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Coming home to Orakzai

January 05, 2010

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Sikh boys look out from a compartment of a train to Pakistan at Amritsar railway station April 11, 2010. The first batch of Sikh pilgrims left for Pakistan to celebrate the Baisakhi festival at the shrines of Panja Sahib and Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of Sikh faith founder Guru Nanak Dev. Baisakhi is the beginning of the New Year in the Indian state of Punjab and is also a harvest festival. – Reuters Photo

 

KOHAT: On a sunny day in October, Charan Singh, a Sikh, returned to his home and community in the Orakzai Agency after spending twenty long months in a camp tent. Singh belongs to one of the 56 families that were forced to leave their centuries old abodes in the Feroze Khel area after Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan’s (TTP) leader Hakeemullah Mehsud demanded jizya, an ancient tax collected from non Muslims living in an Islamic state, in 2009.

“Life has never been so tough. When TTP stormed the area we considered it impossible to come back to the land our forefathers. But Pakistan army gained control of Orakzai Agency and we are very happy to be back. Although we have lost everything but hope that government will compensate us so that we can reconstruct our shops and houses to begin a new life,” said a delighted Singh.

In December 2008, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan enforced a strict version of Islamic law in divergence of enviously guarded distinctive tribal culture in Orakzai Agency. Less than a month a later, a decree for jizya was imposed and had to be paid by all minorities if they want protection against local criminal gangs or that they had to convert to Islam.

Orakzai Agency is the only region in Pakistan where a strong religious balance has been present since the British Rule due to the equally powerful Shia and Sunni population who have divided the area to avoid different tribal conflicts. One of the major reasons TTP has not been successful is because local Shia tribesmen have challenged their writ from time to time. But the Sikh community has not been politically strong for many decades in the region.

For a Sikh, Pakistan is not just any country – it is practically sacrilegious land – their version of Mecca, the holy city for Muslims.

In the fifteenth century, Guru Nanak Dev, the founder of Sikhism, was born in the village Talwandi now known as Nankana Sahib, right outside of Lahore. After his demise, there were ten other appointed Gurus, two of which were also born in present-day Lahore.

The Sikhs became powerful after they defeated the Mughals under the rule of Maharaj Ranjit Singh, who conquered Punjab and declared himself the Emperor of Punjab in 1799. The Sikh empire fell in 1801 at the hands of the British Raj. The history of the Sikh in Pakistan, before the partition, is deep and full of sacrifices. After the partition, many left for India but others stayed in their indigenous land in Pakistan.

Today there are more than 50 gurdwaras, a place of worship for Sikhs, all across Pakistan.

But just as they had struggled in the past for a place in the region – the Sikh minority in Orakzai would have to struggle once again.

About 160 elders of the Sikh community gathered to discuss a payment of Rs.15 million as jizya before the April 29, 2009 deadline. But a dispute erupted among them when half of them declined to bow to the TTP pressure and opted to migrate to Shia dominant areas.

The other group however agreed to raise and pay Rs.10 million.

“The TTP men looted Rs 6.6 million from our homes and shops although we had conveyed to them that we were ready to pay the money annually in installments,” remembered Charan Singh.

Instead, the TTP ambushed and burnt 11 of their homes every day before the deadline.

Singh disclosed that the political administration called two Sikh representatives, Sardar Singh and Arwel Singh, to discuss the matter one week after the demand for jizya was made, but the representatives were not assured of any guarantee for safety of the Sikh community from Taliban.

The TTP had released two Sikhs from the clutches of tribal dacoits but later kidnapped them from Khyber Agency and beheaded them in Orakzai Agency because they refused to convert to Islam. Later, officials confirmed that two beheaded dead bodies of Jaspal Singh and Mohan Singh were recovered from a deserted area in adjoining Hangu district.

The target killings of tribal elders and suicide attacks at jirgas continued and soon forced the tribesmen to realise that there was no government support.

This proved to be a turning point for the Sikh community who decided to leave the area.

It was a black day in tribal history bringing arduous change in the lives of the more than 200,000 tribesmen, including the Sikh community, who were forced to migrate from their salubrious and cold dwelling to a hot and miserable life in tents in Kohat and Hangu for next two years.

The tribesmen are considered to be endowed with an impenetrable soul; their values, customs and laws had never bowed to any power to safeguard their indigenous system of self rule. But the Taliban tribesmen were much more ferocious, deceitful, and wealthy with support from influential landlords, drug barons and political administration to match.

The decision to impose a strict version of Islamic law in the Orakzai Agency was taken by a shura comprising TTP members from North and South Waziristan, Bajaur Agency, Momand Agency and semi autonomous tribal area of frontier region of Kohat.

Muhammad Aslam Farooqui a die hard member of the defunct Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan later to be known as Lashkar e Jhangvi, had been waiting impatiently for a chance after making a failed attempt in 1995, to enforce Islamic law in Orakzai Agency. He immediately approved and joined TTP along with its’ army of 7,000 men.

Announcements were made through loudspeakers from mosques in Dagar Hangarpur, Kandi, Mishti, Ghunda Khel, entire area of Aa Khel tribe and Ghiljo on the orders of the local chief Hakeemullah Mehsud about the enforcement of Shariah Law.

Soon after, the TTP began imposing strict restrictions on the daily life of the women by confining them to their homes; whereas before they used to work in fields and helped outside their homes without wearing burqa for centuries. Many of them were put before the firing squad along with men.

The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan established their second biggest headquarters in the Orakzai Agency with leaders from all the tribal areas and remnants of Al-Qaeda started giving punishments to the criminals, hashish sellers, hashish growers, and banned deforestation for the next several months.

Sikh elder S. Singh said, “The TTP could have been stopped from demanding jizya from the Sikh community by the local administration if it had the courage to interfere and enforce its writ. Because the TTP can not ask for jizya from the non Muslims in the presence of an elected government and fully functional tribal administration. We protest the acts of terrorism by the Taliban against us and also condemn the criminal silence of the government over the whole issue.”

“It was not easy to fight with such a large army and both the government and the tribesmen had to leave the area. It was not before October 2010 when the security forces gained controlled over 90 per cent of the tribal area after seven month long operation and paved the way for the return of the IDPs,” said Sikh elder Singh

He said that if the situation did not improve then, “we will prefer to live in Punjab if the government promises us compensation and permanent shelter.”

Sikh girls Rajendra and Inderjeet who have been missing their friends and local school after leaving Orakzai Agency expressed their joy on their return, “The Taliban burnt our homes and looted shops but now we have returned voluntarily under the protection of army,” they said in a heavy Pushto accent in Urdu.

Little Rajendra, whose cheeks had turned into the color red blood pomegranates due to long journey from Peshawar complained that their school in Feroze Khel had been damaged during the operations and they must travel two miles to study at another school.

The return of the Sikh community in the Orakzai Agency is filled with bittersweet memories and mixed feelings of not knowing the future and starting their lives all over again.