Narayanpura — An anomaly for Karachi's marginalised Sikhs

In a lesser-known neighbourhood of Karachi's Ranchore Lines, a gurdwara, a church and a Hindu temple stand side-by-side.
Published November 11, 2014

By Syed Fawad Hasan

In a lesser-known neighbourhood of Karachi's Ranchore Lines, a gurdwara, a church and a Hindu temple stand side-by-side.

This is Narayanpura, a place with a very distinct feel and mesmerising culture to it.

A distinct orange flag, or ‘Nishan Sahib’, draws you into the compound from a distance, the fluttering banner a symbol of pride for Sikhism.

Upon entering the Narayanpura compound one is suddenly exposed to a medley of colours and sounds. The temple to the immediate left, where the bell keeps ringing as devotee pay their respects, emanates the overpowering scent of incense. A vendor sells flowers, candles and decorative ornaments and within the centre of all this – a small worship place built in the memory of the Sufi Saint, Baba Saman Sirkaar.

Karachi, it is said, is a city which cradles it’s citizens like a mother carrying her children – loving all equally, sans discrimination. It has always welcomed people from all classes, ethnicities, and religions to settle and flourish with plenty of opportunities available here. Perhaps, it is the reason Karachi has had such a fascinating diversity of culture.

Narayanpura is perhaps the heart of the diversity the city once cradled. Located behind Civil Hospital the compound is proof of the remnants of the city’s religious diversity.

It is rare to see a Sikh in his dastar and beard treading the streets of Karachi though, but in Narayanpura one finds legions of Sikh men and women practicing their religion, following the traditions of Baba Guru Nanak, who's 546th birth anniversary celebrations recently concluded in Hassanabdal. Narayanpura has been home to thousands of Sikhs in Karachi, Gurdwara Guru Garanth Sahib Sikh Sabah, where they can all be found on special occasions.

Given the recent target killings of Sikhs in Khyber Pakthunkhwa, one would expect a cloud of fear hanging over the community in Karachi. However, on further exploration, it is evident that terrorism is the least of their concerns. It is the discrimination they often face, which is a bigger cause for concern for the elders in the community.

This discrimination, the elders say, has led to an economic crippling of the community and to an extent a fear among Sikhs to even wear their identity as they once used to, whether its the dastar, kara or kirpan.

Discussions with the youngsters bring to light underlying issues.

Wasim and Ashok are two young men of the community, who at first, say they do not wear the turban because of the devout belief that those who wear it must be completely pure.

“We have to first get rid of all impurity inside our souls to start observing the five K’s of our religion. Also, unless we spurn all kinds of drugs, including cigarettes, ‘gutka’ and unlawful pleasures, we cannot and should not wear the turban. With it come tenuous responsibilities, which I am not ready to fulfill right away,” says Wasim.

Upon further prodding, he admits, though, that Sikh men have been persecuted in the past for wearing the turban and kara.

Some three years ago, two students were pressurised by the management of Nasira Public School to remove their turban and karas for uncited reasons. The Pakistan Sikh Council in Karachi intervened to resolve the matter but in vain.

In another case that also came to the notice of the council, a Sikh man was fired by a company because he observed the Sikh life-style; wearing the kara on a wrist, a turban to cover his uncut long hair, and keeping a dagger, the kirpan on him at all times.

This attitude, the two men say, has resulted in the falling literacy rates among the Sikh youth. According to a number of young Sikh men living in Narayanpura, very few have hopes of getting admission in the city’s prestigious universities. There are only a handful of Sikh men who have attained a bachelor’s degree.

Balbeer Singh is one such student.

He says his parents implored him to attain higher education but the prospects of landing a decent job are not guaranteed.

“The Sikh men do not see much hope of getting a respectful job once they are done with their education. Also, we have to face discrimination at times during our studies. To sum it up, my friends do not think it’s worthwhile here to seek a higher education.”

Sardar Ramesh Singh, the patron-in-chief of the Pakistan Sikh Council, admits very little has been done to allay the concerns of the community.

“The five per cent job quota for minorities is a manifestation of the little recognition we are given. This mere five per cent meant for all minority groups living in Pakistan is incapable of providing Sikh men a better, promising future making them hopeless and indifferent towards their education,” says Ramesh Singh.

He also brings up the issue of disrespect towards Sikhism itself in the country and the wave of attacks against the community.

“The recent target killings in which three Sikh men were shot simultaneously in a Bazaar in Peshawar is testimonial of how violence has gripped our society," he says, further adding that the government paid no heed to these incidents.

Ramesh Singh cites the illegal occupation or forced shutting down of gurdwaras as further proof of systematic discrimination. “There are now three gurdwaras in Karachi where regular religious gatherings take place whereas total number of Sikh worship places is seven.”

Wasim Singh, the caretaker for the Narayanpura gurdwara is more optimistic though.

“We do not see target killings happening here in Karachi.

“The incidents which took place in Peshawar were the result of misunderstanding and nothing more.”

His friends around him seem to disregard his optimistic opinion.

“The government should take action against those who are involved in violent attacks on Sikhs or else this fire might also reach Karachi,” says Ashok Singh, an attendant of the gurdwara.

While in KPK, the minority group seems to be in the cross-hairs of extremism, in Karachi it is the larger institutional discrimination that the community is facing. Yet, when asked if one would be better off leaving the country, Ramesh Singh says Pakistan is his country, the birth place of Baba Guru Nanak, adding that he would never leave the land out of fear of a handful of extremists. He says he will continue to represent the Sikhs of Pakistan.

He proudly names prominent Sikhs within Pakistan, those who have crossed difficult barriers to succeed in their life and careers. These men are; Captain Hari Charand Singh of Pakistan Army, Inspector Amarjeet Singh of Pakistan Rangers, Inspector Gulab Singh of Lahore Police, Lance naik Behram Singh of Pakistan Coast Guards, and Taranjeet Singh who is an anchor person on PTV.

Yet, these are a handful of Sikh men who have ‘made it’.

Many younger men are still struggling under tough circumstances, simply because of their religious identity.

On my visit, I saw the Sikhs of Narayanpura welcoming people from all walks of life to attend their celebrations such as Joti-Jot and the birth anniversary of Baba Guru Nanak.

Whether the violence or discrimination against Sikhs in Pakistan curbs or not, the people of Narayanpura live peacefully. Baisakhi, Christmas and Diwali are all celebrated here.

Their aspirations are simple – that one day their children will get their desired education and then respectful jobs.

And, perhaps, there will also be a day when they are free to observe their religious beliefs and traditions without being asked to throw away their karas and turbans – to live again as they once did when Karachi did indeed cradle all of its children.

Photography by Yumna Rafi