to believe that one is not in Indian Punjab but Ranchore Lines in Karachi.

With approximately 3500 members of sikh community residing in Karachi, the Narain Pura Compound in Ranchore Lines houses almost 300 followers of Guru Nanak. The rest of the devotees can be found in the areas surrounding Kohinoor Centre, Jubilee Cinema, Garden Road and Manora.

With six gurdwaras in different parts of the city, Karachi has its fair share of temples of the world's fifth largest religion. Nevertheless, the Gurdwara Sikh Sangat in Ranchore Lines is the only centre of all religious activity since the gurdwaras at Preedy Street, Saddar and Arambagh have been sealed due to disputes. The temples at Manora, Bandar Road and Lee Market are not large enough to cater to the entire community.

The small-roomed Sikh Sangat Gurdwara is thus the place where devotees from all over the city convene during festivals. Around 80 worshippers can be accommodated in the room while the rest are hosted in the adjacent veranda and the langar khana (free-kitchen).

Built in 1910, the blue-walled gurdwara located off the congested and dilapidated roads of the compound exemplifies the basic principals of Sikhism - simplicity and modesty.

Bhai Resham Singh said that there were about 2,500 persons from a Sikh background living in Karachi, however only 185 males kept the Sikhi saroop. He also said that Gurdwara Sikh Sabha Ranshaur Line and Gurdwara Aram Bagh Bansal Road in Karachi were sealed by the Pakistani Government in 1993. Having won the case against the authorities, the Gurdwara was handed over to the Sikhs.

Sikhs in North West Frontier Province

Persecuted by Aurangzeb in the 17th century, or sent scurrying to the hills for refuge twice in the twentieth century, the Sikhs who have joined the Pakhtun tribes in these mountain regions are a breed apart. 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. These anomalous "tribesmen" - their beards rolled, wearing distinctive colourful turbans - are now part of the landscape, under the protection of one Pakhtun clan or another.

Says Charanjit Singh, a Sikh trader: "The Sikhs have an ability to completely integrate into the local culture." Jadran Afridi, a medical practitioner affiliated with the Pakhtunkhwa Qaumi Party (pqp), says that the Sikhs here speak local Pakhto dialects fluently, treat their womenfolk as tribal Pakhtuns do. "They are as illiterate and hard-headed as Afridis and Orakzais, and they are just as dependable in personal loyalty. Their hospitality is proverbial; every household keeps separate utensils for their Muslim friends."

"There was a time when hardly any Sikhs remained in Peshawar," says 70-year-old Gian Singh, visiting old friends. He's from Tirah, also in NWFP, where he moved in from Jalalabad after Najibullah's fall. "But now their families in places like Tirah are growing large, and business up there is shrinking." This has pushed many Sikhs down into Peshawar or nearby areas. "There must be close to a thousand Sikh families - about 10,000 people - living in Peshawar and the tribal areas," estimates Sona Singh, head granthi of Gurudwara Bhai Joga Singh in Peshawar's old Dabgari district.

Saroop Singh, who owns two shops and eight acres in Bara, is typical of the new generation of Sikhs who have discarded their roles as Amsayas in search of independence and a better lifestyle. "Economic pressures have weakened the ability of tribal clans to prevent outsiders from acquiring land," he says. "Many Sikhs who made money in trading have bought land; but agriculture is rain-fed, and there isn't enough arable land to go around."

The first casualty, even for the new generation, is education. Five years of religious schooling in Gurmukhi is about all the education most tribal Sikhs have had, and it's promptly discarded when the exigencies of practical life take over. According to Sona Singh, the head granthi, every Sikh settlement has at least one mohalla school to teach the Granth Sahib, though not science, history or other subjects. "The aim is mainly to keep the religious rituals alive," he explains.

But the Frontier Sikhs believe they have had a better deal than the Mona Sikhs in Pakistan. They feel particularly indebted to General Ziaul Haq, who gave them the Gurudwara Bhai Joga Singh and allowed them to buy property in Pakistan. Some have been to India, but have chosen not to settle there.

"Life in Pakistan is better," says Saroop Singh, who has visited Delhi and Ambala several times. "There is more respect for the Sikhs here." Like most of the Frontier Sikhs, he believes that Khalistan will become a reality some day. When that happens, they say, they will gladly begin the long trek back.

Population by province and city

Province Sikh Population
Punjab ca. 5,000
North West Frontier Province ca. 10,000
Baluchistan ca. 2,500
Azad Kashmir unknown
Sindh ca. 6,000
City Sikh Population
Peshawar 10,000
Karachi 3,000
Nankana Sahib ca 1,000
Lahore 80

Pakistani Sikh diaspora

Although Sikhism is due to Pakistani religious laws an monotheistic religion and therefore secured from violence beside the government, Pakistani Sikhs have to suffer discrimination in their Homeland. Therefore many Pakistani Sikhs immigrated to the United Kingdom and Canada, there is a growing Pakistani Sikh community in Dubai. In the United Kingdom there are approximately 40,000 Pakistani Sikhs, in Canada around 18,000. The Pakistani Sikh communities are often more likely to be integrated into the Pakistani community life than into the Sikh community, as many Indian Sikhs are patriotic to India, and Pakistani Sikhs often see the Khalistan movement as the most important Sikh movement. As Pakistan, ruled by Zia Ul Huq, supported the Khalistan movement from day one, many Pakistani Sikhs see theirself more on the Pakistani than on the Indian side.

See also