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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 12, March 13, 2010

On the Tragic Beheadings of Pakistani Sikhs by the Taliban

Friday 19 March 2010, by Vasudha Dhagamwar

The horrifying news about the beheading of three Sikhs in the tribal regions of North West Frontier Province hit the electronic media on February 21 and the print media a day later. Some sources say they were beheaded because the very large ransom was not paid. Some say it was because they refused to convert. But true it is that they were beheaded and their bodies thrown in public places including a gurudwara. For once, even the MEA of the Government of India has not treated it as an internal matter of a neighbouring country, as it tends to do when minorities are mistreated. It has actually expressed shock. It is sad that it takes something as brutal as a beheading to wake us up. The ordinary citizen may regard it as a first incident and that too by the extra official Taliban but is that true? I am afraid not.

During the last decade of the last century I had the privilege to be a member of a non-governmental group of individuals drawn from the SAARC countries to observe elections in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal. This group was organized by the International Council For Ethnic Studies based in Colombo, Sri Lanka and was chaired by the late Neelan Thiruchelvam who was later killed by the LTTE. I visited Pakistan and Bangladesh on two separate occasions to observe their general elections. I also visited Lahore at the invitation of Asma Jehagir who organised a meeting around the need for a uniform civil code. In all I went across about five times in one decade.

The first time round I was in the North West Frontier Province, with five members from the principal SAARC countries; we went up to the Khyber pass, a historic moment for all of us. We noticed the wild inhospitable terrain. This was the very frontier with Afganistan, peopled by tribesmen. It is divided into six or seven Federally Administered Areas (FATA) and one Partially Administered Area (PATA). When we visited the offices of the Frontier Times in Peshawar, the editor told us that there were Sikhs and Hindus in those areas, as they were elsewhere in Pakistan. But there was a difference. In the rest of Pakistan all citizens including the minorities had identity cards. In FATA and PATA they were given none; consequently they could not avail of higher education or get government jobs. They of course had no vote—no one did in FATA or PATA; only the landlords vote there. They are rotten boroughs for election purposes. The average Indian does not know these facts but can we say that our government does not? The Sikhs generally drove trucks for a living while the Hindus were shopkeepers and petty traders. The editor also said that they were highly regarded for their honesty. My Indian companion sniggered openly at the idea of Hindu traders being honest. The not-so-young journalist did not realise that in such honesty lay their safety, that they lived under constant fear of their very lives. This was equally true of the Sikhs. But denial of the ideologically uncomfortable is the form our secularism takes.

During one of my visits the Bishop of Peshwar committed suicide. His note said he was committing suicide because he could not protect his flock. I do not remember whether he was a Protestant or a Roman Catholic. But certain it is that his suicide caused no ripples in the Christendom. No SAARC country took note either. Nor did the NGOs which devoted themselves to human rights in the Commonwealth or the SAARC. But can we say that all of them were unaware of the suicide?

Earlier, when I was in Bangladesh for observing elections two members of the Pakistani group told us that there were Bhils in rural Sind and Baluchistan, who were as good as slaves. There were some notorious landlords who would force any Bhil maiden who took their fancy to convert. The landlord would then enter into a muta marriage with the girl. Thus he would not commit adultery or fornication. When his lust was satisfied he would pronounce talaq. The hapless girl would then be ostracised by her community and she would take to the streets. Human Rights Watch, New York writes about the ill treatment meted out to Bhils by landlords because they are Hindus or kafirs. Again, can we say that human rights organizations in India and the Government of India do not know these facts? They are easily accessible on the net.

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In 2002-2003 I was in Oxford as a Visiting Fellow of my old college. I had access to a far larger number of newspapers than I do here. In January 2003 I read that the NWFP Government had decided to demolish a two hundred-year-old temple of the untouchable castes and construct an abattoir or slaughterhouse in its place. With considerable risk two journalists, Ayaaz Aamir and Cowasji Jehangir, raised their voices against this idea. Writing in two separate newspapers, they argued cautiously that the world would think ill of Pakistan if the government destroyed a living and old temple. Alas, the world took no notice. Even the Dalit organisations turned a blind eye. The international Dalit organisations are international only inasmuch as they publicise internationally the very genuine woes of Indian Dalits. Not for them the plight of Scheduled Castes or Dalits in erstwhile British India. Let us remember that at the time of partition they had joined the exodus to India. Jinnah had then passed an ordinance to prevent them from leaving Pakistan; he had argued that there would none left to clean the streets and much else. Pandit Nehru would not agree to Dr Ambedkar’s suggestion that we should protest and Babasaheb kept silent. No one talks about it now. Zia-ul-Haq had created separate constituencies for every minority. Hindus Sikhs Buddhists and Scheduled Castes were all put into separate constituencies. This was rectified by President Mushsarraf. But did we in India take any notice of either measure?

Only a couple of years ago Outlook published a story of two sisters in Baluchistan who were kidnapped and forcibly converted to Islam. They were not allowed to meet their parents until they got a court order. Even then, they met in the presence of their custodians and that to in full burqa. The parents said that the girls could not speak and were red eyed from weeping. Vinod Mehta, the editor of Outlook, was almost apologetic about publishing the story. This is not a one-off happening.. From time to time complaints are voiced by Hindu members of Pakistani Parliament. We maintain a stoic silence. We have not even raised our voice against the Pakistani blasphemy law for which one man’s complaint is enough and for which the punishment is death.

The case of the illiterate, low-caste Christian boy, named Masih, charged with writing blasphemous words on the wall, is well known. An international uproar by European nations and defence by the immensely courageous Asma Jehangir (there was an attempt to kidnap her 11-year-old son) led to his acquittal by the Lahore High Court; but he had to be whisked out by the back door and flown to a European country which had offered him asylum. I ask myself: had he been a Hindu would India have spoken up?

All this injustice is systemic. It has the support of the Pakistani governments. The Taliban is, after all, the Taliban. Why do we expect any better? Alternately, must be we wait for brutal beheadings to take notice of gross human rights violations?

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