May 3, 2009

The Sikhs of Orakzai

The horrendous predicament of the Sikhs of Orakzai is all before us. They are being persecuted under the garb of 'jiziya', or tax that minorities pay in Islam to a Muslim state in exchange for state protection and security of life and property. From several reports that have appeared of late, first in the Pakistani press, and now in the foreign press, the situation comes across as most startling and worrying. The Sikhs of Orakzai have lived in the agency for decades and by their own admission have never faced any problems or harassment from the tribes. However, for the past few months, and especially after Hakeemullah Mehsud and his men descended on Orakzai and established their own rule, the Sikhs of the agency have lived a terrified existence. They have been veritably held at gunpoint and forced to pay 'jiziya' but given the environment that this has happened in, it is nothing but ransom money. The Sikhs were told that either they all convert or they pay the tax. And this is reinforced by published accounts of some of the Sikh family elders, one of whom was kidnapped and tortured by the Orakzai Taliban. The Sikhs, who number not more than a few dozen households, were fast asked to pay over a hundred million rupees – an astronomical amount for any one – but this was scaled back after 'negotiations'. Elders of the community are now reportedly in Peshawar and have raised less than half the money that was agreed upon (or rather that has been extorted from them). And as they do so, some in their community continue to be held hostage by the Taliban and will be released only once the money is paid. And if they try and do it any other way, the consequences will be that the men will be killed and the women and children converted. That the state has chosen to do nothing about this is revolting but not altogether surprising given that it has chosen to do nothing also about the way that the Taliban have gone about slaughtering their fellow-Muslims, especially in targeting the Shias of Kurram and Dera Ismail Khan. Also, it has to be said – and rather unfortunately – that this kind of Talibanization (perhaps one of its more grotesque forms) has been happening in the rest of the country of late, albeit in a slightly different manner. Hindu communities in Sindh have in recent years complained of several cases where their young women were more or less abducted and forced to convert and marry non-Muslims. No wonder then that the rest of the world sees Pakistan – notwithstanding official proclamations to the contrary – as a place minorities live with a great degree of trepidation. In fact, it is not just minorities now, but women as well given what has been happening in the Talibanized parts of NWFP and FATA. Not only are we listed among countries whose governments are unwilling or unable to stop religious violence by their citizens and/or groups against minorities, we are also marked because some of our laws are seen as anti-minorities – the most controversial of these being the much-abused blasphemy law. Sectarian violence continues unabated and is directed against Shias, Ahmadis and Christians, Hindus and Sikhs. The government rarely responds in a positive way to the pleas for help from the minority communities who lead increasingly terrorized and fearful lives. Our minority groups and communities are at risk, and like the endangered species of the world require and deserve our care and protection. The only issue is that how and when this protection will be accorded to them. Who will go to Orakzai and take the Sikhs of Orakzai from the clutches of the Taliban?

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