PESHAWAR, Pakistan — On a sweltering afternoon last month, a man walked into Charanjeet Singh’s grocery store at the entrance of the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar and asked for red chilli powder.
As Charanjeet scooped the spice into a plastic bag for his customer, the man shot him several times.
The much-loved peace activist died on his way to the hospital.
According to police, the Pakistan Sikh Council, and Sikh representatives in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces where most Pakistani Sikhs reside, the murder of Charanjeet is the tenth “targeted killing” of a prominent Sikh since 2014 and has stirred unprecedented fear – and fury – among the community’s members, particularly in Peshawar.
“With Charanjeet’s death it is as if the arms of the community have been cut off," Baba Gurpal Singh, a community spokesperson, told TRT World in Peshawar, the capital of the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and a frontier town in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), long used as a sanctuary by the Taliban and other militant groups to launch attacks across Pakistan.
Gurpal's own brother was also murdered in Peshawar in 2014: "People tell me to stay home, to stop doing community work, to not do things that make me visible. But there are very few of us and someone has to work for the community. I just wish I could go on working without fear.”
While violence against religious minorities, particularly Christian and Shia Muslims, has been a painfully familiar story in Pakistan, Sikhs have long been considered one of the country’s most protected minorities. In Peshawar, they have lived peacefully among Muslims for over 250 years, working mostly as traditional healers, and running pharmacies and cosmetics and clothing stores.
But a spate of killings in the last four years has raised worries Sikhs might be the latest target of Pakistan’s religious extremist groups, leaving community members unsure of their future in the country.
Sikhs were not included in last year’s population census and there is no hard data on their numbers but social worker Radesh Singh estimated that more than sixty percent of Peshawar’s 30,000 Sikhs had left for other parts of Pakistan or migrated to neighbouring India in the last four years.
“There are probably less than 8,000 Sikhs left in Peshawar now," he said from the tiny headquarters of his organisation, the National Council for Minority Rights, atop a dentist’s office in Peshawar’s Khyber Bazaar.
“Of the people who are left, some are trying to sell their homes, others are looking for buyers for their shops. Wherever you look, people are preparing to leave.”
Pakistan is considered the birthplace of the Sikh religion. Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, was born in the small village of Nankana Sahib near the eastern city of Lahore in 1469. Today, thousands of Sikhs from around the world visit the area for pilgrimage. And in the country’s northwest, Sikhs have a particularly glorious history.
Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the leader of the Sikh Empire, defeated the majority ethnic Pashtun tribesmen of the region in the Battle of Nowshera in 1823. His commander-in-chief, Hari Singh Nalwa, then moved thousands of Sikhs from Punjab to Peshawar and its surrounding areas in what is present-day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and FATA.
Since then, at least 500 Sikh families have lived in Peshawar and its surrounding northwestern regions, according to community estimates.
“My ancestors have lived here for hundreds of years alongside Muslims but now we are being wiped out because we have a different religion, because we look different,” said Balbir Singh a young volunteer with the Pakistan SIkh Council.
He pointed to his tightly-wound, lilac turban – the most conspicuous emblem of the Sikh faith: “This makes us easy targets.”
Out of fear of retaliation, Balbir and at least a dozen other members of the community interviewed would not directly say who was to blame for the killing of Charanjeet, or for past murders. But privately, many Sikhs said this was the work of Taliban and other militants who have routinely targeted and killed hundreds of other religious minorities across the country.
In 2016, in another high-profile case, Soran Singh, a lawmaker from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party which governs Khyber Pakhtunkhawa province, was shot dead near Peshawar.
Though the Taliban claimed responsibility for the assassination, police arrested a political rival, a minority Hindu politician called Buldev Kumar. He underwent trial for two years but was acquitted over lack of evidence this April.
“This is a big problem: the police are afraid to take on the Taliban so they want to make it look like these killings are over disputes within minorities or due to business rivalries,” Radesh Singh said.
Three prominent Sikhs interviewed, who requested not to be named for fear of reprisal, said they had been visited by intelligence and police officials in Peshawar and instructed not to talk about the recent killings, particularly to the media, or about extortion and kidnappings for ransom that the community has had to deal with quietly.
“If we openly start saying the Taliban are behind these incidents then the government will have to answer why they are not able to control these groups,” one Sikh elder said. “And to that they will have no answer.”
Haroon Khalid, an anthropologist who has written a number of books on Pakistan’s minorities, including Walking with Nanak about the founder of Sikhism, said he had no doubt militant groups were behind the killings.
“In recent years many Sikhs have become more visible, they are speaking up about their rights, and so they have become targets of extremist groups who see minorities as infidels worthy of being killed,” Khalid said.
According to Khalid, Taliban imposed jizya, a tax levied on non-Muslims living in a Muslim state, in several parts of the tribal areas when they took over after 2007. In 2009, the Taliban destroyed the houses of 11 Sikh families in Orkazi Agency for refusing to pay jizya. In 2010, Jaspal Singh, a young man from Khyber Agency, was beheaded after his family couldn't pay up.
Such incidents have propelled ever more Sikhs to move down from the tribal areas to Peshawar and its surrounding areas, Khalid said.
