The legend goes that when Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai was ridiculed for keeping company of men of all sects and faiths, and was incessantly questioned about his religious leanings, he responded that he was neither Sunni nor Shia, because he was nothing. When he was further ridiculed for not praying in a mosque as compared to anywhere he pleased, he apparently said that his religion couldn’t be restricted to a box or by the walls of a mosque. “I don’t need to safeguard my religion. It will safeguard itself. My religion is for everyone to see and join in, if they want,” he is said to have retorted.
A few steps away from Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai’s shrine, the Sikh community of Bhit Shah is today safeguarding an ideology to thrive in uncertain times. A pristine white structure stands grandly amid the run-down pre-Partition houses. The name Gurdwara Shah stands out too. It was named so after the administrator or gaddi nashin of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai’s shrine, Syed Waqar Hussain Shah, who laid the foundation stone for the one-storey building in 2010. It opened to the public a few weeks ago on Sept 4. “We wanted to follow the tradition of Hazrat Mian Mir who laid the foundation stone of the Golden Temple in Punjab. No such example was followed in Sindh, so we thought of acting on it. Given the times we live in, interfaith harmony is necessary,” says the patron-in-chief of the Pakistan Sikh Council, Sardar Ramesh Singh.
Peaceful coexistence is hardly new to Bhit Shah, whether it is a towering alam within the confines of the shrine put up by a Sunni woman, Mai Gullan Bhatti, or a medical camp established by Christian students, or Hindu and Muslim cleaners who ensure the functioning of the shrine visited by hundreds every day. Or a Muslim funeral held in the Gurdwara Shah, in case someone can’t afford a place anywhere else, or a halqa — a congregation for prayers with Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Christian attendees. There is no dearth of such examples.
Inside, young men sit near the Guru Granth Sahib and narrate how three young men wanted to build a gurdwara in Bhit Shah. A clean-shaven, recently converted man, Anand Kumar, 25, is the first one to speak. The Guru Granth Sahib was brought to Bhit Shah in 2001, he says. “But till 2010 we kept it in our homes and protected it because we didn’t have a proper gurdwara. There was no place to congregate and discuss.” Thus, people from the community, including Hindus and Muslims, got together and invested in the construction. The major chunk of the financing, however, came from Quetta, Balochistan, from a revered figure in the community, Arshad Jeet Singh.
The number of Sikhs in the area had dwindled by 2001 as many moved either abroad or to India. Before Partition, around 1,500 Sikh families lived in Bhit Shah, says Liyaar Malik, 58, a worshipper at the gurdwara. “Presently, there are only five big families if one includes the two families that converted recently,” he adds.
Recently, there have been several conversions. They do not add very large numbers to a minority within a minority, but they are noteworthy. Young men are in the majority amongst recent converts. Their reasons are varied. One is the fluidity of Hinduism as an ideology which accepts and adapts to other religions and concepts easily, Ali Lajwani, head of programmes at the Shah Latif Foundation in Bhit Shah, says. He adds that “though nobody says it openly, one of the major reasons is to safeguard themselves against rising extremism. Sikhism has certain similarities with Islam and a similarity of appearance with Muslims ensures that.”
For the past two years, places such as Thatta, Badin, Tharparkar and Sanghar have seen huge investment in the construction of madressahs and the eventual tableegh. Parallel to that, Lajwani says, there was a rise in conflicts between Sikhs and Hindus after copies of the Guru Granth Sahib, placed in Hindu temples, were found marked. Till a month ago, cases were steadily being reported from Pano Akil, Ghotki, Daharki, and Sukkur, amongst other places.
Ramesh Singh admits there is a problem “for which we need to check our own [people] rather than point fingers outside”. He does not believe that Hindus are converting to Sikhism because of the need for protection. “We are already too few to provide security,” he says. “Extremism is a problem, but all communities need protection from that, not just one.”
In the meantime, Anand Kumar, who wears a turban and a silver kara, says he doesn’t believe in appearances. It is one’s willpower and faith that need to remain intact, he says. “When I showed interest in converting to Sikhism, my guru, while giving me the example of Shah Bhitai, asked me not to confine myself. We do not discriminate between religions, but the construction of this gurdwara is an assurance that our future generations will at least have something to call their own,” he adds.
Published in Dawn, October 6th , 2015