Gurpal Singh with his cousin Bishan Singh, students of Khalsa School.
Gurpal Singh with his cousin Bishan Singh, students of Khalsa School.

“I am Pakhtun first and then Sikh,” said 14-year-old Gurpal Singh, standing with his 13-year-old cousin Bishan Singh at the Nagar Kirtan procession during the now concluded Besakhi celebrations at Gurdwara Punja Sahib.

Gurpal is a third generation Pakhtun Sikh. Along with his cousin, both students at the Khalsa School in Peshawar.

“We speak and read Gurmukhi within the Sikh community, but we always speak Pashto because that is our culture,” he added. He said that they visit Hassanabdal frequently, and have many Pakhtun and Punjabi friends to spend time with there without any restrictions from their families.

“We have never faced religious or social prejudice,” Radesh Singh, a herbal store owner in Hassanabdal’s main bazaar, told Dawn while prescribing medicines to a long queue of patients. The Muslim community always participates in our family occasions, such as marriages or deaths, he added.

“We have never been treated as aliens in society, and we are always heartily welcomed at playgrounds and at social events,” Balbir Singh, who lives in Hassanabdal, said.

Balbir is a member of the Pakhtun Sikh community that fled Khyber Agency and settled in Hassanabdal. He denied that it was religious prejudice that led him to move, saying that he was among thousands of residents compelled by the law and order situation to move to safer areas.

Hassanabdal Municipal Committee Chairman Zaheer Ahmed said there are hundreds of Pakhtun Sikh families living in Hassanabdal, who migrated from parts of KP and the former tribal areas - particularly Khyber Agency and Orakzai, following the eruption of militancy in the region in 2001-2002.

He said that the Sikhs settled in the area, run businesses and are in sound financial condition. Despite the migration, he said, they have kept their Pakhtun cultural fabric intact.

“Nobody asked us to leave our homes, but we migrated ourselves due to the growing militancy. Our neighbouring Muslim Pakhtuns were facing the same dilemma,” added Gurjeet Singh, a fabric merchant and another Hassanabdal resident.

He remarked that they also felt greater spiritual fervour, living under the shadow of Punja Sahib.

Pakhtun Sikh girls in their traditional dresses. — Photos by the writer
Pakhtun Sikh girls in their traditional dresses. — Photos by the writer

A mass exodus of Pakhtun Sikhs from various tribal areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to different, safer parts of Punjab was observed between 2001 and 2002, and then in 2010, said former MPA Sardar Ramesh Singh Arora.

He added that the migration of the Pakhtun Sikh community had its own religious and social patterns. In 2001-2002, families moved to Punjab because of militancy, but in 2010, they moved because of military operations against militants.

But such families have maintained their roots in their decades-old ancestral culture, which is still highlighted on occasions such as weddings,” he said.

“Like other migrant communities, the Pakhtun Sikhs have also brought their own cultural, religious and social patterns and lifestyles. And despite ruthless times, they have succeeded in preserving their own distant, dual, unique legacy for decades,” anthropology scholar Abdul Ghafoor Lone said.

He added that the Sikh Pakhtun community has a unique legacy that has remained intact for decades. The Sikh community of KP and the tribal belt dates back to the Sikh Maharaja Ranjeet Singh, whose empire had a special influence on these areas.

“We are Pakhtun by birth, and like our forefathers we, as well as our future generations, will keep our Pakhtun social and cultural values intact,” said Tara Singh, who has been living near Punja Sahib for years. He said that despite difficult times, they were making the effort to keep their legacy protected for generations to come.

There are around 10,000 Sikhs living in Pakistan, Evacuee Trust Property Board Deputy Secretary Shrines Imran Gondal said.

Most Pakistani Sikhs are from KP and the tribal areas, where Sikhism flourished during the reign of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh between 1799 and 1849.

Published in Dawn, July 7th, 2019