When asked about Charanjeet’s murder investigation, a police spokesman in Peshawar said he could not comment on an ongoing case but admitted that the deceased activist did not have any known rivals and was “likely killed by some extremist elements.” He also said police had been deployed to protect both temples and prominent Sikh community members.
The police checkpoint outside the 250-year-old Gurdawara Bhai Joga Singh remained unmanned throughout that day earlier this month.
'My father had a dream'
At Charanjeet’s rented home inside Peshawar’s ancient walled city, mourners gathered in the first week of June to meet his widow and three children.
His eldest son Gurjeet Singh served visitors a pink rose-flavoured syrup, mixed in milk and offered lunch to those who were not fasting. He told the mourners, many of whom were Muslims, to pray for the departed soul as per their own religious traditions.
A small-time shopkeeper who had come to be known not just in Peshawar but around the country as a committed peace activist, Charanjeet had written three books on interfaith harmony and founded the Pakistan Council of World Religions in 2006. He was most popular in Peshawar for arranging daily dinners at sunset for fasting Muslims throughout the holy month of Ramadan and was a regular on the conference circuit in Pakistan, advocating religious harmony.
“I used to tell him not to be so vocal about his views; I was scared because of the murders of other outspoken Sikhs in this city,” Gurjeet said quietly, wiping away a stray tear.
“But my father had a dream: to see a peaceful Pakistan where Sikhs could live as equal citizens among Muslims. And he died working for that dream.”
When asked who Gurjeet believed was responsible for his father’s killing, he said: “The point is to spread terror and destroy our friendship with Muslims, and everyone knows who wants that.”
A short walk away from Charanjeet’s home, people had begun gathering at the Gurdawara Bhai Joga Singh for evening prayers.
The ornate marble building, its inside walls decorated with miniatures and hundreds of tiny mirrors, is tucked away in the narrow alleys of Peshawar’s famous Namakmandi food street.
Sikhs are constantly battling with the Pakistan government for ownership of hundreds of such temples, called gurdawaras. Under an agreement signed between Pakistan and India after the partition of India in 1947, religious lands and temples cannot be sold. And yet, many lands allotted for Sikh temples and crematoriums have been disposed off by the Evacuee Trust Property Board, a body responsible for the maintenance of properties abandoned by people who left for India during Partition.
In one high-profile case, Gulab Singh, Pakistan’s first Sikh traffic warden, filed a case against Asif Hashmi, the chairman of the Evacuee Trust Property Board, accusing him of illegally selling gurdawara land to land developers. In January, the Supreme Court found Hashmi guilty.
“This is just one case; there are thousands of acres of gurdawara lands across Pakistan that our community has no access to,” said Taranjeet Singh, a Sikh from Peshawar who now lives in Lahore and hosts a travel show on Pakistan Television. “We can’t add one brick to our temples without permission from the Evacuee Board.”
Another major problem for the community is the absence of a crematorium in Peshawar. Sikhs are required by religion to cremate their dead, and the nearest cremation ground is more than a hundred kilometers away from Peshawar, in Attock.
The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government allocated money for a crematorium last year but the Evacuee Board has not approved its construction to date. Prominent community members took the issue to court last month in the hope it would compel authorities to finally start construction work.
“Land was originally allocated for three crematoriums in Peshawar and its surrounding areas,” an elderly member of the community said, requesting anonymity as he did not feel safe speaking about the issue on the record. “On one of the lands, there is a wedding hall, one is a private park and one has been sold off to some property mafia. So we have to fight in the courts for this basic right.”
'If we leave, terrorism wins'
The combination of these issues have left Peshawar’s Sikhs feeling vulnerable and exposed. Many are considering leaving and those who can’t, due to family ties or lack of resources, describe living in a hostile world where every stranger could be an attacker.
Since 1699, two centuries after the founding of the religion, Sikhs have been forbidden from cutting their hair and are required to wear turbans that make them stand out.However, in Peshawar, many young Sikhs no longer want to be easily identified.
“I believe very strongly in my faith but I don’t want to die, so I cut my hair and stopped wearing my turban one year ago,” 20-year-old Paldeep Singh said as we drove past the famous Bala Hisar Fort, an imposing quadrilateral fortress that was rebuilt by Ranjit Singh and which some historians say is as old as Peshawar itself.
His parents were very upset by the decision but “it was a question of safety in the end,” he said.
Charanjeet’s widow Tirat Kaur said she had asked relatives to try to find a buyer for her deceased husband’s shop because she would not risk allowing her sons to run it.
“What if someone comes after them next?” Kaur said, sitting cross-legged on the floor of her home. “I hope the government will help us. We have nothing left.”
Taranjeet Singh, the TV anchor, said the greatest source of bitterness for Pakistani Sikhs was the lack of acknowledgement by the state that Sikhs needed its support and protection.
“Whether it is targeted killings of community leaders or the sale of gurduwara lands, until you accept that these problems exist, how can we find a solution?” Taranjeet said as he played with a silver Khanda – the Sikh symbol of two swords and a circle – he wore around his neck.
He said for most Sikhs here, their Pakistani identity coexisted proudly with their religious identity but “it’s painful that the government doesn't even want to acknowledge that we are hurting.”
“Things have to change. Otherwise in a few years, there will be no Sikhs left in Pakistan,” Taranjeet said. “And if we leave, terrorism wins.”