August 05, 2020
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Pakistan/ Peshawar

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Pakistan/ Peshawar

Persecuted by Aurangzeb in the 17th century, or sent scurrying to the hills for refuge twice in the twentieth century, the Sikhs who have joined the Pakhtun tribes in these mountain regions are a breed apart. The tribal principle of sanctuary to the Amsaya, or protected one, was what eased them into a region known for its traditional and rigid view of Islam. These anomalous "tribesmen"-their beards rolled, wearing distinctive colourful turbans-are now part of the landscape, under the protection of one Pakhtun clan or another.

Says Charanjit Singh, a Sikh trader: "The Sikhs have an ability to completely integrate into the local culture." Jadran Afridi, a medical practitioner affiliated with the Pakhtunkhwa Qaumi Party (pqp), says that the Sikhs here speak local Pakhto dialects fluently, treat their womenfolk as tribal Pakhtuns do. "They are as illiterate and hard-headed as Afridis and Orakzais, and they are just as dependable in personal loyalty. Their hospitality is proverbial; every household keeps separate utensils for their Muslim friends."

"There was a time when hardly any Sikhs remained in Peshawar," says 70-year-old Gian Singh, visiting old friends. He's from Tirah, also in nwfp, where he moved in from Jalalabad after Najibullah's fall. "But now their families in places like Tirah are growing large, and business up there is shrinking." This has pushed many Sikhs down into Peshawar or nearby areas. "There must be close to a thousand Sikh families-about 10,000 people-living in Peshawar and the tribal areas," estimates Sona Singh, head granthi of Gurudwara Bhai Joga Singh in Peshawar's old Dabgari district.

Saroop Singh, who owns two shops and eight acres in Bara, is typical of the new generation of Sikhs who have discarded their roles as Amsayas in search of independence and a better lifestyle. "Economic pressures have weakened the ability of tribal clans to prevent outsiders from acquiring land," he says. "Many Sikhs who made money in trading have bought land; but agriculture is rain-fed, and there isn't enough arable land to go around."

The first casualty, even for the new generation, is education. Five years of religious schooling in Gurmukhi is about all the education most tribal Sikhs have had, and it's promptly discarded when the exigencies of practical life take over. According to Sona Singh, the head granthi, every Sikh settlement has at least one mohalla school to teach the Granth Sahib, though not science, history or other subjects. "The aim is mainly to keep the religious rituals alive," he explains.

But the Frontier Sikhs believe they have had a better deal than the Mona Sikhs in Pakistan. They feel particularly indebted to General Ziaul Haq, who gave them the Gurudwara Bhai Joga Singh and allowed them to buy property in Pakistan. Some have been to India, but have chosen not to settle there.

"Life in Pakistan is better," says Saroop Singh, who has visited Delhi and Ambala several times. "There is more respect for the Sikhs here." Like most of the Frontier Sikhs, he believes that Khalistan will become a reality some day. When that happens, they say, they will gladly begin the long trek back.

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