The past few months have seen much intimidation and threats meted out to the Sikhs in different parts of Pakistan. Sikh girls have been kidnapped and converted and attempts were made to convert a gurdwara. Ironically, this is happening at a time when the Pakistan government has put in an extra effort to woo the Sikhs and invite them across the border from India to the Kartarpur Sahib Gurdwara.
In the latest threat, locals in Lahore have threatened to convert Gurdwara Shaheedi Asthan at the busy Naulakha Bazaar into a mosque. A video shows Lahore resident Suhail Butt Attari trying to mobilize people to convert the historic shrine into Masjid Shahid Ganj. The gurdwara has history behind it. It was built to commemorate the sacrifice of Bhai Taru Singh who had stood up to the Mughal rulers against forced conversion.
The issue has not gone unnoticed in India. Leaders and political parties cutting across party lines have condemned the incident.
Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said: “A strong protest was lodged with the Pakistan High Commission today on the reported incident whereby Gurdwara Shahidi Asthan, site of martyrdom of Bhai Taru Singh ji at Naulakha Bazaar in Lahore, Pakistan has been claimed as the place of Masjid Shahid Ganj and attempts are being made to convert it to a mosque.”
Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh too criticized this attack on the religious rights of the Pakistani Sikhs. In a tweet, he said: “Strongly condemn attempts being made to convert holy Gurdwara Sri Shahidi Asthan in Lahore, site of martyrdom of Bhai Taru Singh Ji, into mosque. Urge @DrSJaishankar to convey Punjab’s concerns in strongest terms to Pakistan to safeguard all Sikh places of reverence.”
Feeling unsafe in Pakistan over denial of rights, thousands of Sikhs and Hindus migrate to India every year. Soon after coming to power, the BJP government had expedited the process of giving visas to Hindu and Sikh refugees from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Owing to denial of minority rights in some neighboring countries, the Indian government had announced that all such persecuted minorities to be provided fast-track Indian citizenship.
However, persecution of minorities continues in India’s western neighbor. As recently as January 2020, concerns about the security of Sikhs had been raised when a mob of nearly 400 angry people chanting anti-Sikh slogans had attacked Gurdwara Nankana Sahib near Lahore.
Similarly, in March 2017, the Sikhs had lodged protests over not being included as a religion in the national census form. After protests and petitioning the country’s courts, the minority group was added as a separate religion in the census. However, when the census was released a couple of years later, Pakistan did not release the data for its minorities, sparking fears that their numbers have reduced owing due to conversions and a steady exodus.
An anti-minority atmosphere pervades the entire country and is highly toxic. Radesh Singh Tony, a well-known Sikh leader who had been at the forefront of taking up cudgels for minority rights, fled Peshawar for Lahore after he was threatened by armed men. He was not just a Sikh leader but also a local councillor.
Facing threats to his life, Tony made an appeal on Twitter to Sikhs outside Pakistan to help him and his family move out of the country. Later he deleted his account. He also made a video, speaking out about assassination threats to his family.
One such tweet reads: “I am getting assassination threats from Pak hardliners. The life of my family is in danger Living in Pakistan is very dangerous for my family ?? please please extend me help/refuge any further delay would cause serious troubles for my family @mssirsa @amnesty @hrw @Gulalai_Ismail”
Tony was lucky that he escaped. Another prominent Sikh leader Charnjit Singh was shot dead by motorcycle-riding gunmen in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2018. He had been working on inter-faith harmony and was a known critic of the Taliban.
Coming back to Gurdwara Shaheedi Asthan, conversion threats to minority shrines is not a new phenomenon.
Something similar had happened in 2016 when the local government in Peshawar carried out an auction of a portion of a historic gurdwara-Bhai Biba Singh. Following the successful auction, the government then asked the local police in 2018 to take possession of the auctioned part of the historic site and hand it over to the individual who had been given control. But after the Sikh community launched a vigorous litigation, which lasted a few years, the Peshawar High Court ordered the Pakistan government to stay the auction.
What these incidents prove is that survival of minorities and their heritage in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan is a daily struggle. While the Sikhs, Hindus, Ahmadiyas and Christians wage a daily battle to live another day, their cultural and religious heritage is steadily obliterated even as Pakistan lectures the world on upholding human rights in other countries.