Sikh Pilgrimage to Pakistan Amidst Fear and High Security
Gurdwara Panja Sahib
NEW DELHI: This week was important for the Sikh community in Pakistan, as pilgrims descended from all over the world on a small town known as Hasan Abdal, that is about 48 kilometres from Rawalpindi. In this tiny town is one of Sikhism’s holiest sites -- the Gurdwara Panja Sahib. The site is important to the Sikh community across the world because of the presence of a rock believed to have the hand print of Guru Nanak imprinted on it.
Pakistan is home to about 20,000 Sikhs, and like any minority in the deeply divisive country, have come to feel threatened and persecuted. Last year, six members of the community were killed in apparent hate crimes. Harcharan Singh, a grocer in Peshawar witnessed one of the killings in September last year. "It happened in front of me. The man came, shot him and left quickly (on a motorbike) before anyone knew what was going on," Singh told AFP. "Nobody knows who it was. Nobody knows who did it. Forget that -- we have had around six attacks on us. Still nobody knows who did what."
His father, Harbhan Singh, told AFP of the peaceful times he remembered. "We have been here long before the creation of Pakistan, before the British period. Since then, we had no worries.” The AFP report states: “Singh, who speaks only the Pashto language of the region and not the Punjabi that Sikh holy texts are written in, said his family was struggling to make sense of what happened.They had no enemies, he said, and were now relying on their savings to get by because they had closed the shop out of fear.”
The resulting fear was evident at Hasan Abdal, where during the pilgrimage security was tightened with over 1000 police personnel being deployed to protect the 5000 worshippers.
Sikhs, however, are not the only minority targeted in Pakistan, with the country having become notorious for its deeply divisive and intolerantly violent society. Pakistan’s small Hindu community is often the target of such attacks, with temples being vandalised, disputes plaguing property, and forced conversions being increasingly reported. For instance, in July 2010, around 60 members of the minority Hindu community in Karachi were attacked and evicted from their homes following an incident of a Dalit Hindu youth drinking water from a tap near an Islamic Mosque. In January 2014, a policeman standing guard outside a Hindu temple at Peshawar was gunned down.
Christians in Pakistan are also under threat. In March this year, a Taliban attack on two churches in Lahore that killed 15 people and injured over 70 others. Another recent incident was the brutal burning alive of a Christian couple in a brick kiln in Kot Radha Kishan for allegedly desecrating pages of the Holy Quran. The woman, mother of three, was pregnant.
The worst attack on the Christian community in Pakistan was a little over a year ago, when twin blasts at Peshawar’s All Saints Church killed 90 people and injured over a hundred.
In another incident March 2013, several thousand Christians were forced to flee their homes in Lahore following allegations of blasphemy against a local resident, Sawan Masih, as a mob of thousands looted and burned homes and churches.
Muslim minorities are also targeted. In March this year, two people were killed in a blast that took place during Friday prayers outside the Saleh Mosque for Bohra community worshippers.
The Shia minority is perhaps the most often-targeted. In the last few months, suicide attacks on Shia mosques in Peshawar and Shikarpur killed dozens of people. The attack on the Shia mosque in Shikarpur in fact is the deadliest sectarian attack in Pakistan in over a year, claiming 60 lives.
In fact, an Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released a few months ago said that the half-million members of the Hazara community -- a Shia minority -- in Quetta live in fear, compelled to restrict their movements, leading to economic hardship and curtailed access to education and employment, the report says. This oppressive situation has prompted large numbers of Hazara to flee Pakistan for refuge in other countries.
Previously, HRW recorded at least 450 killings of Shia in 2012, the community’s bloodiest year; at least another 400 Shia were killed in 2013. While sporadic sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia militant groups has long persisted in Pakistan, attacks in recent years have been overwhelmingly one-sided and primarily targeted ordinary Shia going about their daily lives.
The Hazara in Balochistan, numbering about half a million people, find themselves particularly vulnerable to attack because of their distinctive facial features and Shia religious affiliation. More than 500 Hazaras have been killed in attacks since 2008, but their precarious position is reflected in the increasing percentage of Hazara among all Shia victims of sectarian attack. HRW notes that approximately one-quarter of the Shia killed in sectarian violence across Pakistan in 2012 belonged to the Hazara community in Balochistan. In 2013, nearly half of Shias killed in Pakistan were Hazaras.
Shias constitute 20 percent of the national population. In January 2014, a bomb targeting a bus of Shia pilgrims returning from Iran in Pakistan’s troubled Balochistan province, resulting in 22 casualties, was a recent reminder of the erosion of the country’s plural fabric.
According to a 2014 HRW report, 400 Shias were killed in 2013 in targeted attacks across Pakistan. At least 200 Shias, mostly from the Hazara community, were killed in Balochistan in and around the provincial capital of Quetta. In January 2013, a suicide bomb killed 96 Hazaras and injured at least another 150. In February 2013, a bomb in a vegetable market in Quetta’s Hazara town killed 84 and injured 160. In March 2013, 47 Shias were killed and 135 were injured in Karachi when a Shia-majority neighbourhood was targeted.
It is not just Shias that are targeted. Ahmadis -- who consider themselves Muslim, but are categorised as non-muslim under the constitution for disputing the claim that Prophet Muhammad was the last messenger of Islam -- face routine attacks. The community has been banned from mosques in Lahore as groups accused them of “posing as Muslims.”One of the most violent attacks against the Ahmadis was in 2010, when Taliban insurgents attacked two Ahmadis mosques in Lahore killing more than 85. In addition to violent attacks, the minority sect is often targeted by the use of the blasphemy law against them, a recent example being the arrest of Masood Ahmad, a member of the Ahmadi sect, after he was secretly videoed reading a translation of a verse from the Quran earlier this year.
These attacks are the basis of reports that indicate that sectarian violence is increasing in Pakistan. A report by the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies (PIPS), the “Pakistan Security Report 2013” traces this rise in sectarian violence to 2011, from when it has steadily increased every year. According to a database maintained by the South Asian Terrorism Portal (SATP), although the incidents of sectarian violence attacks have declined in Pakistan, the lethality of attacks have increased leading to more deaths. SATP recorded 128 sectarian attacks, resulting in 525 deaths in Pakistan through 2013, as compared to 173 such attacks and 507 killed in 2012, demonstrating a substantial rise in lethality, from 2.93 to 4.11 fatalities per attack.
The problem with data sets relating to violence in Pakistan is that they are largely provisional based on newspaper reports, and hence, there is variation in the numbers. That said, the security situation in Pakistan does seem to be reflecting a dangerous trend toward the worse, no matter which data set is employed in the analysis.